Alumni Profiles

Jump Start
Friends turn a college scheme into a lifelong business

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Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services

Bavarian Autosport, owned and operated by Peter Robart '73, Mark Ruddy '73 and their friend, Dave Wason, is the leading BMW and Mini Cooper parts and accessories cataloger in the world. They mail more than half a million catalogs each year to their customers, a tribe of do-it-yourselfers. They stock 400,000 parts, shipping them from their 70,000-square-foot distribution center in Portsmouth, N.H. Their success, they say, has little to do with a business plan. Their story is about friendship, luck and one thing that they knew for sure at age 22: that they didn't want to work for someone else.

The story starts in 1971 when Ruddy blew out the engine of a friend's Porsche 912 while scanning the New Hampshire coastline for surf. A friend helped him rebuild the 912, and as soon as he could afford to, he bought his own, secondhand, for $1,700. When his brother told him that he could get more than twice that amount for the car in California, the three friends started a business driving Porsches cross-country and selling them at a profit.

The early 1970s were a pivotal time in American car culture, as consumers shifted their focus from American-made muscle cars to foreign sports cars. Ruddy fancied Porsches and Robart liked Volvos, but at some point, they both fell in love with the BMW Bavaria and its manufacturer. "Back then, there were so few on the roads that drivers would blink their lights at each other," Ruddy says.

They opened a BMW repair shop in Stratham, N.H., and a year later, bought the H.R. Haines Mobil Station in Newmarket, fixing cars and accumulating junked ones, which they dismantled for parts. "We were fixing cars, answering the phone with wrenches in our hands, and putting parts in boxes to ship to customers," Ruddy remembers. They also built a hot tub, which they set up on their loading dock, and had parties in it after a long day fixing cars; eventually, they sold hot tubs, too. "One of the town's councilmen, who later became a customer, told me that they had town council meetings where all they did was discuss what to do about our goings-on," Ruddy says.

In the early 1980s, they bought their first new piece of equipment: an IBM Selectric typewriter, to type up their first parts list. Ruddy says his wife, Donna Lorange Ruddy '74, was "way ahead of us in terms of understanding marketing. She was the one who built us into a brand." Eventually, 12,000 3-inch-by-5-inch cards morphed into a catalog, and the parts business got so big that they put down the wrenches.

"The New Hampshire economy runs on a frugal model, and that was our way of doing things, too," Robart says. "We never put it all on the line—we just worked really hard and made a series of incremental steps. And at some point we realized, 'Maybe we can do this for a long time.' And here we are, 36 years later."

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