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Success beyond the sum of its parts

Peter Parts’ interest in electronics started early in life, when at age 5 he was given a crystal radio kit by his father. The boy was fascinated with the tiny plastic box that emitted sounds received from outside his home.
“To me, it was the most incredible thing in the world,” Parts says of the gadget.
Today Parts, 56, has parlayed his love of electronics into a career and a company.
He co-founded and serves as president of Peter Parts Electronics Inc. in Ontario, Wayne County. The firm employs 23 workers, plus some 40 independent sales representatives across North America. The company has operations in Ontario and Syracuse and in California, Massachusetts, Mexico and China.
In its third decade, Peter Parts Electronics has become one of the largest suppliers of electronic parts in North America, thanks, its leader says, to a focus on customer service and quality products. The firm also focuses on sight, sound and power products as well as contract assembly and value-added manufacturing.
Parts says the success of his company cannot be attributed to just one person. He is quick to give recognition to his employees and customers.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I get to work with so many great people,” he says. “Success is really all about the folks you surround yourself with.”
Parts grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and moved to the Rochester area more than 25 years ago, taking a sales manager job with a local electronics manufacturer. He had spent many years in the electronics field and had traveled in the Far East, coming to know many electronics parts manufacturers.
Many companies were highly respected in their part of the world but virtually unknown in the United States. Most had been selling private-label parts in the United States, because that is what their distributors wanted them to sell.
Parts saw an opportunity to create a business that would connect retail companies to manufacturers whose products would be sold under the makers’ names.
Using that strategy, he started Peter Parts Electronics in 1986 with Steve Crane, the company’s vice president.
The company began with a small office in Webster but relocated to Beh Industrial Park in Ontario roughly 12 years ago.
Parts says people often ask him if he always had wanted to start his own business, but he says that is not what led to the creation of the company.
“Really, no one out there was doing what we did, so it was just a matter of us going out and doing it,” Parts says. “We didn’t get hit by lightning or anything. What we did see was a huge need-and a great opportunity.”
The company researched more than 4,000 manufacturers, visited 400 of them and now does business with roughly 80 firms. Most of the companies are in Asia, but there is one circuit board manufacturer in Chicago. When Parts started, most of the companies he worked with were in Japan. That has spread to other parts of the Far East, including Korea and China.
The early years of the business were lean, Parts says.
“We ate an awful lot of hot dogs and beans the first couple of years,” he says.
But his commitment to quality and customer service began to pay off.
Parts declines to be precise about sales for the privately held firm but says they are in the low eight figures. Roughly 20 percent of his business comes from international sales, he says.
The contract manufacturing side of the business is growing fastest, Parts says, and it started almost as a fluke when a customer asked if the company could supply a value-added product.
“The customers have helped us develop our portfolio,” he says. “People always say I’m lucky because I get to be my own boss, but I really have over 200 bosses-my customers. We work for them.”

A customer focus

Like many company owners in this recession, Parts will be content with flat sales in 2009. Prior to the economic downturn, the company was on a nice growth curve, he says.
“Life has been good,” he says, adding that he is optimistic about weathering the current economic downturn. “The goal is to come out strong on the other end.”
The focus now is on new customers, Parts says, and the goal is to get one new customer per salesperson each quarter.
While Parts believes some employees may consider him a tough leader, he claims to be no tougher on anyone that he is on himself. A believer in participation management, Parts works with others in the company to figure out goals and how to achieve them.
“It’s important for me to get everyone’s opinion and have a diverse group of people around to give me their opinions,” he says. “We wouldn’t be as far along as we are if everyone thought the same.”
Parts spends the majority of his time traveling to customers and suppliers. A log of air travel on his computer shows that he has traveled 4.5 million miles in the past 23 years.
Because he believes in working with his customers and suppliers in person, he usually makes five or six trips to Asia and one trip to Europe annually. His schedule this year includes visiting his top 20 customers around the world at least once.
“It’s always easier to learn firsthand than read trip reports and advertising from other people,” Parts says.
While some may shy away from the extensive travel, Parts calls it fun.
“We solve people’s problems, and a lot of it is the ability to spend time with our customers and be there to ask better questions,” he says. “The whole key is trying to understand their needs as fast as possible and solve their problems as fast as we can.”
Not surprisingly, Parts says the best part of his job is working with people-his customers and employees.
“It’s an e-mail world,” Parts says. “Everyone hides behind e-mail. What I’m trying to do is focus on face-to-face communication.”
The most challenging part is figuring out what the customers’ needs will be in three to five years.
Parts’ office is full of personal items, including numerous pictures of his wife, Debra, and his travel and fishing trips with friends. An avid photographer and jazz fan, Parts combined both interests with a poster-size collage of shots he took at a local jazz festival.
“I love taking pictures of people enjoying themselves,” he says.
Also posted in his office are several motivational phrases, such as “It can be done” and “Is what I’m doing right now leading to a sale?” Parts is an avid finder of inspirational messages and is a regular on WHAM radio (AM 1180), reading inspirational quotes.
One of his ongoing goals is continuing his education. He did not take a conventional educational path, forgoing undergraduate degrees to jump into business. While running his business, Parts enrolled in the executive MBA program at the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology, from which he was graduated in 1998.
Ashok Rao, dean of the business college, met Parts as a student and considers him a friend with a warm personality.
“He is very entrepreneurial and is constantly looking to network and promote his business and also the interests of the college,” Rao says. He adds that Parts has a clear vision for his company and is dedicated to customer service, a trait that inspires confidence and trust among those he works with.
“Price, quality and service are always in his thoughts as he tries to sell a customer,” Rao says. “But if there is a conflict, customer service will be primary.”

Role models

Parts says he has had several role models during different points in his life. One is his father, Leo Parts, a chemist who taught his son to always ask why.
Another is Benny Vaughn, a high school dropout who was assistant manager of a restaurant where Parts worked in high school. He taught Parts the importance of pleasing customers and that happy customers often were repeat customers.
A third role model is Richard Rosett, one of Parts’ RIT professors, who taught him the importance of asking tough, relevant questions and always searching for the truth.
Parts often speaks about international business at colleges.
“The first thing I tell them is to erase all the country lines on the globe and look at every manufacturer on the merits of that manufacturer,” Parts says. “Just because it’s made in Japan doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great, high-quality product.
“And just because it comes from China and India doesn’t mean it’s going to be cheap junk.”
Parts says his job is to find the best factories around the world.
“There are factories in some of the most remote places that are-oh, my gosh-incredible factories,” Parts says. “You can’t let where it comes from in the world prejudice your decisions. The key is always pick the best one, and if you do, it increases your customers’ chances of survival.”
Looking ahead, Parts says the firm is placing an emphasis on finding more innovative products to offer customers and working with suppliers who are not happy with the status quo.

Off the job

Outside of work, Parts is as busy as he is running the company.
He and Debra, a middle-school math teacher, live in Williamson with their dogs, Bubba and Tucker. The two met on a blind date and recently celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary.
Every Fourth of July, Parts’ family-including his parents, siblings and nine nieces and nephews-comes to stay for a week. His goal then is being the favorite uncle, he says.
In addition to photography and jazz, Parts enjoys fishing and riding his motorcycle, a Honda Gold Wing, which Debra helps navigate as the passenger.
But Parts says his No. 1 hobby is life-learning. He participates in a “sharpen your saw” course at RIT, and he also attends another class one week a year, which varies annually.
“I enjoy getting smarter-and my friends would agree I need all the help I can get,” he says with a laugh.
Parts also spends a large part of his off-the-job time volunteering in the community. He is the chairman of the Dean’s Advisory Council at RIT’s Saunders College and sits on the boards at Keuka College and Camp Good Days and Special Times Inc.
Gary Mervis, chairman and founder of Camp Good Days, has known Parts for roughly a decade because of Parts’ work on the board and as a volunteer in the camp’s summer residential programs.
“Peter has a dynamic personality, is a great salesman and a great advocate for those things he feels passionately about,” Mervis says. “He is very well organized, able to efficiently multitask, and is a natural leader who works well with others.”
Mervis says he has seen Parts’ strengths firsthand in helping to organize the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition and Auction Dinner as one of Camp Good Days’ most successful fundraisers and one of the largest events of its kind in North America.
“Peter is always willing to stay abreast and informed about what is going on with new techniques and approaches to business,” Mervis says. “He is a hands-on leader who is very passionate and committed to his business.”
What helps Parts succeed is something he learned as a young adult.
In his early 20s, he attended a seminar on goal setting. The speaker said the majority of people do not have goals and few follow through with any they set. Those who do have goals tend to have a more successful life, the speaker said.
So Parts found a spot outside, grabbed a six-pack of beer, sat down and wrote out 100 goals, covering the gamut from his personal to professional life.
“That process probably made the biggest difference in my life,” Parts says.
Since that day, Parts has met more than 80 of his original goals. They include running in a marathon, obtaining his MBA and seeing all 50 states.
He has since added to his list and has a thick file in his office full of more goals.
One he is working on now is an offshoot of an original one-seeing all 50 states. Now he wants to see all 50 states on his motorcycle; so far he has visited 47.
“I still have over 120 goals, and I hope to live long enough to finish them all,” Parts says with a laugh. “There are so many opportunities and so much noise. Goals give clarity and allow you to focus on what’s really important.”
adeckert@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Peter Parts
Position: President, Peter Parts Electronics Inc.
Age: 56
Education: Executive MBA, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1998
Family: Wife Debra
Residence: Williamson, Wayne County
Outside activities: photography, fishing, motorcycling, jazz fan
Quote: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I get to work with so many great people. Success is really all about the folks you surround yourself with.”

04/17/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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