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Behrens to Bartlett: Longtime local supply company changes hands

The Behrens family will retain ownership of their building. Bob Behrens said the goal is to find a new use that will help to keep downtown vital. Anne Jacobson / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Corey Bartlett (left) and Bob Behrens talk about the family nature of business. Both are third-generation owners and this week will finalize Automotive Parts Headquarters' acquisition of Behrens Supply Co. Anne Jacobson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

For 82 years, the Behrens family has supplied local industry with parts, keeping economic and vehicle engines running.

Effective Thursday, Automotive Parts Headquarters has acquired Behrens Supply Co.'s regional business operations. The 12 employees, the inventory and some fixtures will move to APH's Auto Value Red Wing store at 1416 Old West Main St. When people call Behrens Supply, staff will answer the phone "Auto Value - Behrens."

"Our people embraced this as being an optimistic change," third-generation owner Bob Behrens said Tuesday. They were told Monday.

"I've always said small businesses are not necessarily meant to be sustained by family, if there is not a generation with the enthusiasm necessary to maintain it," he added.

The family feel remains, however. APH also is a third-generation business. Corey Bartlett is president and CEO. His father, John, is executive chairman and was an industry colleague of Behrens' late father, Richard.

A warehouse distributor based in St. Cloud, APH owns parts outlets throughout the Midwest. The acquisition of Behrens will be final Feb. 16.

Family history

From 1920 to 1936, Henry W. Behrens, worked his way up to chief purchasing agent for Sieg Co. headquartered in Davenport, Iowa. When he discovered there would be no ownership opportunities, he began to study the demographics of Minnesota communities. His idea, Bob Behren said, was to grow a business that could be passed on to his sons.

The senior Behrens ultimately decided Red Wing had the greatest potential for success with its economy founded in strong industrial and agricultural bases. In June 1936, Henry founded Behrens Auto Supply Co. He actually was so excited about the opportunity that the family rushed to Red Wing just after son Richard graduated from high school, not even affording Richard the ability to take part in his graduation ceremony.

On July 31, 1936, the company opened at 322 Plum St., a building which has since been encapsulated by Elks Club expansions. Henry, wife Christine and Richard all shared in its operation. Kenneth, the youngest son, joined the company after graduating from Red Wing Central High School in 1940.

During World War II, both sons left for the military. After their return, the family expanded the operation by having the first commercial building constructed in Red Wing following WWII at 301 Potter St. That building was enlarged twice from 1945 to 1957, adding an automotive machine shop in the late 1940s and industrial products to the inventory mix.

From creamery to supply to ...

Operations soon outgrew the Potter Street building and in 1957 acquired the Red Wing Creamery building at 211-217 Main St.

The building within the Red Wing Downtown Historic District will remain in the Behrens family's hands.

"We're going to search for another purpose," Bob Behrens said. "I think there are a lot of potential uses that would contribute to sustaining a good downtown."

He joined his father, Richard, in 1975. The business became incorporated as Behrens Supply Co. in 1983, dropping the word "Auto," as the new name was more supportive for the wide variety of both automotive and industrial merchandise being marketed.

In 2009 and 2011, Bob Behrens sold all remote locations to other supply chains, and Behrens Supply became a single entity almost entirely in the wholesale business. APH purchased the Ellsworth and River Falls sites.

"That deal worked out well," Bartlett said. "This was an exciting call to get that Bob wanted to discuss the Red Wing market."

APH is part of the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, one of the largest auto parts distribution and marketing organizations in the world.

"This is an exciting opportunity for us to grow in a market that we think is a perfect market for us. We're focused on community involvement, we're focused on providing a good home for the employees, a good supplier to our customer, and I'm tickled to be here," Bartlett said.

Behren said he is pleased that Bartlett's family is inheriting his family's legacy of service-oriented distribution.

"You always want the individual and the business who acquires your operations to be successful, because the fact you want to look at their business and say, 'I'm happy that they received it.' A lot of emotional investment in a small business," Behrens said.

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson is news director with RiverTown Multimedia. 

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