J. R. “Pitt” Hyde III started the operation that became AutoZone in 1979 as part of Malone & Hyde, a company founded by his grandfather. In 2004, Hyde was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame—an achievement that the institution describes on its website as “the single greatest honor in the motor vehicle industry”—for his innovations in auto parts sales and service. He was the “first aftermarket retailer” so honored.
Hyde’s early career is summarized in an article on AutoZone by Kevin Cason that also appears in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. After taking over for his ailing father in 1968 at the age of twenty-six, Hyde steered Malone & Hyde through a period of rapid growth and tripled sales volume. During his tenure, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Hyde then used company stock to acquire several of his competitors. The acquisitions turned Malone & Hyde into the third largest wholesale food distributor in the United States. In 1979, after intervention by the Federal Trade Commission thwarted some of its attempts to acquire competitors and forced the company to look elsewhere for growth potential, Hyde created an auto parts company that became known as AutoZone. Hyde took Malone & Hyde private and sold it in 1988, but not before he had spun off the highly successful AutoZone into a separate entity.
Hyde started AutoZone as “Auto Shack” in 1979 in Forrest City, Arkansas. The store was renamed “AutoZone” after attracting attention (and an infringement suit) from Radio Shack. AutoZone’s history is one of innovation, exploration, and experimentation: the company was at the forefront of the retail technology revolution, and in 1999 the AutoZone Corporation made its first appearance in the Fortune 500.
Hyde brought his unique experience as a grocery store wholesaler into what he perceived as a retail sector that had little competition. Hyde saw opportunity: he perceived that a more customer-focused operation had the potential to be more profitable. His company focused on well-trained employees and placed emphasis on customer service. Hyde notes that the company has “made a religion out of putting the customer first,” and indeed customer service saturates AutoZone’s corporate culture: AutoZone’s company cheer–a move Hyde likely borrowed from his time on Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors–includes the phrase “AutoZoners always put customers first.”
Hyde remains an active philanthropist and a widely honored member of the Memphis community. Citing AutoZone’s downtown headquarters, his role in bringing the former Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis, and the Hyde Family Foundation’s support for various community institutions and initiatives, the Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced that Hyde was the recipient of the 2007 Francis Gassner Award for his contributions as patron to the city’s built environment. Hyde was the 2002 recipient of the AXA Liberty Bowl Distinguished Citizen Award, and he is well known in the Mid-South region for his work to promote education and the arts. The Society of Entrepreneurs cites his work with the National Civil Rights Museum, Ballet Memphis, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and other community organizations among their reasons for inducting him into its Hall of Honor.
“J. R. ‘Pitt’ Hyde III: Hall of Fame,” Discount Store News, September 15, 1997