Some things we figure will be around forever. White Rock Creek running through the middle of Lake Highlands. The beat of the band under Friday night lights at Wildcat Stadium when September rolls around. The sound of children laughing at the Exchange Club Fourth of July parade.
Other things, well, they finally come to an end.
There’s no longer a school called Lake Highlands Freshman Center, Wildcats no longer paint the train trestle over Church Road to designate their passage into senior status, and, Friday afternoon, the Walnes officially sold Herb’s Paint & Body – their family business since 1956.
“It’s been a real honor to be in the community all these years,” Alan Walne told me Friday as he waited for the sale to Caliber Collison to close. “That’s where it all started (pointing to the life-sized photo of his father, Herb Walne, at his Humble Oil filling station at the southwest corner of Northwest Highway and Easton). I’m the little towhead with no shirt and no shoes, and that’s my brother, Andy. Dad is polishing the vehicle.”
An Exxon Tiger Mart stands on the site now, but Herb’s original business began in 1956 with a service station, a two-bay garage and a car wash.
“Dad chose that site because it had room for a garage, then he built the 10-bay garage shortly after that. Beside the car wash, he later built the collision repair and body shop.”
In 1968, Herb opened his first stand-alone body shop at LBJ and Garland Road.
“LBJ wasn’t finished yet when he opened,” said Alan. “Then he built the shop on I-35 and Royal because he was doing a lot of business with the rental car companies at Love Field at that time.”
Alan opened the Richardson store at Arapaho and 75 after he graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in finance.
“I didn’t really plan to,” admitted Alan, “but I didn’t have anything else I was hot to do.”
Sadly, Herb contracted lung cancer and passed away in 1986. Alan’s son, Robert, joined the company when he graduated from Baylor in 2004. Shops in Plano, Frisco, McKinney and Allen were soon added. Then the “satellite” was built.
“That was (wife) Joan’s idea,” said Alan. “You drop off your car at the satellite office on Mockingbird near Love Field, and the car goes to another shop for repairs.”
“We had a lot of really good years, and Robert’s done a great job expanding this thing,” added Alan. “We’ve reached a point of having to continue to grow, but it’s getting more and more difficult to find enough employees. These consolidators are so big – Caliber has 1100 shops in 38 states and they’re a $3.5 billion company – and these shops can get national contracts with insurance companies. We’ve been able to compete with that, but it’s not getting any easier. This is an advantageous time.”
The best thing, Alan said, has been giving back to the communities they serve. Herb’s has raised more than $700,000 for the Down Syndrome Guild through their charity golf tournament and supported the Child Advocacy Center of Collin County in their work protecting children. They’ve supported school districts in Richardson, Plano, McKinney, Allen, Frisco, Rockwall, Garland and Sachse, and they’ve backed firefighters, police officers and a host of nonprofits across North Texas. Schools and school groups in Lake Highlands, in particular, have benefited from the generosity of Herb’s over its 63-year history, most recently including the LHHS cheerleaders’ annual White Out campaign, the Northlake outdoor learning center and the Lake Highlands Elementary walking path. Joan has been president of the Lake Highlands Women’s League and president of the Dallas Park Board, and Alan has led the Exchange Club and served on the Dallas City Council, to name a few of the power couple’s many leadership roles. Robert is currently on the board of the Exchange Club and wife, Stephani, serves with his sister, Sarah Hefton, in the LHWL. Each year, the Exchange Club awards the Frances and Herb Walne scholarship, funded by the family.
“It’s just been a real joy and opportunity to give back,” said Alan. “Caliber has asked for a list of what we’ve been doing in the community – they are interested – but they’re a big company and their focus is national. They’re active with groups that rebuild vehicles and give them to folks, and they support the military, retraining veterans to get jobs in our industry.”
The Walnes may be selling the family business, but they’re not ready to put their feet up just yet. They’ll retain ownership of the land where Herb’s shops sit, and their existing management company, Bottom Line, will shift its focus to real estate.
Breaking the news to longtime employees last week was emotional, Alan said, but the vast majority will opt to continue in their same job with Caliber.
“As a customer, if you go to Herb’s #1 and see George, he’s still there. Management and personnel will remain. I don’t think customers will see a difference.”
I asked if Herb would be disappointed to see his name taken off the signs.
“Herb always told me, ‘don’t ever think this place isn’t for sale,’” replied Alan. “But I did ask Robert what he wanted to do.”
Robert, who’ll take a job as Caliber’s national director of standard of quality, agreed with his dad’s decision to sell.
“It’s getting hard to find good people,” Robert told me. “In high schools, the trades aren’t being pushed. There used to be a time when things like plumbing and electrical trade skills were offered, but today it’s all about college readiness. The push is toward college and, frankly, many of our techs don’t go to college. They go into the workforce.”
The big consolidators, Robert said, can also purchase parts at discounts the way Home Depot has advantages over mom-and-pop hardware stores.
Practical realities aside, there may be tears shed on the day the Herb’s sign comes down.
“It’s what we know,” sniffed Robert.
“It’s a family deal,” agreed Alan, who had a pile of Herb’s memorabilia stacked in his office. “The hardest part was heading out to all the shops to tell our employees. They worked for us because they wanted to work for a family-owned business.”
He paused to collect himself.
“I do think Caliber is the perfect fit. They’re doing all the right things. Customers should know that.”
Robert’s new job will involve working with manufacturers to learn to fix today’s complicated, high-tech cars properly.
“Six months before manufacturers release a new car, they had to wreck it and try to fix it,” said Robert. “That information will help us fix it better.”
Robert will have a longer commute to Caliber headquarters in Lewisville, and he’ll travel to their shops all over the U.S.
“It’ll be a new adventure.”
And that stack of Wildcat t-shirts in your closet with “Herb’s” on the back – those may become collector’s items.