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The Benefits of Caring for Your Employees

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Once ubiquitous—from drug stores to corner markets—true mom-and-pop shops have become increasingly scarce in 21st century America. While such shops have grown fewer and farther between in recent years, one auto repair shop run by a married couple of 41 years has maintained a sense of old-school authenticity by going out of its way for customers and, most strikingly, displaying genuine empathy for employees. 

Husband Mike Wallace turns wrenches while wife Kathy manages the front of the house and keeps the books for Central Garage Company, located in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a town of 36,000 that’s just 20 minutes east of Columbus.

Opened in 1995, the shop is the couple’s second venture, having relocated from their first shop, which they launched in 1987. 

Workers at this five-person operation are offered comprehensive, unique benefits far beyond what many people got back in the days of Norman Rockwell Americana—health and life insurance, paid vacation, sick and funeral time, a simple pension plan, and homemade plans to help staffers quit smoking and build their own savings accounts. Softer benefits include Kathy’s encouraging-not-ordering management style, and her focus on talking with employees about future goals to make sure they view their time at Central Garage Company as a career, not just a temporary job. Such perks are also a way for this surprisingly modern business to attract and retain employees.

“If it’s a job, it’s just something they can do until something better comes along—it’s really not doing us much good and it’s not doing them a whole lot of good either,” Kathy says. 

“We talked for years before we started our business [about] how we were going to run things,” Mike says. “We grew up together, and agreed early on how we were going to raise our kids and how we were going to do things with the business when we started.”

Setting Priorities

Simply providing health coverage for the staff—even with two employees having coverage from their spouses—is a major financial undertaking that, this year alone, will cost Central Garage $24,000. 

SMALL-TOWN FRIENDLY: Central Garage uses employee-centric policies for a healthier, happier staff. From left to right: service writer Randy Mullins, technician Shawn Edwards, co-owner Kathy Wallace, co-owner Mike Wallace, and technician Brian Baucum. Photo by Nick Fancher

Back when the Wallaces first looked into getting health coverage in 1996, they felt it wasn’t appropriate to get coverage for themselves without looking out for their employees, too. Even though it was expensive, approximately $9,600 in that first year, both decided it was a priority worth budgeting for. 

“If we were going to do it for ourselves through the business, then we were going to do it for our employees as well, and it was a priority,” she says. “It’s something that they need to have. I think it’s important for the stability of the home, the stability of the employee makes a strong company.” 

Kathy adds that they “could do a lot with $24,000,” but that their responsibility for their staff makes it the best use of the money year in and year out. 

The company secures coverage through an insurance broker who is able to present policy options from many different insurance providers. That broker also provides valuable advice that helps them feel comfortable about their choices in a marketplace that is constantly changing and, in most years, becoming steadily more expensive. 

Additional benefits, like life insurance, pensions and paid time off, are not just intended as a recruiting incentive, but a reflection of the Wallaces’ care for their employees’ well being. 

“It is important to me personally, but also, I can see changes in people,” she says. “When you treat people with respect and you encourage people, I can see how they grow from that and how they respond back to me, and I can see that they are loyal to my business, whether it’s a customer or whether it’s an employee. If you treat them well, they respond to that.”

Creative Benefits

Beyond big-ticket benefits, the shop has implemented some creative programs to address two crucial, pervasive issues they’ve seen over the years in technicians—smoking and a lack of financial security. 

They created two programs to tackle both problems head on: “It Pays to Quit” and “$5 Will Get You $10.” With cornerstones of simplicity, both programs offer employees no-pressure ways to make meaningful changes in their lifestyles. 

“It Pays to Quit” offers employees a full week’s pay if they remain smoke-free for six months. Current shop manager/service writer Randy Mullins was the first employee to participate in the program, and has remained smoke free in the subsequent 10 years. 

“I smoked since I was 14 and … the whole time I was here at the beginning, [Kathy] kept telling me, ‘You need to quit, you need to quit,’” Mullins says of the program. “They do so much for their employees to make their lives better. They take care of their employees better than anybody I’ve ever worked for.”

Business benefits from reduced tobacco use include less work hours lost to smoke breaks, improved health insurance rates, less risk of a customers’ car smelling like cigarettes and, of course, financial and health benefits to the employee.

The savings plan is equally simple, and was an idea hatched after the couple met with their personal financial advisor. As the advisor reiterated the power of investing small amounts over a lifetime, rather than playing catch-up with larger amounts later in life, the couple chose to take action to help their employees plan ahead. 

Each participating employee opened a new savings account at a local bank, with recurring weekly $5–$10 deposits that were matched by the business. The goal was encouraging employees to set aside nominal dollar amounts every week to create a financial cushion that would steadily grow and assist them in the event of a genuine financial emergency. 

Matching up to a maximum of $10 per week, employees can save more than $1,000 a year—or more if they choose to contribute more themselves—which is a significant savings rate for some employees, particularly those in their early 20s who view age 65 as an almost impossibly far-off goal post. 

“We stipulate in the agreement that it’s going to be a constant $5 [or $10], you can’t tell me you can’t take it out this week, because I’ve got this or that. It’s going to be every week, so if they say don’t take it out this week, then my match stops,” she says. “This is not intended to be a Christmas fund. … It’s intended to be a teaching tool that says you can put away a little bit; you won’t miss it. It’ll grow and over years it could be really beneficial to you.”

Community Classes

When Mike decided to move beyond the world of dealership shops to start his own shop in 1987, Kathy left her accounting job to help her husband manage the business, so he could focus on repairing cars—his passion and livelihood since he was 16 years old. 

“It’s more of a sense of accomplishment than anything,” Mike says of his love of wrenching, specifically on antique autos. “Nobody around here will work on antique cars. Everybody’s afraid of them and I’m not—I love working on antique cars.”

Kathy says her presence helped the shop attract local women, especially widows and single mothers who liked talking to a woman behind the counter. 

Building upon that attraction, Central Garage looked for ways to reduce anxiety and improve the automotive vocabulary of young people and women in the community. The result led to the creation of its recurring Women’s Car Care Clinic and iWheels Car Care classes, which has become her favorite part of the job. 

LIVING OUT THE PLAN: Kathy and Mike Wallace knew before they were married more than four decades ago how they wanted to run their business. An emphasis on employee and customer satisfaction has been their hallmark. Photos by Nick Fancher

Rather than showing participants how to change their oil or swap out brake pads, the two-hour classes—held at the shop or remote locations upon request—teach groups of 12–18 the basics of selecting an honest mechanic, language that’s useful for describing car problems, the meaning of warning lights, and how to a budget for ongoing car maintenance. 

“The equivalent of [making yourself] a brown bag lunch over buying a lunch out will help you go a long way in being prepared for car maintenance,” she says. “And if you maintain it, then you have fewer surprises and fewer repairs … it’s all about thinking ahead and planning for things, and not being at the mercy of every little incident that comes up; every noise—you don’t have to panic.”

The courses also cover the basics of identifying under-the-hood components, the importance of high-quality replacement parts, while also explaining how technicians diagnose problems—namely, that there is no magic machine that says what’s wrong with a car. Visual cues, like a clogged hair dryer, show the need for regular air filter changes, and a worn-out pair of boots are used to illustrate the logic of rotating tires. 

Wallace says the point of the classes is community goodwill, although she acknowledges the courses are a form of long-term advertising that helps many participants build a long-term emotional attachment to the shop. 

“If they were to go to another shop, I think they would feel like they were two-timing us,” she adds with a laugh. “Anything you can do to promote loyalty in the employees and in the customers, you can’t buy that kind of advertising, you can’t buy that kind of benefit.”

Old-fashioned Service

Within the past year, a few changes have come to this old-fashioned service shop, including an exterior renovation. The dramatic new look had some members of the community stopping in to ask if the shop was changing hands. 

Another shift, promoting Mullins from technician to shop manager, allowed Mike to further focus his time on his true passion—wrenching on cars. Though it’s not the direction many owners strive to take, it’s work he still loves to do after more than 45 years.  

Mullins says Mike is very intuitive, good with his hands and loves the challenges of working on older vehicles, in particular.

“If you can’t find parts for something, [he’s good at] being able to repair the part that he has,” he adds. “He thrives on that kind of stuff.”

Moving Mullins up has also allowed Kathy to pare down duties that include bookkeeping, payroll, estimating, ordering parts and service writing. 

“It has made a tremendous impact on my life and my husband’s as well,” Kathy says. “Randy [Mullins] has been with us 12 years and … went from a young kid to a grown man. He tries his best to approach any problem thinking of us, what would they do if they were here?”

Both owners’ attachment to Mullins, who they call the son they never had on their Facebook announcement of his promotion, is emblematic of their approach to the automotive repair business.

“We tend to get attached to people,” she says. “We’re in the business of selling labor, but the labor comes in the form of a person.” 

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