They do repairs mostly on German cars and the occasional Ferrari, but they are far from snooty, being located in Gardiner, Maine, about 50 miles from Portland. I live there, too, and take my GTI in for occasional service and to shoot the breeze with owner-manager Amy Rees. She and partner Aaron Murphy, who runs the shop, have recently built a nice repair business by doing good, fairly priced work on cars people love to dote on.
In these precarious times, I wondered whether the Auto Surgeons still had a good roster of patients. I knew Amy wasn’t shy about expressing her views, and I also wanted to get some background on the business. So, on a recent cold morning, we sat down to talk.
How in the world did you get involved in this male-oriented business?
I grew up in a family that always had European cars, and so I developed a fondness for them. My father had a 2002 and a bunch of other cars over the years—I just loved driving them and had that enthusiasm carry over into my later years.
You know, I have always liked working with men much better than women, and my guys are terrific. They look at me as kind of a Den Mother, and that’s fine because we all work well together. We have four in the shop now, all with excellent backgrounds in foreign car service. We provide 100% healthcare coverage because it’s the right thing to do.
I got diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of last year, just after we bought the place, and was out much of the summer with chemotherapy and trying to recover. Not fun, but the guys filled in and ran things perfectly, and I’m enormously grateful.
We’ve been here for about 18 months, and it’s going really well. Aaron and I have one other silent partner with more financial wherewithal. We run the business, he’s the money guy, and it works out well.
And you got started here after working in Portland?
I was in a Portland ad agency doing radio commercials, then quit my job to take a little time off at home and do some soul searching: “What do I really want to do? Well, I’ve always really liked cars.” I had an older BMW and wanted to restore it, and I found this guy, Voit Ritch, here in Gardiner that would work on it.
And I thought, he has so much potential here, specializing in these cars, but I think he needs a business partner. Well, Voit said, “No, I don’t really want a business partner, but I’ll hire you, and we can teach each other.” So I went to work for him, and in two years we doubled his business.
After a time he decided to open his own shop in Freeport [near Portland]. Well, I had sold my house in southern Maine, moved to Gardiner to avoid the 50-mile commute, and I wasn’t about to reverse that and go to Freeport every day. It was time for me to leave anyway. When his mechanics found out, they weren’t crazy about going, either, so we just decided we’d all stay here and start our own business. Ray Ayer sells foreign cars next door, leases us the space and still does restorations, though that part of his business seems to have fallen on some hard times.
But you’ve got a steady customer base?
Our customers for the most part are pretty financially solid—mostly professionals, lawyers, doctors, and their jobs aren’t in danger. But everybody’s trying to be cautious, economically. People I know who make very good money are saying, “Well, I think we’ll just hang on to this car for another year,” instead of trading up as they usually do every couple of years.
We used to have customers, if they were faced with a bill of $1,500-2,000, who would say, “I’ve been thinking about trading it anyway. I’ll just buy a new car.” Now they want to hang on, especially if it’s paid for and running well. My car’s paid for and I’ll keep it till it has 300,000 miles on it. I love my car.
What is it?
A BMW 330xi – 6-cylinder, 3-liter engine and all-wheel drive, and it’s just perfect… 5-speed, handles great in the snow.
How are your suppliers doing in this financial climate?
We have two or three major parts suppliers but keep a fair inventory here of commonly needed stuff—switches, bulbs, things like that—plus a good supply of liquids. Our suppliers give us good service and haven’t complained too much about the economy, though some are scared.
So what is your outlook for the business?
This past fourth quarter we’ve had a 26% increase in business. We’re projecting for next year a 12% increase, and I think that’s pretty conservative, pretty doable. I’m hoping it will be closer to 20%. We’re not making oodles of money, but we’re in the black. And I’m making about a third of what I did working in radio.
And what are your thoughts on the auto industry bailout?
Well, I’m a liberal, certainly on social issues, but there’s a conservative side of me that thinks these companies should not be kept from failing. I mean, I run the risk of bankruptcy like most any other business. They ought to take their lumps like everyone else. But then the issue gets complicated: many people thrown out of work, what happens to our industrial base, the need for a domestic auto industry. But they really drove themselves into a ditch, and I don’t much feel like pulling them out.
You know, I have to agree with you. Thanks, Amy.
Is this kind of repair business dying as a result of the Jiffy Lube approach?