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How I Work | Pat Cadam

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It’s fitting, really, that Pat Cadam’s college degree is in Renaissance history. Discovery, renewal, rebirth—all those traditional aspects associated with one of the most important cultural movements in history can easily be applied to Cadam’s career—or, more specifically, his work running Pat’s Garage in San Francisco.

Take a quick peek at the shop’s website (patsgarage.com), and it’s easy to see it isn’t your typical repair facility. A laid-back, family-oriented vibe permeates every aspect of the business.

“You have to love where you work and what you’re doing,” Cadam, 65, says. “And I love doing this, I really do.”

In addition to building a comfortable yet productive company culture, he keeps the shop on the cutting edge of technology. Aside from their daily work on hybrids, Cadam does plug-in conversion jobs and has worked on projects for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as well as for Google.

I’ve never been a good employee. Well, I’ve never really been one too often—maybe once or twice? I’ve always run some kind of business or another, and I sort of stumbled into the industry after doing a bunch of different things.

I suppose the start of it all is my love for cars. I was raised in Southern California in the ’50s and ’60s. L.A. car culture was as alive and as strong then as it is now. So, I grew up with everything from a ’58 Chevy convertible to an Austin-Healey Sprite. I just loved cars.

After college, I moved to San Francisco in the late ’60s and did a variety of jobs—I had a janitorial business and I ran a painting contracting company for about eight to 10 years.

Then, I just sat down trying to figure out my next move. I took a pencil and put everything I loved and everything I could see myself doing on this yellow pad, and everything just pointed to this. So, I went for it. I started my shop in 1986.

I’m the first one in here in the morning. I put a pot of coffee on, open the doors and start getting everything ready for my team. When they get in, I want them to be able to get right into what they need to work on. It’s just a little thing to do to make their lives a little easier.

CORNERING A MARKET Cadam’s shop gained hybrid certification a couple years back. The distinction helped them capture more market share and helped spawn a new side business, Green Gears. Photo by Justin Kuzmanich

For me, I think the most important thing is relationships with people. I think if you never stray far away from personal relationships, your business will succeed on every level.

And by relationships, I mean the relationships with your customers, the relationships with your employees, with fellow shop owners—don’t view them as competition. You need relationships in all aspects of the business to help you grow.

The relationships you establish will cross over and push everything else you do in your business. If you have a good relationship with a customer, you don’t have to make a sale. You tell them what they need, and they’ll do it. It’s the same thing with employees. You shouldn’t have to force employees to work on cars they don’t want. If you have a good relationship with them and provide for them, they’ll bend over backwards to work hard for you.

Once everything is set up, I go through some emails, check in on my techs as they arrive around 8 a.m., and then I get on the phone and call all of our new customers from the previous week. I do that from about 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., nearly every day.  It’s just a quick follow-up to welcome them into the fold, and to make sure everything was handled properly, they were treated right and there were no problems with the car once it drove away.

People will go away if they’re not happy, and they won’t come back. If there was a concern, you have to make sure that you give them every opportunity possible to voice it so you can do something about it.

COMFORTABLE ENVIRONMENT Cadam is a naturally laid-back shop owner. He works hard to ensure that his shop is an enjoyable—and productive—place to work. Photo by Justin Kuzmanich

After that, I’ll walk through the shop, see how things are going and help out where I’m needed. We’re a small group—six employees, five full-time—but I’ve tried to deliberately keep it at that level, because I really like the dynamics of a smaller group. It’s not all about expanding all the time and making more money. It’s about the quality of the work life you lead.

We’re closed during lunch, from noon until 1 p.m. each day, Monday through Friday. Before, after or during lunch is when we have our meetings, either one-on-one, which I try to do daily, or as a group.

I’ve been very, very fortunate to draw the people to me that I have over the years, and most have stayed a very long time. My service advisor has been with me for 35 years; he started out in my painting business.

But it’s a very fine line between being laid back and making sure you’re still successful. You need to have a balance.

Communication is the most valuable tool in our industry, whether you’re communicating with cars, customers or, more importantly, your employees. You have to have that two-way communication at all times. You have to have employee meetings; you have to do things together, so it’s not easy. You don’t just attain some sort of automotive nirvana in the shop on a regular basis. You have to work at it.

My afternoons change regularly. I’ll help out in front if there’s something pressing. Otherwise, this is when I dedicate time to other aspects of our business.

Since computers first started entering cars in the ’80s, we’ve always tried to stay ahead of the latest trends in the industry. In the last decade or so, that’s been focusing some attention on hybrids. We even started doing hybrid-to-plug-in conversions, and that’s where I started Green Gears. It’s a company that’s an offshoot of our business here. We’ve worked with companies across the country on conversion technology, and we’re really starting to get recognized for it.

Google had us do some work for them last year, and we did a project for the L.A. Department of Power and Water. It’s mostly with plug-in conversion technology, but we also did some work with a new, non-plug-in charging system that charges an electric car through a pad on the ground. The car stops on it, and it charges it. It’s a very cool new technology.

I also spend a lot of time on conference calls for our local community college. We helped develop their curriculum for electric and hybrid technologies, and we’re regularly helping them come up with new ideas. Our lead tech is an instructor there, too.

Working with your local college is a great way to keep up on trends in the industry. We’ve been doing that curriculum work for about two and a half years.
We focus a lot on training; our team is required to do extensive training every year.

If you don’t try to stay ahead of where you think the curve is, you’re actually six blocks behind. The trends happen so quickly, and by the time the information finally trickles down through the OEMs and they give the tidbits they want to throw to us, you don’t get much.

Working with your local college, networking with other shops through your local associations and groups—you need to get involved to stay up on this stuff or it’ll pass you by.

I usually head out around 4:30 or so. I only work four days—Tuesday through Friday. Five days is just too much of me for the shop to take. It just doesn’t need me that much.

My wife and I live near the ocean, and we try to get down for a walk on the ocean two or three times a week.

We have two sons, and our youngest works in the shop. He’s kind of our ‘do-it-all’ guy. He’s really mechanically inclined, and people already wonder if he’s going to take over the shop at some point. He might, but I don’t want him thinking about that yet; he hasn’t experienced enough of what life has to offer to make that type of decision.

You have to love what you do and have a passion for doing it, or else, what’s the point to doing it? That’s why I wound up here. I love what I do. I absolutely love it.

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