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Coming of Age

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The memories are growing faint, but not all that much fonder.

Mike Brewster remembers feeling tired—even frustrated, at times—but a lot of it, he says, was a bit of a blur.

In the short span of time from November 1985 to the early spring of 1986, Brewster’s wife gave birth to twin girls, his family’s shop began a major expansion, and his father, Gil, who started the business back in 1966, passed away from cancer.

Brewster was a 25-year-old technician at the time. He had no management experience and now was in charge of his family’s business, its expansion and its future.

“It was kind of day-to-day for me,” he says. “I was a new dad, my father passed away, I was in this new position—all of this just kind of happened at once.

“Looking back at it, it was probably a really good thing, because I couldn’t focus or dwell on any one thing for too long, because I had so much going on with the business, and emotionally losing my father and emotionally being a new dad.”

As Brewster puts it, he just kept his head down and worked through it, focusing on the one thing his father always preached: taking care of the customer above all else.
Brewster used that philosophy to keep the business firmly planted in the community while he tried to get his legs back under him. And some 26 years later, Gil’s Garage in Burnt Hills, N.Y., has grown from a four-bay, seven-person shop, into a nearly $6-million-a-year operation out of two facilities.

“It’s about building relationships with customers,” he says. “That’s what my dad did, and we try to carry on that tradition the best we can.”

The Milkman

Brewster’s father was indeed the milkman. He also owned a gas station and service center in quiet Burnt Hills, a bedroom community 25 miles north of Albany, N.Y.

“My dad knew everybody,” Brewster says. “He knew where they lived, how many kids they had, what they drove. So, if Mrs. Jones stopped by and the water pump was leaking on her car, he would give her his car so she could still go pick up the kids. That kind of set the culture around here.”

MEET THE NEW BOSS: When Mike Brewster, far left, took over the family shop after his father’s death, customers and employees didn’t trust him right away. But his character and laser focus on customer service earned their loyalty and grew the business. Photo by Liz Lajeunesse

Brewster started working at his dad’s station as soon as he was tall enough to reach—and wash—a car windshield.

Throughout the 1970s, he grew up in and around the facility, getting an early education in fixing cars and how to treat customers.

After high school, Brewster attended a Chrysler-run technical college in Michigan. It was 1979, and while Brewster was at school, his father moved the shop across the street into a brand-new, four-bay facility that would focus solely on auto repair and maintenance.

When Brewster graduated, he began working full-time as a technician. A few years later, he would take over.

Tricky Transition

Brewster knew that they didn’t mean it that way, but still, he heard it constantly: “Well, that’s not how your dad did it.”

He heard it from employees and customers alike, many of them much older than him and many of them not quite trusting the new kid in charge.

“It might be small or petty, but it bothered me because I was still struggling emotionally with the fact I lost my father,” Brewster says. “We were very close, and things that people didn’t mean to be hurtful were just a real challenge to me.”

His mother, who had always been the bookkeeper for his father, was still working in the shop and, Brewster says, helped tremendously. She stayed on doing the books and helped pass on any advice she could.

Still, the key, he says, was figuring out how to win over his employees—the people who just weeks before were senior to him—and customers who’d been coming to his father for more than a decade.

“It was definitely hard for him,” remembers Brewster’s sister, LindaMae Newman. “It felt, sometimes, like everyone wanted to cut him down: ‘You can’t make it,’ or ‘You have big shoes to fill.’ He took it in stride, though, and handled it with poise. “He’s just a good person. Eventually, it was just his day-to-day character that won everyone over.”

Brewster found the easiest solution to gaining respect was to give it. Brewster tried hard to explain all decisions with his staff and to get their inputs on issues. And he worked long hours, trying to set the example.

“I never wanted to sound like, ‘Oh, I’m the boss now, and this is how we do it,’” he says. “A lot of these people had been working for my dad a long time, and it was a big help to get their insight on things.”

He lost two long-time employees in the transition, but overall, he says it eventually settled down—that is, if you consider adding on a six-bay expansion and hiring additional staff settling down. 

“When my father got sick, he really encouraged me to go ahead with the expansion,” Brewster says. “We had been planning it for a while, and we added on in 1986. We just needed the room. We were pretty much overloaded in the original four bays.”

Customers Come First

When Brewster first took over, he says, he didn’t worry about revenue, margins, profit or any of those numbers.

“All I thought about was taking care of the customer,” he says. “It was just really trying to take care of the customers the way I thought my father would’ve if he were here.”

This meant giving rides, lending cars, dropping off vehicles at a customer’s house, occasionally helping out with financing and working long hours deep into the night to make sure repairs were finished when a customer needed the car.

NEW OPPORTUNITY: Gil’s Garage is nearly maxed out at its original location after years of growth. So they opened a second facility, pictured here, about 13 miles away. Photo by Liz Lajeunesse

Eventually, Gil’s Garage took on 24-hour service to help repair vehicles for Burnt Hills’ largely commuter workforce. After the recent passing of the shop’s night manager, those hours have been cut back to 1 a.m., but that hasn’t changed the mindset.

“We want to eliminate any roadblock or difficulty in a customer’s life that pertains to doing business with us,” Brewster says. “If that’s working late hours through the night to get a job done, driving them home, delivering their car—that’s what we do.

“I think we were a little ahead of our time in focusing on things like that back when we started, and I credit all of that to my father and us trying to carry on in his traditions. I feel like it’s my job to be the keeper of his legacy. I’ve really hammered that home.”

It’s one of the ways he gained trust from his customers early on, and it’s the main reason Brewster feels his shop has been able to grow substantially over the years.

“That’s always been our calling card: We’re honest,” says Newman, who’s worked in the shop since graduating from college 21 years ago. “And my brother’s always carried that on. He’s one of the finest individuals you’ll ever meet, and I think customers really realized that he had their best interests at heart.”

The company expanded again in 1999, when Brewster reworked the facility by moving the office to the front of the building (it was always awkwardly situated in the back) and increasing the size to 16 bays and 11,600 square feet.

At the time, Brewster was working with various industry organizations, and both he and Newman, who took over as vice president of the company in 1997, were active members in a 20 Group, and many people challenged the decision to expand.

“There’s always that argument that, if your shop is overloaded with work, you should just raise prices until you rest at that nice level of capacity,” Brewster says, “but that goes against the grain of our customer service culture. If we price our customers out, then we’re not helping them.”

Doubling Up

In 2011, nearly 20,000 vehicles went through the doors at Gil’s Garage at a clip of nearly 80 per day. That amounted to $5.6 million in repair and maintenance sales.

The shop, Brewster says, is nearly maxed out. (Through the first three months of 2012, Gil’s Garage averaged $176.55 per square foot in sales each month.) Yet, Brewster still feels they are missing out on a large group of customers east of his shop.

That’s why they opened a second location in August, a 10,000-square-foot facility 13 miles east of the original. The area, Brewster says, made up only 4 percent of the original shop’s customer base, and it had very little competition in terms of independent repairers. He saw an opportunity to establish  great client relationships.

And for Brewster, that’s what his entire business has been about since his dad started out in 1966.

“In hindsight, I probably should’ve paid more attention to numbers and profits and things like that when I started out,” he says. “It was tough, though, and I just tried to do what I knew and what I learned from my father.

“It was always about making life easier for our customer—any way we could do it—and it’s worked.”

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