Editor’s note: Paul E. Grech owned the former San Franciso shop, Allied Engine & Auto Repair, before retiring. In this column series, Grech shares his experiences as a shop owner.
I was in business for 43 years. The first year I had to go through a learning process about how to deal with the public. I got burned a few times, but I got through it.
I also made friends with a lot of my customers. Some of them were retired and were looking for something to do with their time. They would start to just hang out around the shop, then shortly begin sweeping, cleaning and running parts for me. I would use my retired customers, two or three days a week depending on what time they had available.
It was just so handy to have someone like that. One of them, Gene Duden, who used to own a gas station, came down and said he had retired and needed something to do on a part-time basis. He was 65 years old and was so helpful because he had been in the auto repair business for 40 years.
There were many times I had to tell him to slow down and take a break. Gene was also very handy to have around, especially when I had taken on a new trainee. He could show them how to do a lube and oil change, replace a belt or a thermostat, rotate tires, replace light bulbs, and greet customers if I was tied up with someone or out of the building. He welcomed the extra income for repairs to his car — it was just great to be around him. He lasted 20 years until he reached 85 when he retired for good.
Many like Gene would also drive customers home or pick them up when their cars were ready, road test vehicles, make a run to the hardware store on an errand, etc. They were really helpful when the check engine light came onto the scene in 1996 and cars had to be driven to reset monitors.
I had another customer, Gene Louie, who wanted to take Gene’s place after he retired. He used to be bouncer in a bar. He was mainly a parts runner and a watchman at night, and lived in the neighborhood. I could call him if the alarm to my shop went off in the middle of the night.
There are no more domestic car dealers in San Francisco. The nearest one is 20 miles away. If there was a wrong part sent or a shortage, we would have to wait for the afternoon run or the next day, which would tie up my rack (early on I only had one rack). I could send them out to get the parts right away and thus maintain the shop’s efficiency.
The rebuilder for power steering boxes and brake boosters was 50 miles away in San Jose. Quite often the rebuilt parts had to go back for an adjustment, and they could bring it down and pick it up to reduce shipping delays and costs. We did a lot of rebuilding on old cars, so they helped to keep my bottom line up.
In exchange for Gene Louie’s service, I took care of his car and also gave him a couple of cars over the years. When I was building my 1936 Ford truck, I even sent him to Los Angeles with the frame and motor to be fitted together. He stayed with me for about 15 years before he passed away. When I first met him, he was a divorced bachelor and estranged from his children. I encouraged him to make amends with his children and he did before he died.
His children thanked me for that, and told me how much he enjoyed hanging out at my shop. All my “Men Friday” were a large part of my success in my business.