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Four Generations of Family-Run Auto Repair

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Jim Ward is the fourth-generation owner of Ward Service in Monrovia, Calif., the shop his great-grandfather, Stanley Nelson Ward, founded more than 90 years ago. While he’s continued to push the shop forward, he’s also remained true to the company’s core values of community involvement, family, and a job done right the first time.

As best we can tell, Ward Service started in 1923. It’s hard to find records back then, but we have a contract we signed with AAA in 1923. The shop was started by my great-grandfather.

After that, my grandfather took over, then my dad and uncle, and now me and my brother. We’ve always been family-owned, but we have moved around to different locations in the city of Pasadena.

In 2000, we moved to our location here in Monrovia, which is 11 miles away from where we started. It was kind of like starting over. We’ve experienced continued success and that’s thanks to a lot of the core values we’ve always had as a business. It’s tough running a family-owned business, but we’re always moving forward and trying to constantly improve.

I started working here when I was in junior high school, doing odd jobs. I worked here throughout high school. After college, I started working full-time as a service writer in 1984. I worked my way up to being shop foreman, and then, in 2003, my dad decided it was time to retire, and I bought out him and my uncle.

We had been in Pasadena for 78 years on a really nice piece of property. It used to be a slummy area but, over time, it was built up into an old-town area and someone made us an offer we couldn’t say no to.

At the same time that we moved to Monrovia and I purchased the shop, we also restructured our business. We used to have quite a bit of other service: We had a towing service, a gas station, and other repair locations. Within a year, we sold all of it. First of all, they weren’t very profitable and we had a hard time keeping the quality up. Second, it just so happened that my uncle and dad wanted to retire, and they were primarily running the other services.

In this type of business, you need to stay on the cutting edge. We came at a crossroads where it was time to do something else or really go after it. We realized that our main profit center was the repair shop, so we decided to focus on that and get rid of the other services.

Like I said, when we moved to Monrovia, it was like starting over. We are lucky because many of our customers from Pasadena still come here. When we moved to Monrovia, our shuttle service became an even more important part of our business, to help shuttle customers who were still coming from Pasadena. As long as we’ve been in business, we’ve had a driver who both picks up parts and gives rides to customers. We have a red Scion with our logo on it that he’ll drive practically anywhere, sometimes even 20 miles away. It’s important for us to still be as convenient as we can be for our longtime customers.

NEED A LIFT?: Ward Service owner Jim Ward says his staff is like family—not just to him, but to customers as well. The shop’s driver, Larry Holloway, has been with the business for 35 years and is a “huge hit” with customers. Photo by Russel Gearhart

Our driver, Larry Holloway, has worked here for 35 years and he’s a huge hit with the customers. He’s from Louisiana and such a character. I always say he’s like a traveling advertisement for us. In fact, at our recent 90th anniversary party, we auctioned off a one-night ride with Larry, where we rented a Lincoln Continental and Larry would be the chauffeur for the night. It went for $600!

We also have a car wash that’s around the corner from us, so we have a deal with them to wash almost every car that comes through here.

Of course, we also had to attract new customers, and not just rely on our old ones. Basically, we had to make a name for ourselves here in this town, too. Getting our name out there was mainly about getting involved in the community. That’s something that has always been very important to us, and I find my best advertising is often from being involved. My dad, uncle and grandfather were very active in service clubs. My dad has been in the Pasadena Lions Club since the 1960s, and that’s given us a good core group of customers. Plus, people trust you because they see you every week at the meetings.

I’ve been active in our rotary club, I’m on the board of directors for the YMCA, and we’re also very active with the Boys and Girls Club and local high school. People get to know us and they know exactly who we are, as opposed to a picture on a postcard. We’re involved in a variety of different activities so we’re covering a lot of different bases.

Our 90th anniversary party last year reinforced our connection with the community. We decided a car show would be a good way to bring people together and we have a lot of customers who have really nice cars. We got a permit to block the whole street off and we had almost 100 cars here. A local brewery did the beer concession, and we had food and a band. The local news showed up to cover the event, and the mayor and a senator were also there. We had well over 500 people. We were thrilled to see so many people that our family has built connections with over the years. 

My grandfather, my uncle and my dad were very easy to work for because they’re very level-headed and calm, and that’s something I’ve tried to keep too. Some of my family still works here, like my wife and my sister, but we also have people here who we consider family, like Larry. We have goals set for each person and what they’re supposed to do each day and what type of production we want to see from them.

MAKING TIME: With a good staff in place, Ward says he’s able to concentrate on the aspects of the business he enjoys most, like interacting with his customers. Photo by Russel Gearhart

Every morning, I go up to each of my employees and talk to them. It’s not about work, it’s about how everything is going. Because if they have something going on, it affects their job and if there’s something I can help them with, that’s great. So every morning I try to make the rounds, pour them a cup of coffee, and touch base. I want them to feel comfortable in their jobs and confident in their judgment.

This is also important because I’m trying to get away from doing the service writing. I try to be more hands-off and focus on the parts that I like doing, like talking to the customers and giving them rides home. I remind myself that my employees know what to do and I just need to be there if they need help. My grandpa, my uncle, and my dad were all very easy to work for and they were great instructors. That’s something that I want to continue and pass on—that family feel. 

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