TC’s Longtime Auto Repair Pros Talk

Maybe you’ve been going faithfully to the same car repair shop for 20 years, or maybe you’re in the market for a new one. Either way, you probably don’t think much about car repairs until you absolutely need them.

Fortunately, Traverse City is home to several long-standing automotive repair shops with dedicated owners who think, eat, and breathe cars 24/7.

We asked a few of them to share how they got their start, the toughest parts about running an auto repair business and what makes it all worthwhile.

Marathon Automotive

845 W. South Airport Rd.

Owner: Ross Schofield

History: Founded in 1980 at the corner of U.S. 31 North and Four Mile Road (now a Speedway station), Marathon relocated to South Airport after 12 years of consistent growth in the service end, said owner Ross Schofield. In 2011, he added six additional bays for a total of 16. He now has 15 employees and is “still growing.”

2010 was a pivotal year for Marathon: it was named a Traverse City Chamber of Commerce Top Ten Small Business of the Year, one of the “Top Ten Automotive Shops in the USA” by Motor Age magazine and its website was recognized as “Top Ten in the USA” by the Automotive Service Association.

Bread and butter: “A large part of our business is computer and electronics – almost everything on new vehicles is controlled by a switch and computer. Brakes, suspension and tires are all wear items and have high frequency of service.”

Toughest part of the business: “They don’t build them like they used to! Vehicles are much more complicated to service and require a substantial investment in ongoing training and updated equipment to properly diagnose and repair the latest vehicles.
 Our other challenge is the decreasing frequency of repairs needed on new vehicles. In general, vehicles are much more reliable and need much less service.”

What’s changed since you started? “The obvious is the vehicles, the less obvious is the need for us to grow. Small shops, for the most part, have fallen by the wayside. The need to invest in technology and training is not affordable for small automotive shops. We spend close to $50,000 per year to subscribe to information services, computer reprogramming and tool updates – all needed to diagnose and properly service all makes and models.

Secret to longevity: “This is an easy one…great employees! We have a group of long-term, dedicated employees. Our average employee tenure is more than 15 years. Training and attention to detail are also essential in the long-term success of business.

Van’s Garage

112 S. Main St., Leland

Owner: JP Van Raalte

History: Opened in Leland down the street from its current location, Van’s Garage has been taking care of vehicles since 1933. Now owned by the third generation of the Van Raalte family, the staff includes family members and crew members who’ve been with the shop for a combined 30-plus years.

Van’s works on all makes and models, new and old, but has a special fondness for vintage cars, hosting the annual Leland Classic Automobile Exhibition in mid-September in conjunction with the Leland Heritage Festival.

Bread and butter: “We do specialize in working on a lot of older classic and exotic vehicles, but still the main segment is keeping our customers’ current era cars and trucks up and running,” said Van Raalte. “We do all kinds of repairs, so it’s hard to pick one narrow focus …”

My start: “My grandfather started the business in 1933 after he came up north from downstate and jobs were very difficult to find. My father began working in the ’50s after he left the service, and I started in the early ’80s.

What’s changed since you started? “Change is constant in the automotive industry, and it becomes vast when viewed over 80 years. Service and repair needs have changed greatly since then – too lengthy to detail. Cars are still on four wheels … for the most part, anyway.”

Toughest part of the business: “Probably the same as most small businesses … That very small minority of customers who are difficult, or employee issues, or just some days when things just don’t go as planned, or the seasonal cash flow issues one can have in the winter up here.”

Secret to longevity: “I’m not sure there’s any great secret out there. Keeping up with the changes and offering great customer service is what I feel allows us to continue.”

The staff: I have three full-time technicians working for me, and my wife runs the front office. My niece helps in the office in the summer, and my father still works part-time in the shop. My son also has worked summers at the shop.”

Auto Tech

3037 Cass Rd., Traverse City

115 W. Main St., 

Owners: Cyril and Nadine Baker

History: In 1991, the Bakers started a part-time mobile repair business out of the back of their ’81 passenger van while Cy Baker worked full-time for an auto repair shop. They then rented space for three years before purchasing their shop on Cass Road. Five years later, they opened a shop in Kingsley.

The Bakers are deeply involved in the community, sponsoring Winter Inspection Days to benefit Goodwill Industries and offering job shadow opportunities to students at TBA Career Tech Center, Northwestern Michigan College and Child & Family Services.

Bread and butter: “Brakes, mainly because they’re a wearable part and every car needs them sooner or later. The next category is suspension … again, because this is a wear part. We specialize in driveability or engine performance, such as checking engine lights and electrical.”

Toughest part of the business? “Getting good technicians who can do the job the way we want it done. Also, the number of hours it requires out of each day. It is a huge commitment to keep things on track and running as smoothly as possible.”

What’s changed since you started? “The technology on cars changes every day and the technicians have to constantly have training on the new technology.”

Secret to longevity? “We’ve stayed in business for so long by providing quality service at a reasonable price and standing behind what we do.”

The staff: “At one time we had ten employees. With the economy we had to downsize. We now have four full-time employees and four part-time, including ourselves.”

Randy’s Olde Towne Service
2604 W. South Airport Rd.
501 S. Union St.
Owner: Randy Schmerheim

History: From 1985-2001, Randy Schmerheim operated the Shell station on Union and Eighth across from Curley Crandall’s Mobil station (Crandall’s Super Service). When Crandall shut down in 1992, Schmerheim leased the building. He now runs the Union Street shop and a location behind Holiday gas station.

Bread and butter? “We do everything from installing headlights to replacing an engine to towing a car. My customers don’t have to come here for one repair and then go somewhere else. I’ve got customers who ave been with me so long I’m working on their kids’ and grandkids’ cars. I don’t feel that old, but I am. If I didn’t have my employees who’ve been with me so long and treat the customers as friends, I couldn’t be here. It’s all about taking care of the customer.”

Toughest part of the business? “Technology. The world of repair has changed so drastically over 30 years, that’s the most difficult challenge. We are constantly trying to find classes to send my guys to so we can keep up with it all.”

Secret to longevity: “I have 10 employees – some who’ve been with me more than 20 years. Without great employees and customers, it wouldn’t be fun and I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Dave’s Garage
911 Hastings St.
Owner: Dave Karzcewski

History: In 1994, TC native Dave Karzcewski left his job at a local dealership to open his own business behind Wares Auto Sales. He became so busy he moved to his current location in ’96, specializing in import repair. He now has five employees, including three ASE-certified master technicians who’ve worked on classic cars, exotic vehicles, and all types of foreign and domestic cars.

My start: “I started out many years ago working in an auto dealer parts department. I would go watch the techs and pretty soon was figuring out repairs on my own. It came quite naturally to me. I had the great fortune of working for a couple of Toyota dealerships and Toyota offered some great training opportunities. That’s when I decided to get serious. When my kids were little, I took a summer off to consider my options and that’s when the idea for Dave’s Garage came about. We haven’t looked back since.

Bread and butter: “We stress maintenance to customers, plus repairs due to items wearing out, like brakes, batteries, belts, etc.

Toughest part of the business? “Many people don’t understand how complex cars have become. Cars now have their own computer network systems that require special diagnostic software specific to the make and model. It’s expensive. Diagnosing a problem or a warning light now requires us to charge a fee – just so we can recoup our cost. We try to be very open with our customers about this process.

What’s changed since you started? “Along with car systems becoming more complicated, we’re seeing a dramatic drop in information from the manufacturers regarding testing and repair procedures. It’s available, but some manufactures charge (for it). For example, Mercedes charges $289 per month, $3,098 per year. Kia is the bright spot in the industry; their information is free. Subscribing to all car lines can add up quickly.”

Secret to longevity: “Our customers at Dave’s Garage are the greatest. It’s very rewarding to see the same people come back time and time again, celebrate as their families grow, or mourn when we lose someone. It’s like we have a giant family. Plus, those special rum balls at Christmas are always appreciated!