Golden Wrench Award

Car Talk Talks with Debbie Conover, Co-Owner of Conover's Auto Repair in Sacramento, California

How long have you been in the business?

We've been in business for 17 years.

garage

You were nominated for the Order of the Golden Wrench by Jim Benton. Do you remember him?

Of course. He drives a Ford. In other words, he's a regular customer.

angel

Without naming names, who's the worst customer you've ever had?

We've seen it all. The worst customers we have are the ones who are convinced that everything that breaks is a result of the work you did on the car.

We had one particular customer who was very "challenged," car-wise. My husband couldn't stand her. I was the only one in the garage who would still talk to her. Once, she demanded to see my husband. He told her, "You're lucky my wife likes you. She wants to help you. If you can't deal with her, we don't need you here at all." We were trying to save her money, and this woman was yelling at us. It was incredible!

How about the best customer you've ever had?

We have so many great, trusting customers, it would hard to pick one. We feel like we're part of people's families--like Jim Benton, for example. We've actually gotten invited to weddings before. A lot of our customers will just throw the keys at us and tell us, "Fix it!"

I think we're most proud of the parts suppliers who bring their cars here. They deliver parts to garages all around the area. They have a lot of choices--and they bring their cars here. One guy at Toyota even insists that his mom bring her car here.

Debbie gets ready...

What was the dirtiest car that ever the came into your shop?

I remember it well. It is a full-size '83 Chevy Blazer, owned by a woman with two kids. The car is an absolute pigsty--food, paper, and garbage all over the floor. My mechanics won't work on it, and my husband will only work on it before he's eaten lunch. The car smells of rotten milk so badly it will make you gag. Even the woman's mom won't ride in it. And the car's been like that for years.

Yesterday we had a Honda Accord come into the shop. I reached under the seats and felt something mushy. My hand was covered with red goop. Whatever it was, I left it there. I still don't know what it was. I doubt the owner knows about it yet. She has a four-year-old kid.

Yuk!

What's the most expensive repair you've ever done?

Any engine change, without a doubt. That's about $3,500. Forget boat payments--that would pay for half of our boat!

The worst repairs, though, are the ones that escalate. The other day, a guy came in with an oil leak. We had recently replaced the timing belt. So we thought maybe we had made a mistake installing the front seal--in which case there's no charge for the repair, of course.

angel

We found out the head gasket was leaking oil--two quarts every 1,000 miles. The guy left with a $700 bill.

What car would you recommend if you wanted a lot of business?

Any Ford! On any given day, we'll have five Fords in here. Ford's 3.8-liter motor is great for our business: intakes, head gaskets, computer problems--you name it. We've paid off our mortgage with that motor!

What car do you drive?

We drive Toyotas. I have an Avalon; my husband has a Tundra. Of course, customers have paid for those as well!

boat

How big is your boat?

It's a 26-foot, luxury cruising Sea Ray. It's got 2,454 Evinrude engines. We use it for bottom fishing--red snapper, halibut, ling cod, and shark.

Do you remember the moment you decided to become a nice, sweet mechanic, instead of a sleazeball?

Actually, yes. The reason we started our business is that we were tired of working for sleazeballs.

My husband had been a shop foreman at several places in the Bay area. You get tired of the sleaze. At one place, he did a repair that, at the most, should have cost $100. But when he saw the repair order, it reflected more work than he had done. Geary told the manager, "I didn't do that work." The guy responded, "C'mon Geary, you had to do that stuff to get ahead."

angel

Geary was about to turn them in. Instead, we dropped everything and started our own business the next week. We've had enough business ever since. And we've never advertised.

Do you think mechanics' lousy reputation, in general, is well deserved?

To a point. Most repair shops operate on a salary plus commission, so the incentive for the mechanic is to upsell. Commission shops are the ones that create all of the problems.

Some of the young guys starting out will get canned if they don't turn out a certain number of repairs every day. They either learn how to repair cars quickly or they get corrupted. My advice to them is not to get wrapped up in that philosophy.

How many mechanics in your shop?

Three. I find that if I get more than three mechanics, I'm lost as far as quality control goes. Our name is out there, and I don't want customers coming back because we made a mistake.

So I'm down to three mechanics. I don't care how busy I get. If a customer has to wait a week, they'll wait. That took years to learn.

What do you do to ensure quality and honesty?

We pay hourly, and we don't pay commissions to our mechanics. The honesty comes out if a mechanic breaks something. If that happens, I try to be nonjudgmental. I won't dock their wages. That helps.

Do you use a flat rate book?

Yes.

angel

Even if you do the repair in less time?

We charge $65.00 an hour. But, I usually round it down or charge $60.00 an hour. I hate to overcharge a customer. Sometimes, I knock off an hour if we do it in less time. A lot of things we do for free. We charge $30 to diagnose, no matter how long it takes. My husband and I are the kind of people to give the boat away rather than make the money to buy a bigger one. We sleep well.

What's the funniest thing that's ever happened at your garage?

A guy came into the shop with an '84 Toyota pickup. He was complaining about a loss of power. We checked everything and couldn't find a thing wrong. We were standing there, talking to him, when one of the mechanics saw something plugging the air intake snorkle. We pulled out a size-36 pair of underwear.

Now, the guy who owned the truck was big. These weren't his undies. He took one look at them and said, "Oh, those are my dad's." Turns out, his dad was using an old pair of his underwear as a rag, to check fluids. It got sucked into the intake.

Geary

Do you have any advice for folks who have to get their cars repaired?

Yes. Pay for the tow and get a second opinion. I remember a customer who came to us from a Sears repair shop. Her car didn't run. They claimed to have run a diagnosis on the engine and told her she needed a new engine.

I called her and told her, "How I does $25 sound for a valve adjustment?" I called the other shop and got her money refunded. How do you do an engine diagnosis when the car doesn't run? That's what I was wondering.

Then again, that didn't pay for our boat.

How long do you plan to stay in the business? And . . . why?

Right now, we're paying off the building and getting ready to pass it along to our son, Jay. He's working here now. He's a good mechanic. He's graduated from taking apart vacuum cleaners and radios to cars.

Jay's just turned 23. In another three to five years he'll be able to take on the task of running the garage.

Golden Wrench Award

How will the Golden Wrench Award change your life?

In my heart, it's really nice to be acknowledged for all the things we do. It gives us a little lift after dealing with all those other "interesting" customers.

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