Smith’s Service Center has been a family-owned business since 1969 when Al Smith opened a Mobil service station after working for a local Madison, Wis., Ford dealership for more than 25 years.

His son, Ron, who is 64, has been part of the family business for 50 years, at first, part-time as a youngster during the summer, to his present duties as owner. Today, Ron, his wife Diane and son Scott all work as a team, with each of them handling their individual responsibilities. In the beginning, Diane said she relied on Ron quite a bit, but that has evolved over the years. Because she entered the business much later, she would come to him if assistance was needed. Scott started much the same as his dad, working during the summers as a teenager. After attending Madison Area Technical College, his first five years of full-time employment meant working in the bays to learn the ropes. For the past five years Scott, 35, is up front dealing with customers alongside Service Adviser Bryan Miller, who has been with the shop for 30 years.

“We let everyone do their jobs and all of us are very busy,” Diane said.

“When Diane first started working with me years ago we discussed the day over the dinner table,” Ron said. “We decided early on that when we went home there was no business talk. We leave work at work. We see things the same way and operate the same way.”

An evolving business

“Evolving” is the best way to describe the operation. Business at the Mobil station grew at a rapid rate after it’s opening because so many residents knew Al Smith from his days at the Ford dealership. By 1979 he and Ron opened Smith‘s Service Center. Along the way they opened a second shop on the other side of town but closed it after 17 years. That shop was in an industrial area and the business started to stagnate. “It was also hard to find qualified technicians – even back then,” Ron said. The father-and-son team ran the Mobil station and the Service Center at the same time for about four years before closing the Mobil station in 1989 when Al retired. He passed away several years ago.

Under Ron’s supervision, Smith’s Service Center just completed a major renovation of the building. He and his team had been working out of a temporary office for several months and the remodeling had been slowed down by some red tape at city hall.

But a lot more has happened over the years.

Diane notes that the shop went paperless about two years ago, with technicians using tablets and the Bolt-On Technology software and Mitchell 1 OnDemand.

Training

“Training is imperative to keep up,” Ron said. “We shoot for 40 hours of training per year. Much of the training is taught by John Thornton of Automotive Seminars Inc. Most recently he taught a class on General Motors’ start/stop technology,” Ron said. “We supplement that training through our suppliers, mainly with Bumper to Bumper. It’s all cutting-edge technology.”

“We really take pride in the fact that we have knowledgeable technicians,” Ron said. “Of the technicians in the bays, two are general service techs handling oil changes, tires and brakes and both are working toward ASE certifications. Four of the five veteran techs are ASE Masters. In addition, Service Adviser Bryan Miller is an ASE Master with L1 certification. He is ‘the guru’ if there is a problem where everyone has to put their heads together. All together we have 264 years of experience with 50 of those years being mine,” Ron said.

Modern equipment

“The shop works hard at staying state-of-the-art,” he said. Hunter Engineering Hawkeye Elite alignment systems and Road Force balancing equipment, along with Robinair air-conditioning service equipment, including one for HC1234yf refrigerant, can be found in the shop. Scan tools include two Snap-on Zeus units as well as a Snap-on Pro-Link used on medium-duty trucks. Smith’s also utilizes, Ford IDS, Chrysler wiTech, GM MDI, GM Tech 2 and Chrysler DRB III units.
Smith’s provides services ranging from oil changes to engine and transmission R&R. Complete engine overhauls are not common; however, the shop provides major engine repairs that include head-gasket replacement and valve jobs (the cylinder heads are sent out). Diesel-engine work in trucks up to medium-duty size is common.

The shop includes 10 physical bays, however four are doubled in size to handle RVs and larger trucks. Eight hoists are available and are shared among the men.

Work schedule

Once the Mobil station closed, Smith’s went to a Monday-through-Friday operation.

“Dad said, ‘No more Saturdays when we closed the Mobil station,’ and it is promoted to potential employees when we are hiring,” Ron said. “The shop is open for customers from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with the technicians working from about 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. We like to keep it at a 40-hour week for them. They like it that way.”

Customers

Ron’s philosophy is that it’s good to be personal friends with customers. “We try to develop personal relationships with them and let them know we care about them and their vehicles.”

Customers like the fact that Smith’s has 18 loaner cars available when their vehicles are in for extensive repairs.

“Nearly all of them are 200,000-mile-plus vehicles that once belonged to customers,” Ron said. “It shows our customers they can run a vehicle that long with proper maintenance. One car has more than 300,000 miles on it.”

The shop does minimal advertising and since early on, most new customers were recommended by friends who already took their vehicles to the shop. While that trend continues today, the company website and Google Reviews now play an important role. In fact, Ron noted that the shop adds an average of seven new customers per week.

“That’s what’s driving our new business,” he said.

The redesigned customer-waiting area has a pleasing and clean appearance and it includes free Wi-Fi and coffee. Towing, along with an after-hours key drop also are available.

The shop sells a variety of different tire brands, and even though displays show the offerings, some people still ask: ‘Do you sell tires?’ Because of this, and the fact that the shop is in the Goodyear Tire and Service Network, a much larger Goodyear Tire display is now on the wall that can’t be ignored.

During the remodeling process, when Smith’s was using a job trailer as their office, the shop along with their oil supplier created a program called “Construction Cash.” If a vehicle was serviced during that period, the customer received $10 credit for future service – and the oil supplier reimbursed the shop for the money.

Current customers who give referrals also have an opportunity for a $50 gift card at a local restaurant, depending on how many referrals come in for service.

Fleet & wholesale

Fleet and wholesale customers also play a role in the shop’s success. Those customers include a funeral home with several hearses, Badger Popcorn that owns a number of medium-duty Kenworth trucks, Aramark Uniforms and vehicles from the state of Wisconsin that involve the Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Administration.

Diane explained that some fleets become regular customers because their owners had been so pleased with the repairs made on their personal vehicles. Likewise, some of the individuals who deliver fleet vehicles to the shop for service now bring in their personal vehicles.

Collision shops as well as smaller repair shops have become wholesale customers too. Ron said these shops farm-out the alignment as well as reprogramming work because they lack the newer equipment and scan tools.

When a customer needs vehicle service that Smith’s doesn’t offer, such as detailing, collision repair or upholstery, the shop has a list of companies that they can recommend with confidence, Diane said.

Smith’s Service Center

4313 Nakoosa Trail
Madison, Wis., 53714
608-241-1232
smithservicecenter.com