Growing up in Roanoke, Junior Word spent weekends with his dad and his granddad fixing up the family cars — tinkering with his uncle’s 1984 Chevy pickup or his dad’s old Dodge.
Whenever a new part was needed for a repair, there was only one place to go: “They all shopped at Advance,” Word said.
“They would talk biblically about going into those stores, and buying everything from tires to washing machines to parts.”
The Roanoke-founded Advance Auto Parts chain — which sprouted up with three local stores when it was started nine decades ago and now spans over 4,600 stores nationwide — loomed large for not only the Word family but for the entire region, where long-timers still referred it to as Advance Stores, a throwback to its early days as a more generalized department store, where shoppers could get housewares and find the town’s biggest displays of children’s toys each holiday season.
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For Word, that time with his dad and his granddad would spark a lifelong love of cars and a career that brought him to Advance Auto as a local store manager some 20 years ago and allowed him to work his way up to a division president of the Fortune 500 company today.
And it all started right here in the valley, he said, with families coming together to keep a car running and weekend trips to the nearest Advance Auto to grab a part.
“Driving over here, I was actually pretty emotional because these people and these stores just meant so much to me, personally, and to my family and friends,” Word said earlier this month when Advance Auto gathered its local employees together to celebrate the company’s 90th anniversary.
“These stores have meant a ton to the community,” he said. “… It’s just phenomenal to think of that story, and the history of Advance Auto Parts and our community in Roanoke.”
Founded in 1932 when Arthur Taubman, a self-made businessman, bought a trio of struggling stores operating in Roanoke and Lynchburg, Advance Auto Parts grew into an economic powerhouse, hitting a streak in the 1980s and 1990s, under the leadership of Taubman’s son Nick Taubman, when it was doubling its size every three years as it built new stores in new markets.
That prosperity, which led to Advance Auto becoming publicly traded in 2001, mirrored that of the valley, their fortunes seeming to rise together, said corporate representatives.
Noel C. Taylor, Roanoke’s mayor throughout the 1980s, once likened Advance Auto to a Roanoke icon on par with what the Golden Gate Bridge symbolized in San Francisco or the Kentucky Derby meant to Louisville.
Today, the company no longer calls Roanoke its corporate home base, as it shifted its headquarters designation to Raleigh in 2018, lured there by a $12 million incentive package and a labor pool in North Carolina’s Research Triangle that was deemed a better fit for the IT and software development initiatives the chain had on its horizon.
No jobs in Roanoke were cut or moved in the shift. There continue to be about 1,000 Advance Auto staffers in the valley, officials said, across corporate positions, operations at its distribution center on Blue Hills Drive and jobs in customer service and sales.
The company remains one of the top 20 employers in the region, according to 2020 state data. Advance Auto leaders said the valley is still considered a key part of the company’s operations and its future.
“This will always be the home of Advance Auto Parts,” said Joey Blackburn, a vice president and also a valley native. “It means a lot to me. It means a lot to everyone here.”
On July 13, the company hosted a celebration of its anniversary outside one of its local storefronts, a site on Thirteenth Street that is the successor to one of Advance Auto’s first flagship outlets. The original store debuted in downtown, then moved near Ninth Street as its need for space grew, before expanding again into its current, larger footprint.
The festivities, which included remarks from city administrators, also served as an employee appreciation event with staffers invited to enjoy food trucks, music and a display of classic cars.
The auto parts chain, which serves both professional mechanics and do-it-yourself customers, emerged from the height of the pandemic with strong financial reports fueled by a boost in sales as drivers filled their hours at home with learning new skills — including car repair.
“They had time to stay at home, watch YouTube and learn how to work on their vehicles,” Blackburn said. “Or they could come in, visit with some of our service team members and ask questions and talk about how to repair their vehicles.”
The company reported a record 10.7% growth in comparable sales in its 2021 annual report. Its stock was trading at about $185 per share on the day of its anniversary event.
Over the coming weeks, it will be offering a variety of special promotions tied to its 90th anniversary, including online and in-store sales as well as a social media contest underway this month encouraging customers to share the most memorable drives of their lives.
In Roanoke, it also presented the police and fire departments with gift cards totaling $5,000 that first responders will be using in their community outreach programs. The police department plans to give its gift cards to its patrol officers, who will be able to give the $25 cards to drivers with busted tail lights or other small car problems.
The chance to help citizens fix a problem, rather than writing them with a ticket, is a chance to build a stronger, more closely connected community, officials said. This is the first year the police department and Advance Auto have tried the partnership.
During the anniversary celebration, Assistant City Manager Brent Robinson reflected on the impact that Advance Auto has had on the region’s economy and quality of life over the past nine decades.
“If you look at the jobs and the revenue they’ve brought to this valley, it’s enhanced us all over the years,” he said. “… The city of Roanoke really appreciates what you’ve done, and we hope for many more years of success.”
“These stores have meant a ton to the community.”
— Junior Word, a division president of Advance Auto