Spying on Employees, Screwing Buyers: What Went Wrong at One of America's Biggest Euro Parts Companies

An entire car community now worries that it’ll be forced to contend with a dysfunctional retailer just to keep vehicles on the road.
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Parts arriving broken or weeks late. Horrible customer service. An office where employees were spied on with cameras. These are just a few complaints from former employees and from hundreds of car enthusiasts who have done business with major Euro auto parts supplier ECS Tuning. With the company having recently bought another giant in the industry, Pelican Parts, an entire car community now worries that it’ll be forced to contend with a dysfunctional retailer just to keep vehicles on the road.

“ECS is the Comcast of German car parts,” a post by a member named Logan Carey reads on the 5,800 member-strong Facebook page titled “Why I Hate ECS Tuning.” With 136,000 Instagram followers, ECS is a big name in the European car community, especially online. But as much as the internet has helped ECS expand, so, too, has it bitten back.

The Comcast comparison is just one of many posts written by apparent ECS customers displeased with the company, which opened its doors in 1962 as a small Volkswagen service garage called Euro-Car Service in Norton, Ohio, in the outskirts of Akron.

But ECS is no longer a “mom and pop” operation, having expanded over the past two decades into an online shop with more than 1.3 million parts for sale. This rapid expansion, some ECS customers believe, has brought with it a degradation in customer service, and now—especially after the company bought popular Massachusetts-based BMW parts retailer Turner Motorsport in 2015 and laid off much of its workforce—BMW, VW, Mercedes, Audi and Porsche owners around the world are concerned about the fate of California-based Euro car parts giant Pelican Parts, which ECS bought last fall.

While ECS says it’s been making significant changes lately—especially after the Facebook group went viral—the company admits that many of the problems mentioned on the page are real, with the CEO Imran Jooma telling me “We have not been consistent with the level of service we provide,” and the company’s BMW brand manager saying, “Generally, what people say is accurate.”

That latter quote is particularly surprising, because people are saying a lot, providing an interesting look into what happens in 2018 when a car parts company pisses off thousands of meme-wielding users.

The Post That Sent Group Membership Through The Roof

From Why I Hate ECS Tuning (Facebook)
From Why I Hate ECS Tuning (Facebook)
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Jalopnik first heard about “Why I Hate ECS Tuning” when readers directed us to a July 1 post by Daniel Curtis, former director of operations at Turner Motorsport.

Shared across a number of car forums, the post that sent “Why I Hate ECS Tuning” membership sky high is a scathing criticism of ECS’s purchase of Turner Motorsport from someone who worked at the latter company for nine years, and who claims that ECS promised Turner “amazing synergies and upsides” before dismantling it. Curtis writes:

They were insufferable, right out of the gate. I played along for a few months, as they made one foolish or unimaginable decision after another. As the Director of Operations, I had a bird’s eye view of the deconstruction and dismemberment of a once great company.

Curtis’ post goes on to call the treatment of ECS employees “inhumane,” saying there were cameras at every desk monitoring everything they did.

Plus, rooms were allegedly key-coded, severely limiting employee access throughout the building. Curtis’ blistering remarks continue, describing the chaotic operations in the warehouse:

I felt almost as bad for their customers. Their warehouse was a disorganized hive of slave-like labor, governed by fear and intimidation. Their shipments were POORLY packaged, their process riddled with opportunities for mistakes and human error, and the morale of their employees those the lowest I’ve ever seen.

Curtis—who, it’s worth noting, now works at a competing operation—then describes the plight of Turner Motorsport as ECS worked to consolidate the two companies’ operations, offering buyouts to most Turner employees. This meant, according to Curtis, eliminating Turner’s R&D and production department, and keeping just four sales reps and two customer service agents to represent the Turner brand.

“A once-great all-BMW parts house went from 50 employees to six, remains to this very today,” he concludes. Curtis says he quit the company exactly nine years after he started.

Curtis’ post was shared far and wide, not just on Facebook, but on popular automotive forums like Grassroots Motorsports, VWVortex and M3forum. “Why I Hate ECS Tuning” membership, as shown by the above graph, skyrocketed.

The group’s founder, Josh Wright—an Oregonian and long-time Euro car fan who started the group after reading many ECS complaints on VW and Audi forums—told me the group went from 400 members to 3,000 in just a couple of days.

Complaints Show ECS Has Been Making Mistakes For Years

Upon reading Curtis’ post, ECS customers and former employees came out of the woodwork, all posting their experiences on the Facebook page in screeds, complaints, and in as many memes as possible.

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One admin compiled a huge list of “alternatives to ECS, Turner, Pelican” based on member input. Everyone was trying to keep away, either for fear of a bad order or out of spite, or both.

One meme leads to another.
One meme leads to another.
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For many, “Why I Hate ECS Tuning” has been a way to finally get back at a company that they feel has underserved and ignored them for years. While some apparent former employees have echoed Curtis’ criticisms of the workplace, the majority of complaints deal with shipping, inventory management and customer service.

And while these may sound like standard issues you’d find in any Amazon reviews section, the problems seem widespread, and indicate major dysfunction in a company that is now—especially after picking up Turner Motorsport a few years ago and Pelican Parts last fall—one of the biggest players in the European aftermarket car parts industry. It’s a major source that enthusiasts use to get the components they need to make their cars unique, or to keep them running.

Parts would show up late or broken. One guy’s fan shroud arrived snapped twice in a row, sent out with not nearly enough packaging material in the box. Orders would show up with one new part and one old, already-busted one. Thousands of dollars of parts, supposedly in stock meant to go out in a matter of days, took months to arrive.

Matthew Litke, an admin for the Facebook group, referred me to this post about wait-times for “in stock “parts:

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ECS even managed to piss off its most loyal local customers, no longer allowing them to pick up items at the company’s warehouse, instead requiring parts to be shipped.

“To ship a single [$2] lugbolt 15 miles down the road, it was $7,” Litke told me over the phone. Another member mentioned the convoluted one-week-long travel path his $14 shipment took to travel 50 miles from the warehouse: “Wadsworth, to Columbus, to Detroit, to Cleveland, to my local Post Office,” he said, criticizing Fedex Smartpost.

Customer service was a generous term. One charming Facebook post from Natalie Jewels details how her package shipped only a couple of weeks late, but arrived with half the taillights she had ordered.

“Lo and behold, I open the box and they only sent me the inner tail lights and the four harnesses,” Jewels’ post reads. “I’m missing both outer lights.” Things went south from there. She says she called ECS and was told by a giggling customer service rep that the left outer light was out of stock, and that her options were to either wait all the way until September, or to order a different brand. The rest of Jewel’s post gets understandably heated:

And [the customer service rep] was giggling the whole time. I guess trying to make light of the situation. I’m so pissed. I fucking hate those fucks. And the girl that packed my order is a fucking idiot. How do you only send half of my order?

As these posts spiraled out of control, ECS’s BMW Brand Manager Pete Winegardner would have to jump into the discussions, apologizing and asserting that he’d make things right.

A number of customers on the Facebook page also complain about receiving damaged goods. Take the story by BMW 328i owner Jonathan Barrig, which shows an apparently used variable valve timing solenoid. He said he ordered two of the hydraulic actuators. One was fine, but the second was saturated with oil and covered in scoring marks. “I can’t believe ECS Tuning’s warehouse operations are this bad!” he wrote.

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Winegardner jumped in, and told Barrig that the solenoid “appears to be a return,” and that ECS “should have not stocked that out as new.”

Then there’s the post by Portland-based financial analyst and BMW fanatic David Ball, who currently owns a 2008 135i, a ’93 525i Touring and an ’89 E30 M3.

Ball says he first ordered parts from ECS in 2011 when he was just getting into his BMW obsession. The retailer lured him in with its huge selection of genuine BMW parts, but those parts, Ball says, struggled to make their way from the warehouse to his doorstep.

“Fifty percent of my orders that I’ve placed with ECS since 2011 were either delayed or back-ordered and canceled,” Ball told me, saying this represents approximately five out of ten orders. Ball said he ordered a steering rack that the website indicated was in stock, only to cancel his order when he received a notification that the part was backordered. “It was delay after delay,” he said.

On the “Why I Hate ECS Tuning” Facebook page, Ball talks about his June fan shroud order from Turner Motorsport (which, again, is now part of ECS). Here’s a look at the package that Ball says housed the replacement shroud to one that had shown up broken:

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It’s pretty banged up, and unsurprisingly—like the first box—the fan shroud inside was toast:

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Ball, who admitted that he’s never really had issues with Turner until recently, told me there simply wasn’t enough packaging material in the box to keep such a fragile item safe. And ECS acknowledged that, with Winegardner once again jumping in. “Once is bad, twice is terrible,” he wrote in the comments, before admitting that the plastic protective air bubbles that ECS most likely used “[sound] insufficient to protect the shroud.”

Ball, in his Facebook post, refers to the experience as “such a waste of time.”

Many Enthusiasts Fear For Pelican Parts

Photo Credit: Jake Durig
Photo Credit: Jake Durig
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I also talked with Jake Durig, a moderator for the Facebook page, who actually hasn’t had many bad experiences with ECS, with the only slight inconvenience being in 2010, when the company sent him an Audi TT grille for his Jetta (see above).

But he says he joined after hearing complaints about ECS from fellow enthusiasts, and became more active after reading Curtis’s post mentioning ECS’s acquisition of Pelican Parts. That concerned Durig, just as it does many other Mercedes, VW, Saab and BMW owners around the world.

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“Pelican Parts has been my go-to for finding parts,” said Durig, the owner of a 1987 300D, a 2005 VW Jetta and a 1966 Mercedes W110 with a W115 “220D” drivetrain swapped in. He lauded the California-based retailer’s customer service, and praising its shipping time to his house near the headquarters.

Durig wants to keep a good thing going. “Nobody sells 1966 Mercedes parts except Pelican. That’s a huge worry,” he said. “When I saw the Pelican Parts thing, my mind raced to ‘Oh, it’s gonna be Turner Motorsport all over again.’”

Pelican Parts is a huge name in the car parts world, even outside of the Euro community thanks especially to its many DIY articles. For many old, desirable European cars, from Porsches to Benzes to Saabs, Pelican Parts is the only name in town. Losing Turner is a giant pain. Losing Pelican Parts would mean a serious drop in the viability of owning something imported and vintage.

Screengrab: Pelican Parts Forum
Screengrab: Pelican Parts Forum
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The CEO of Pelican, Bryan Handlen, issued the statement above assuring customers that his company would stay true to itself, even as ECS takes ownership.

“The sale of the company has not created any change of employment for any of the Pelican employees,” he wrote in a statement echoed and supported by ECS’ top brass. “All of the team members at Pelican are dedicated to serving our customers and continue to strive to meet the needs of the auto enthusiast and that will never change.” Handlen also talked with Jalopnik over the phone, and praised ECS’s CEO, Imran Jooma.

The co-founder of Pelican, Wayne Dempsey, chimed in on the forum below Handlen’s statement with positive words about Bertram Capital, the private equity firm that owns ECS, saying: “They made some major management changes, hired a new CEO, ripped out all the cameras, and have been working hard to undo a lot of the company culture issues that seemed to exist at ECS.”

After Facebook Complaints, ECS Says It’s Making Major Changes

Screengrab: ECS Tuning
Screengrab: ECS Tuning
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ECS is aware of the complaints on the Facebook page, and Winegardner has tried to put out numerous fires there. He helped track down Natalie Jewels taillights (she’s now got them installed on her Golf), he offered Jonathan Barrig cash back if he decided to use the oil-covered solenoid, and he said he forwarded the story of David Ball’s two broken shrouds to his team along with ideas for “process improvement.”

“Generally, what people say is accurate,” Winegardner, who’s been with the company for eight years, told me over the phone. “We have had some top-down concerns in the past that are just now getting addressed.”

Winegardner described how, when the once “mom and pop brick and mortar” shop shifted to e-commerce about 15 years ago, things went downhill. Previous executives, he said, employed a leadership style that “led to a mentality that really wasn’t super friendly to customers.”

Winegardner says that things have improved already. As a result of the Facebook group, Winegardner told me, ECS put together a “Special Ops” task force of employees from throughout the company as a way to figure out what can get fixed immediately and what can get fixed in the long term.

ECS says it’s now offering will-call pickup to local customers, and that shipping is already getting better, along with customer service and packaging. “We have focused too much on volume,” Winegardner concedes, “and not enough on the quality of the component going out the door.”

“We did not do a good enough job in the past of building win-win relationships,” Winegarder said, pointing out complaints on the Facebook group from buyers who say they were asked to pay for return shipping or who say ECS customer service couldn’t help them. Referring to his customer service team, he said: “We haven’t really given them the toolset to really please customers.”

Employee Experience At ECS

When it came to negative reviews about what it was like to work at ECS, Winegardner says most of those complaints apply to a work environment that no longer exists. “The majority of cases are a weather report from a previous year,” he said, stating that the company has changed dramatically even in the past eight months.

Winegardner admits that previous management styles have been “authoritarian,” but their policies are gone, along with the locks inside the office and the cameras, too.

Screengrab from VW Vortex
Screengrab from VW Vortex
Image: All images used with permission

The company’s CEO Imran Jooma also discussed the work environment in a statement he shared to the Facebook page and on various car forums, saying he was committed to making ECS a “positive work environment,” which he expects will “result in a better shopping experience” for the customer. (That statement is shown above.)

Over the phone, Jooma acknowledged to Jalopnik that there had indeed been cameras in ECS’s offices (as mentioned in Curtis’ post that popped this whole thing off), but says he got rid of them to communicate trust in the employees. “We need to empower and trust our associates,” he said.

What exactly those cameras were for, Jooma and Winegardner told me they weren’t sure, though the latter speculated by saying the surveillance could have been for things like “liability and asset protection” or “staff supervision,” before stating that the people who know for sure why those cameras existed no longer run the company.

Will ECS Change?

It’s hard to confirm the legitimacy of every complaint on the Facebook page, and the 5,800 members probably only represent a small fraction of ECS’s business. But those voices, thanks in part to some dank memes, have been loud—loud enough for a brand manager and the CEO to acknowledge their mistakes.

As for Pelican Parts customers’ concerns that the retailer might face the same fate as Turner Motorsport (which, after its distribution center was consolidated with ECS’s, is now just a brand with its own small sales and service arm), both Jooma and Winegardner indicate that this won’t happen.

“I do not see for the foreseeable future us making any significant changes to Pelican at all,” Winegardner told me. He did say that ECS wants to share warehouse resources to reduce shipping times to the west coast, and so that Pelican can reduce shipping headed east, but talking about staff and daily operations, he said, “I predict zero changes.”

Between ECS’s statements, the CEO and founder of ECS-owned Pelican parts weighing in, and with former employees speaking out, there are clearly deep-seated issues with this major player in the European car parts industry.

ECS is promising to solve them, with Jooma reiterating that the company is listening. Referring to the fixes his team is currently working on, he said: “This is work that is already in progress, and this is something that I take full responsibility for.”

Winegardner describes what this moment means for his company. “As difficult as it is and as nauseating as it is to hear customers talk about having bad experiences, and hearing the community being upset with us,” he said, “it’s a bitter pill that we need to swallow right now.”

Update: The story above has been updated to indicate that ECS now offers will-call pickup for local customers.