It’s no secret that the automotive aftermarket is a male-dominated industry. Times are changing, of course, and women are finding more opportunities in the aftermarket – and flourishing in them. (Look no further than our annual “Women at the Wheel” series for myriad examples.)
Still, overcoming deeply entrenched attitudes and biases can be an uphill struggle – even for the Counter Professional of the Year.
Amanda Balk, manager of the Auto Value store in Thorp, Wisconsin, credits Automotive Parts Headquarters (APH) for supporting her professional development and making her feel like she’s part of the APH family. But, earlier in her career, she hit a temporary roadblock: a former manager who believed that women had no place in the aftermarket – or behind the counter.
“He didn’t have a whole lot of faith, so he kept me pretty busy with driving and doing a lot of other stuff,” says Balk. “I wasn’t on the counter much at first.”
As things got busier, Balk got more time behind the counter. After leaving the business briefly, she returned to the store as a full-fledged counter person – with a different manager at the helm. Since then, the accolades have been piling up for Balk.
In 2014, APH recognized her as the Auto Value Counterperson of the Year. In 2020, Balk was the Auto Value Impact Player of the Year. Earlier this year, APH named Balk the 2021 Auto Value Store Manager of the Year. Balk has been managing the Auto Value store in Thorp since June 2019. Now, Balk can add another award to her mantle: the 2022 Counter Professional of the Year, sponsored by WIX Filters.
Balk’s accomplishments come as no surprise to Matt Koxlien, regional manager for Auto Value in western and northern Wisconsin. Koxlien has been working with Balk since he joined the company in 2017.
“The first thing you notice, of course, is that her conversational skills are off the charts,” Koxlien says. “She’s super easy to talk to. She treats everybody as if she’s known them for years, even if she’s meeting them for the first time.”
As a former technician, Balk brings a high automotive IQ to each interaction, and she “really speaks the language” – whether the customer is looking for “tractor parts or complex driveline components.”
“She couples all of that ability with a great personality,” Koxlien adds. “So it’s a pretty easy interaction for our customers.”
Balk’s approach to customer service is built on honesty, transparency and integrity – bedrock Midwestern values that resonate with customers in this rural community.
“You listen to what your customers want and need, and try to go into it with an open mind,” Balk explains. “If the answer isn’t right there in front of you, sometimes you have to dig a little bit for it.”
As much as counter pros love to say “yes” every time, prioritizing the customer’s best interests over anything else means you might have to “direct them to the next place” from time to time, Balk adds.
“You might tell them, ‘I could keep looking for this, but I know where you can find it quicker. If you go to the hardware store down the street, they can probably fix you up with the small-engine parts, because they have small-engine repair there.’ People love that around here, because we’re a small community.
“We want people to get the right part and get it as soon as they can. And sometimes we’re not the fastest place. Just being honest with them is huge. And I think people look at that as [not being] afraid to help somebody else’s business besides ourselves.”
Established in 1876, the city of Thorp is located along Wisconsin Highway 29 between Eau Claire and Wausau. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Thorp has a population of 1,795 residents, as of the 2020 census.
Balk grew up in the area, graduating from Holcombe High School in 2004. Her deep roots in the community certainly play to her advantage – as does her passion for motorsports. In her younger years, Balk restored and raced snowmobiles with her dad. Over the past decade or so, she and her husband, Josh (better known as “Cowboy”) have been active in truck and tractor pulling. Their 14-year-old son, Landen – who started pulling on garden tractors when he was 4 – helps out too, and the Balks hope that he’ll be pulling on a full-size tractor next season.
When they’re not pulling, they’re riding their Harley motorcycles as a family.
“If you drew a 40-mile circle [around the Thorp area], anybody who would be interested in any of those types of things, she would know them,” Koxlien says of Amanda’s passion for motorsports. “And she always remembers them. So it’s a pretty darn easy transaction once you already know the person, or even if it seems like she does – because you can hardly tell if she knows them or not. She treats them all the same way.”
FINDING A NICHE
APH, a member of the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, specializes in rural markets such as Thorpe. With Balk’s “style of doing business, coupled with what we do best in our company” – as Koxlien puts it – the Thorpe Auto Value store is thriving.
“That location has always done really well,” Koxlien says. “To think that we could be seeing numbers that are substantially higher than what they were when we were operating before she [became manager] is just amazing. She’s put another digit on the right side of the decimal point.”
How do you move the needle in a county that’s known for having twice as many cows as people? (Or should we say, how do you mooove the needle?) Of course, it starts with great customer service, which Balk and her team deliver on a daily basis.
Going above and beyond to make sure their customers get the right part in the right place at the right time isn’t so much above and beyond for the store’s nine employees – it’s the norm. They’ve delivered hydraulic fluid to broken-down semi-trucks on the side of the highway. Recently, they delivered an alternator to a customer who was stranded in a parking lot.
“If a shop is on the way home, and they need something first thing in the morning, we’ll swing by and drop it off,” says Balk, who estimates that 70% of the store’s business comes from DIFM customers. “We’re all pretty good about that.”
Another way to grow the business is branching out into new parts categories – like paint and body.
“The store never had a paint-and-body presence, to speak of,” Koxlien says. “She taught herself the paint business, and she’s taking advantage of that. Now it’s a pretty good part of our business.”
At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to relationships.
“She feeds off of the relationships with the customers,” Koxlien says. “She takes pride in getting to know people really well, and understanding what they need. It’s almost like mind-reading with some of her customers, she’s been doing business with them for so long.”
WRITING ON THE WALL
Balk never thought she’d make a career out of selling auto parts. Looking back on her childhood, though, you might say the writing was on the wall from an early age.
As a kid, the Wisconsin native spent a lot of time on her aunt and uncle’s dairy farm. Often, Balk’s uncle called upon her to help fix a piece of equipment that required “little hands” to remove or install a bolt or some other part. Once, when the shifter on a four-wheeler broke off, she took it upon herself to weld it back in place. She was 12.
“We still have that four-wheeler,” Balk says. “My aunt gave it to me. The shifter that I welded back on when I was 12 is still there.”
From her stepdad, she learned how to prep cars for the demolition derby, essentially by gutting them of wiring and electronics, among other items. “I learned how to take ‘em apart the wrong way and put ‘em back together the wrong way,” Balk recalls.
Meanwhile, her dad insisted that if she wanted to get her driver’s license, she needed to learn how to fix a flat tire, change the oil and perform other basic maintenance. Balk, who “liked that stuff to being with,” didn’t hesitate to enroll in an auto shop class. She admits: “That’s probably how I graduated high school, honestly.”
Balk gives a lot of credit to her mom for instilling a strong work ethic. “She worked her butt off all the time to make sure my sister and I had what we wanted.” It was a two-way street, though. Balk, for example, was interested in sports, and her mom expected to see A’s and B’s in school if she wanted to participate – whether it was practice or a game. “That made me work hard for what I wanted.”
After graduating in 2004, Balk was a technician at a local Dodge dealership. When the dealership went through an ownership change, the new owners sent many of the employees packing. So, in 2006, Balk got a job at a NAPA Auto Parts store.
At the time, the job at NAPA was just that – a job. There were only two employees, so Balk worked the counter, made deliveries and did anything else that was needed. “It would get a little stressful when we were busy,” Balk recalls. “On the other side of it, it was really fun. Every day was different.”
Balk joined Auto Value in 2010, establishing herself as a capable counter pro who connected with the local clientele. “I know the community,” she explains. “I’m involved with the people here. I know most of them from when I grew up as a kid here.”
In June 2019, Auto Value promoted her to store manager. Balk had been helping the previous manager with scheduling, paperwork and other duties, so the transition was fairly smooth. Still, it was a new role, and she leaned on Koxlien quite a bit in the beginning.
“Matt has been my go-to for everything,” Balk says. “Honestly, I was scared my first year as a manager. If I had a question, I would call him all the time, ‘How do I deal with this?’ That little bit of reassurance that I was on the right track really helped me get better. Sometimes you just need that person to tell you you’re on the right path. Any time I’ve had questions or concerns, he’s always helped me.”
Given “her personality and her standing in the community,” Koxlien says he didn’t have the slightest doubt that she would succeed as store manager.
“The interactions with her co-workers – many of whom are now her employees – are just as positive as the day I met her and I met them,” he says. “She builds a family-style environment. They move very quickly; they move from transaction to transaction. They’re always taking care of each other, and she sets the tone for the whole culture within the store.”
Balk tends to lead by example. She works the counter every day, alongside the other team members. She maintains her ASE P2 certification and encourages her employees to get certified, but she doesn’t push too hard, “because they’re all really good at what they do.”
In general, she tries not to be the manager who pushes too hard.
“It’s kind of like raising a kid,” Balk explains. “Sometimes you have to let a person fail a little bit on their first go-round. If a mistake happens, it can be a good thing because it’s a learning opportunity. Let’s learn from that mistake.”
For Balk, the awards and recognition have been gratifying, especially when she thinks back to that former manager who didn’t see a place for women on the parts counter. (She’s the type of person who works twice as hard when someone tells her she can’t do something.) Still, Balk gets just as much satisfaction from seeing her entire team excelling. “It’s satisfying when you see all the numbers at the end of the month,” she says. “There are a lot of ups to being a manager. You get recognition, but recognition also comes with a great team. That’s why I always say it’s not all me. We have a great team.”