From Skateboard Star to Shop Repair Pro
SHOP STATS: German Car Depot Location: Hollywood, Fla. Owner: Alan "Ollie" Gelfand Average Monthly Car Count: 220 Total Staff Size: 8 Shop Size: 5,000 square feet Number of Bays: 8 Annual Revenue: $1.3 million
Alan “Ollie” Gelfand will live on forever. Or at least his name will.
Listed in Merriam-Webster dictionary as “ollie,” Gelfand created the patented skateboarding jump in 1977, a famous maneuver in which a skater kicks the tail of the board down while jumping in order to make the board pop into the air.
But Gelfand prefers to think of himself as “the most famous skateboarder nobody knows.”
He didn’t transcend the sport. He doesn’t have 10+ million followers on social media or a video game created in his name like Tony Hawk.
Over 40 years later, Gelfand lives a quiet life in Hollywood … Florida, and owns his own repair shop, the German Car Depot. Even that doesn’t have his name on it.
Most customers have no idea who he is until they see the memorabilia inside the shop. But make no mistake, his roots as a skateboarder can be seen on more than just the walls of his shop. In every aspect of Gelfand’s business, his past shines through. His roots as a skateboarder laid the groundwork for his successful second act.
Gelfand is used to getting help from experts. In his early days as a skater he worked with Stacy Peralta, a prominent skater in the ‘80s turned coach/entrepreneur. Peralta coached famous skaters like Hawk and Mike McGill. He was one of the first people that saw Gelfand pull off the ‘ollie’ and helped him become one of the top athletes in the sport.
As a shop owner, that desire to learn hasn’t left. Gelfand is adamant about the need to surround yourself with smarter people. He says nowadays “You better be super intelligent or special to run an automotive shop without having proper support.”
Gelfand has a mentor, Tom Ham, who has been in the auto industry over 50 years and has helped Gelfand’s shop achieve its most profitable times. He also has a coach, Bill Haas, who has 40 years of experience in the business and operates his own consulting firm. And the expert guidance isn’t just for Gelfand.
“I think it’s really important for everyone to have coaches. You can’t have too many of them.”
For his service providers, Gelfand brings in Jeremy O’Neal, a renowned trainer in the Los Angeles area, who helps train his employees all the technical skills they need. He also employs an efficiency expert, who works with the providers to make sure everything runs smoothly. Gelfand likens it to Formula One and NASCAR, which have analysts watching the moves of every person on the pit crew, finding ways to make them faster. Gelfand hopes he can bring that, on a much smaller scale, to his shop.
Gelfand’s start in the auto repair business wasn’t planned. After he ended his career as a skater, he needed a new path. He grew up fixing things, cars were his favorite to fix. And he wanted to keep the adrenaline he had from skateboarding. So he turned to racing.
Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, Gelfand was working full-time fixing, building and successfully racing Volkswagens in professional competition. But when the main source of financial backing pulled out, Gelfand suddenly had a team of full-time employees working in a shop designed for racing cars without a direction. So the team began buying and selling Volkswagens. That went on for several years before he adapted it to a repair shop and VW Depot was born.
“It was an accident,” he says about the starting of the shop. “But I’ve always been about solving problems. That was a solution to a problem.”
In 2007, he was forced to adapt again when Volkswagen and Audi sued the shop for its name, VW Depot. So Gelfand changed it to what is now, German Car Depot, and was forced to pay a substantial fine, roughly $100,000 for the infringement. To recuperate the cash, Gelfand wrangled up spare tools, parts and anything he could find in the 15-year-old shop and went to Ebay. For a few months, they were making $60,000 per month selling equipment online.
“That’s how I paid off all the fines,” he says. “Always find a way to get it done.”
A year earlier, following an incident with a Shell Motiva refinery that mistakenly put too much sulfur in the gasoline and caused mass fuel system failure in the area, Gelfand quickly reacted and dubbed his shop “the official Shell Motiva repair facility”. He subcontracted out the work for non-Volkswagen vehicles and made thousands of dollars a day fixing fuel systems. The money he made from that went into the building of his newest shop.
Gelfand remembers his skateboarding days fondly. He’d be the first to arrive at Skateboard USA, a park in his hometown of Hollywood, Fla., in the morning and would only leave when his mother forced him to come home for dinner. It was there he would perfect the “ollie” and develop a work ethic that has stuck with him to this day.
Knee injuries and burnout pushed Gelfand away from skating in 1980 and towards his racing days, but his “all-in” habits stayed with him. Gelfand estimates he competed in between 10-15 24-hour races during his time as a professional, finishing first or second in all of them. He remembers not sleeping for several days before every race to ensure the car would be ready. Gelfand and his crew built the cars from the ground up and often faced cars with much bigger engines and firepower. To compensate, Gelfand and a close friend from his skating days, who happened to have a Phd in mathematics, calculated the most efficient way to run the car to maximize its power. They brought their car parts to a facility that tested aircrafts to make sure they’d hold up during the course of the race and they constantly tried new strategies to help them keep up.
“We methodically went through everything,” Gelfand says. “And somehow we pulled it off.”
As a shop owner, Gelfand’s self-described “OCD” tendencies are still present. Gelfand is obsessed with understanding how customers find his shop and how he can increase the shop's digital footprint. He’s constantly parsing through his google analytics and advertisements, searching different terms to make sure his SEO is performing exactly to plan. He’ll often get up in the middle of the night to research the shop’s online presence and track its performance, much to the chagrin of Gelfand’s girlfriend.
“She didn’t like it too much,” Gelfand says with a chuckle, reminiscing a night when he was on the computer from 3 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Inside the shop, the goal for his team is to make sure every customer's problem is not only fixed but will never happen again. It’s what Gelfand likes to call “forensic auto repair.” There are no quick fixes for his team as they often spend more time diagnosing the underlying issues of malfunction than actually fixing it.
And much like the ollie, which marries athleticism, balance and grace, Gelfand and his shop’s persona are perfectly synchronized.
Hardworking, under-the-radar, but undeniably confident.