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Who is a true Garageman?

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For those of us who have been in this industry awhile, we have noticed that there are certain qualities that become typical characteristics of Garagemen.  I want to try to describe that here.  I’ve seen how these traits become engrained into a true garageman’s character. Why?  I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the nature of cars. Cars are designed by people and they wear out.  So, the people who can really fix them require certain talents and develop these traits.

I like to compare garagemen to farmers. The true garageman knows when a car is fixed properly or not;  just like only a farmer can judge the crops and farming techniques of another farmer.

Like a farmer, the garageman’s success depends on his discipline, his knowledge, and his use of tools.  A farmer has to wake up early to complete his work; he has to plant his crops at the right time in the right depth and in the right soil; he has to follow set procedures to insure the plants will grow.  A successful crop only results when a farmer has self-discipline, knowledge and the right tools.  Garagemen are the much the same. There is a discipline one must follow in repairing a car; there is a huge body of knowledge one must read and gain from experience, and one must have the right tools.  Of course there is a significant difference, too.  The garageman is not dependent upon the forces of nature for a successfully repaired car. For that reason, farming can be more risky than fixing cars, but we have our own force of nature and that is, you the customer. You can sometimes be as challenging for the garageman as drought or floods would be for the farmer.

Besides discipline, knowledge and owning the proper tools, here are other characteristics of a true garageman.  Men (and a few women) who like to work on cars want to understand how things work.  They take things apart to find out what’s inside and what makes it tick.  When a part fails, they’ll open it up to analyze  what went wrong. Slight discoloration of metal may draw a blank stare from a layman, but show it to the garageman , and he will explain in detail how it’s the absolute cause of a bearing failure.

To find out how things work, it means being willing to get your hands filthy dirty every day. It means washing your hands over and over. It means crawling under cars, lying on your back underneath a car six inches from your face, smelling noxious fumes.  It means standing with your hands over your head for hours, or being hunched over a truck straining to fit your hand into hidden places that could be hot, sharp, and hurt. These are examples of things that our customers often don’t think about.

Being a true Garageman, means to love the truth. There is no BS about fixing a car. If it’s fixed, it works; if it doesn’t, well you can’t blame anyone but yourself. And actually, true garagemen prefer it that way.  They are great truth seekers.  Garagemen can spot a lie a mile away—whether it’s the customer who says he’s not going to fix his car because he’s selling it next month,  a mechanic who says the master cylinder is leaking when it’s not, or a service adviser who is recommending rotors and pads when pads alone will suffice.  Nothing will make a true Garageman more angry than a lie.

True garagemen take pride in making things work.   With every broken vehicle, it is war. It is war to get the right parts especially on some cars, like that 1979 Porsche sitting in our shop. It is war to diagnose a drivability issue.  It’s war to install a rear main seal. It’s man versus the Machine.  So, when the car is fixed, it’s victory. Every fixed a car is a war won. Garagemen take pride in every one of those victories. Nothing will make a true Garageman more frustrated than a mechanic who doesn’t care because that means he wasn’t really willing to fight. That mechanic has no honor in the eyes of a true garageman.

The true garagemen can say I don’t know and ask for help. He knows that the guy who says I am a great mechanic is not.  He knows that there is no end of knowing everything about cars. There is always something to learn because cars are always changing. He knows that to win the war means sometimes bringing in reinforcements. And it means being willing to lend a hand to others when they are struggling with that car.  You cannot go it alone all the time.

The no word is not in a true garageman’s vocabulary.  Garagemen thrive on challenges. They possess the WE CAN DO IT spirit.  Sometimes, perhaps, many times, they should say no and end up saying yes.  They might not make money on it; the war might be painful; but they will rarely, if ever, say no.

So, who is a true Garageman? He is someone who is curious even when it’s risky or unpleasant. He is a truth seeker who doesn’t stand for any bacon sandwiches; he derives satisfaction from seeing something broken made whole, he is willing to help others and ask for help; he embraces the challenge even when it’s not going to better his bottom line, and he does the right thing even when it hurts.

In my opinion, the world would be a better place if more true garagemen were running it.

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A TALE OF TWO CUSTOMERS

October 28, 2011 1 comment

This sign has been displayed at our shop since 1952.

First Tale. A new customer towed a pick-up truck to our shop and said he believed his water pump had broken. It was a mid-90s Ford. The first thing our technician noticed was that the radiator was full of rust and had no water, and the second thing he noticed was a very cracked belt. The odometer had not worked for seven years. The technician knew that because of a maintenance sticker under the hood dated back to 2004 had the exact mileage as was on the truck yesterday. This observant technician was my husband Sybren.
The water pump had indeed failed and had sprayed rusty water everywhere. Would the truck start? The truck started and did not knock. That was a hopeful sign that the vehicle had not overheated, but with the lack of care, rusty bolts, and rusty radiator, this repair was going to be a challenge. So Sybren recommended a new water pump, new belt and fresh coolant for starters, letting our service advisor know this was a starting point and a radiator might be needed.
When we gave the estimate to Mr. Customer, he was upset by the price. He thought our parts were too expensive. So, he asked would we put on the parts if he supplied them. Our customer service representative explained that if he bought the parts there would be no warranty and that we had a policy of charging a higher labor rate to discourage this practice. Mr. Customer hit the roof and thought this was highly unfair. He hadn’t met me yet.
That same day, I attended our Automotive Service Association chapter meeting. ASA is a national organization for 14,000 independent repair shops across the nation. To be members, we agree to uphold a Code of Ethics. I am a former president of this chapter, the largest in Texas and the second largest in the country.
This evening, the theme was Repair Shop Reality. We threw questions into a brown bag and drew them out and discussed them one by one. One of those questions was, “Do you install customer-supplied parts?” Few people raised their hands, but since we did once in a while, I raised mine.
One shop member said, “Don’t do it. Your insurance company probably won’t cover you. I put on a customer supplied Chinese made wheel bearing. The wheel bearing failed and the customer had a crash. I was sued and my insurance wouldn’t cover my company.” At that point, another member said, “That’s right. A court of law presumes you are the expert. You should only install parts that you recommend and are willing to stand behind. When you put on a customer supplied part, it is of unknown origin and quality, and if something happens to that car, you may end up personally liable.”
So, back to Mr. Customer. The next day, he arrives with a water pump and belt from AutoZone. It’s a no-name brand even though the customer tells us AutoZone offers a “lifetime” warranty. I regretfully explain to him that we have a new policy and explained what we had learned. I told him we would use OUR parts to repair the vehicle, and if he agreed he would have a nationwide warranty. He was very upset and decided to have his vehicle towed away. We apologized and told him there was no charge. We felt bad, but once you know the truth what else can you do?
Our second story concerns a repeat customer. She called to ask if we could come to her and install a battery in her little Toyota at her home so she could avoid a towing fee. The reaction of my staff was initially of surprise. That’s a lot to ask, they said. Then I told them. This is a long- time customer who is quite frail; she lives alone and has no one to help her. She does not drive much anymore.
My staff now understood.
My husband loaded up his battery tester, tools, and a new battery. Her old battery was still under warranty so she only had to pay about half our cost. We drove to her home. Was she happy to see us! While Sybren checked her battery, she insisted that I come inside, and we sat and talked. She told me about growing up in New Jersey, about her brother who had mental health issues and how her mother at first didn’t want her to move to Houston. The mother finally consented but moved with her daughter and brought her brother. Our customer was 21 when she moved to Houston and now she is 81.
She also told me the story of how her brother learned about our shop from their church soon after they moved. She told me about the many times someone from our company had come to her rescue. It was a very gratifying experience. She has been bringing her cars to our shop since 1952.
Why do I tell these two stories? It’s not because we made money. Financially, we did not break even on either customer, but we profited tremendously from both. We learned that sometimes we have to say no to a job. There are some situations and some customers that are just not for us. In the second case, by going the extra mile, we learn something about our history and our value to this community. This knowledge is priceless.
As long as we are learning and stretching, we’re growing. To have a successful business, it is important to learn these lessons.

How We Helped the Tallest Man I Have Ever Met with his Broken Spark Plug

February 5, 2010 2 comments

Seven foot two inch customer brought in his wife’s Ford Expedition with a seriously bad problem.

He had a broken spark plug in his motor.  How did this happen, you ask?

Another shop was performing a standard tune-up and broke plug number four in the back where it’s hard to reach.  It was an accident, of course, but the bad thing was they couldn’t figure out how to get it out of there. So, customer had it towed to us.  Did I say he was 7’2″?

The sure fire cure would be to dismantle the head and knock out the plug.  However, that it is very costly because of the 15 hours of labor involved. The challenge was could we find a cure that was far less expensive?

We said we would give it a try.

Upon first inspection, we made another sad discovery.  The customer hadn’t even needed the plugs.  He had a bad coil, not bad spark plugs.  His vehicle had 60,000 miles and his plugs were rated for 100,000.  So why had the previous shop changed the plugs?

At the customer’s request.

If it had been us, we would like to think we would have advised the customer to hold his horses on the plugs and  let’s find the real problem.  I am trying to be humble here.  Of course, I really think we would have found the problem which brings me to a concern about some auto repair shops.

Many shops will do exactly what the customer requests.  Sometimes it’s a way to make money; sometimes it’s out of ignorance.  But, whatever the case, this is a bad policy.  People pay us for our expertise.  That shop should have paid attention to the car and unfortunately for them, when they didn’t, the Ford  went from being a pain to a nightmare.

It wasn’t easy for us either.

It took us three different experiments to finally extract the plug.

Ford makes a special spark plug extracting tool kit.  Part of the process involves using an adhesive on a pin and attaching the pin to the broken plug.  Then when the adhesive has dried, using a tool that slips over the pin which has a square head and twisting it until it pulls out.  The adhesive that came with the kit, called Loctite, dried in about two hours.  We tried to remove it.  No luck.  The pin broke away from the plug like snapping a stick in two.

We needed a better adhesive.  So attempt number two was to use JB Quick.  It dries in about four hours.  That didn’t work either.   Hmm… Now we’re in day 2.  The customer wants his car.  We’re talking to each other, talking to other shop owners, dancing, fuming and cussing a bit around the vehicle, but we did not give up.  If we failed, the customer was going to have to spend over $1200.00….

Finally, we resorted to some old-fashioned Texan ingenuity.  We used regular JB Weld which takes 13 hours to cure and is messy to work with. This meant the customer had to wait another full day–and so did we.  But, it worked!

Sometimes you have to be smarter than the average bear or the average expert. You have to have faith in yourself.

At Adolf Hoepfl Garage, we take pride in being able to solve super-tough problems.  Needless to say, our customer was happy.  Thank goodness!  He is, after all, the tallest customer I have ever had the pleasure to help.

One Thing Always Leads to Another

Our Anniversary Bench

Three years ago, a customer named Lorine came in to have her car worked on, and we started chatting.  She told me about a great cafe  inside a historic hotel in Blessing, Texas.  The hotel was established  in 1906 when the town of Blessing was a major train stop. She went on and on about the home cooked food, the atmosphere, the friendly people, and my mouth was watering just to hear her talk about it.  Our 29th wedding was coming up and my husband and I decided that would be a fun thing to do.

So, on June 3, 2007, off we went to Blessing, Texas.  For some reason, we left late, probably because of something at the shop so we didn’t pull into the parking lot until 2:05 p.m.  For those of you who wonder where Blessing is, it’s not far from the coast between Victoria and Palacios, Texas.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a very small town. We found the hotel easily, walked in, and an elderly lady wearing a large white apron said, “We just closed five minutes ago.”

The Blessing Cafe and Hotel

By this time, we were hungry, and I was devastated. It’s our anniversary and THE PLACE we had picked to celebrate was closed.  I could feel the tears welling up and big fat lump rising in my throat. This was supposed to be a blessed occasion, and I didn’t feel blessed.

What to do?

The lady was nice enough to let us look around, but we left because we were in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday with  no place to eat.

Palacios was less than an hour away and it was the only city anywhere on the map. So off we headed in a stony silence.

Fortunately, we found a nice seafood restaurant and had a good meal.  Then we decided as long as we were there, we might as well look around Palacios and see what there was.

Off the main road was a shop called Texas Furniture owned by Glen Barnette.  When we walked into to his work shop, Sybren immediately noticed that Glen was building model airplanes, the kind Sybren used to fly in his teens.  So he and Glen hit it off right away.  While they’re talking up a storm like they’ve been friends for 50 years, I noticed Glen’s cabinets, tables and chairs, a model of an Australian house Glen hoped to build one day, and I remembered that we had wanted a bench for our customers to sit on outside while they were waiting for their ride.

I had a paper towel in my purse, and I sketched out what we wanted.  A big oak bench that could seat five, with cup holders on each end, curved legs and most important, a Texas Star centered in  the back.

Glen said he could do it, and it would take about a month and a half.  We left a deposit and drove back to Houston, much happier than when we left Blessing.

Six weeks later, we drove back to Blessing.  Got there at 11:30 a.m.  We loved the meal.  It was every bit as good as Lorine promised it would be.  Then we headed to Palacios and picked up our beautiful anniversary bench.

Food is served on antique stove tops.

When we brought it to the shop, we realized that it was too nice to set outdoors without a plan.  So, for several months it sat inside one of the bays while we tried to think of how we could use it without it getting stolen, getting ruined, or being a hassle. Nothing came to us, so it just sat there gathering dust.

Then one day, one of our customers let us know that one of the two chairs inside the waiting room was broken.  Someone too heavy had sat in it and bent it out of shape.

We had to have a replacement right away.  We often have customers who wait and they had to have a place to sit.  Then we remembered!  The bench.  We took out the chairs and lo and behold, the bench was a perfect fit.  It was meant to be.

Sometimes, when all the customers have left and we’ve closed the shop, we’ll sit on our bench and hold hands.  We now know how blessed we are.

Our Anniversary Bench

Rain Brings Memories of Flood

It’s been raining off and on all day today.  This reminds me of  how I used to worry every time it rained.

Will the shop flood?

Our business is not in a flood plain, but it’s situated at a low spot where Shepherd’s inlets clog easily.  We had them cleaned out about seven months ago, and so far we haven’t had any rain in the shop since.

In the past, our shop flooded a couple times a year.  At the first sign of water coming into the shop, I would make a beeline to the closet and grab my galoshes.  I would pick up any boxes with parts and get everything off the floor.  I even bought special bed risers from IKEA  for our waiting room bench.  It’s our anniversary bench and I didn’t want it ruined.

When it would start to rain really hard really fast, our technicians dropped what they were doing, grabbed  push brooms and prepared to shove water out the bay doors.

The water would first seep, then pour into the parking lot as cars whizzed by.  The fact that the street was virtually invisible did not deter motorists from plowing ahead at the highest possible speed.  Soon, car-generated waves would roll into the shop.  It also flooded  from the rear when the side street went under water.

When the flooding began, we established a rhythm: a wave rolls in; we push it out.  One or two men would be stationed at each bay to repel the water.

Another tech would grab the sandbags that our founder Adolf  Hoepfl had set aside for this purpose and pile them in front of the office door.  If the rain was really bad, we would use a pulley and hoist the state inspection machine out of its hole in the ground in order to keep it dry.

When it was over, we set up giant fans all over the place to dry out the floor when it was all over.

I am so glad that doesn’t happen anymore. That was a lot of work.