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Nearly a century after Barnes Motor & Parts Co. was founded in downtown Wilson, a merger with another NAPA Auto Parts chain will make Wilson part of the largest family-owned NAPA business in the country.
“Our family was in business with the Walker family from 1961 to 1986, but a while back we decided it would be appropriate for our family to buy the Walkers out of the stores in the eastern part of the state and the Walkers to buy ours in the Raleigh area,” said Barnes President Henry Walston. “Now, 32 years later, we’re back together.”
The soon-to-be septuagenarian said about a decade ago, he and cousin Robert Kirkland III sought a succession plan through NAPA — the National Automotive Parts Association — for the business, but having it merge with Walker was a welcome change for both third-generation owners.
“Robert and my family worked in the business, our grandfather worked in the business and now my son, Kirk Walston, works in the business,” Walston said. “We’ve always had a family member involved and we’ve always took pride in the camaraderie with the people we work with. We’ve always tried to get store managers who grew up or were well-known in the community because they’ll be the ones dealing with our customers the most and we want that connection.”
John Thomas Barnes and Joseph Bennett Barnes started the company in 1921 and a year later, Robert Edward Kirkland joined his two brothers-in-law in the business. In 1927, the business was incorporated and became a wholesale automotive parts and machine shop with Kirkland as the general manager.
“We survived through the Great Depression,” Walston said. “My granddaddy ran it and he kept the business going. He paid everybody according to the number of children they had, which was really something given that time in history.”
And the commitment to the business and the community didn’t waver during World War II.
“During the war, our machine shop ran 24 hours a day building engines for the Army,” Walston said. “My uncle and my father were in the war, but our machine shop in Wilson was working 24 hours a day to help.”
In 1949, Robert E. Kirkland Jr. graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and joined the business with his father. A year later, the Kirklands became the sole owners and in 1955, a third store was opened in Greenville and Henry Hyman Walston III, Robert E. Kirkland’s son-in-law, joined the company.
The business continued expanding and in 1999, the company became a NAPA affiliate.
“When AutoZone and Advance Auto Parts were coming along, we wanted to be affiliated with a national brand and we felt Genuine Parts Company, NAPA, was the right fit,” Walston said. “It enabled us to not only stay in business, but stay profitable and continue to grow our business.”
The Wilson location on Forest Hills Road serves as a store and a distribution center for Barnes, and the merger with Walker won’t change that. Walston said the change to Walker Auto and Truck on May 1 will simply expand the company to 54 stores and two distribution centers.
“Our employees and teammates, some of whom I’ve worked with for 45 years, are benefiting from it while basically doing exactly what they have been doing, just under different ownership,” Walston said. “We’re still selling NAPA parts and our customers will still be working with the same people at the same locations.”
The combined company will have more than 500 employees, 217 people from Barnes.
“Any company’s secret to success and most valuable asset is always the people who make the day-to-day business run efficiently. We have been blessed with considerate, cooperative, flexible and loyal teammates,” Walston said. “Being a family-owned business we have also felt like everyone working here also formed sort of an extended family, which is something we can all be proud of.”
Walston said he likely will shift toward retirement soon, but his cousin and son will stay involved in the business.
“We’ve reinvented ourselves over and over and over again throughout the last 97 years and this is just another reinvention,” Walston said. “You have to do that in business. So many people we grew up with in business didn’t and they’ve just dwindled away.”