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A look back: Times and stories from a retired San Francisco shop owner

Editor’s Note: Paul E. Grech, 76, worked as a mechanic for 60 years and owned the former San Franciso shop, Allied Engine & Auto Repair, before retiring. In this column series, Grech shares his experiences and stories as a shop owner.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to reach all the goals I set for myself when I was younger: retire in good health and be financially ready for retirement. I had worked in a garage when I was 13 years old after school and summers, and eventually opened shop in downtown San Francisco for 43 years in the same location.

I have now arrived at that point in my life, and not without a few anecdotes to share that helped me along the way.

This story is about how a drop-in for a $35 alternator belt replacement turned into a $500,000 sales increase over a five-year period. It was 1975. I had been in business for two years and I was doing well at a $16-an-hour labor rate. I worked long hours and was able to save money so that I was able to buy a new house for almost all cash by 1976.

I was able to do so by always accommodating the customer needs as they arise, because cars don’t always break down by appointment, just like when your shop equipment doesn’t break down when it is convenient.

“I had just sat down to eat my lunch when a Cadillac limousine pulled in and the driver stepped out of the car.”

If I grossed $9,000, I netted $6,000. The rent was $250 a month and I was right in the center of San Francisco. The water bill was $4 and the phone $400, including the monthly Yellow Pages ad.

I had just sat down to eat my lunch when a Cadillac limousine pulled in and the driver stepped out of the car. He said his alternator belt had broken and he needed to have it replaced right away. “I just dropped my clients off for lunch and if I don’t pick them up at 2 p.m., then I’ll lose the two days I’ve already been driving them around,” he told me.

I had my sandwich in my hand, my mouth open ready for a bite, and I put the lunch down and did the job. He thanked me profusely, gave me a $20 tip, and started to talk to me. Turns out he grew up with my father in law and was part of a 20-member limousine company.

“I’ll be back,” he told me, and brought me the other 19 limousine drivers to be my customers, which turned into $10,000 extra sales every month for the next five years.

They just wanted someone to keep the cars on the road. That is what I specialized in, quick service just like what you would want if your equipment broke down.

I was able to buy my shop’s building after being in business for five years — for all cash by 1978 (the bank wouldn’t approve a loan because I had not been in business long enough).

As time has moved on in the industry, vehicle technology has advanced, repairs have become more complicated, tool and equipment investments have become essential, and skillsets have sharpened and evolved for both shop owners and technicians.

However, despite all those changes, I’ve found that in my long career, service is what we, as shop owners, offer as an intangible to our customers and is how we can differentiate ourselves to become successful.

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In the next installment, Grech will explain how the ALDL connector on the bottom of the dashboard came about. He is also the author of “So, You Want to be an Auto Technician,” a book for entry-level techs. He can be reached at p_grech@comcast.net

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