“We love the Grand Rapids community.” With those words, Keith Still offered a simple explanation about why he’s devoted 28 years to working and then owning Jack’s Auto Service Center.
Keith’s business at the corner of US Highway 2 and Minnesota Highway 38 is in a prime location, and he understands that perfectly.
“This building has been around since the 1960s,” said Keith, “and it became Jack’s Amoco when Jack Craiglow, my stepfather, bought the business in 1987 from Al Alama. The service station grew, and I started working there a year later (in 1988). I held nearly every job in the place: service station attendant, service advisor, tow truck operator, and eventually partner and owner.”
Jack and Keith became partners several years ago and eventually Keith purchased the business outright on a contract for deed. Jack retired 10-plus years ago, and Keith has continued to expand the range of services the business provides.
“We are a complete auto repair shop,” Keith explained. “We do oil changes and we replace engines and transmissions and everything in between. And we sell BP gasoline, for now, anyway.”
Keith has a “great” core group of technicians with an average tenure of 10 years. “Like any business, having the right employees is critical,” he said. “Finding and retaining the right staff is always a concern, and my team makes this business succeed.”
Keith acknowledges that satisfied customers are his biggest marketing advantage, and those referrals come through word-of-mouth and Google reviews.
“Having an online presence is huge,” said Keith. “Phone books are going away, so we’ve switched gears and made spending on digital media a major portion of our marketing plan.”
Many customers consider Jack’s Auto Service considered a gas station, but a couple of developments are forcing Keith to reconsider his business strategy. BP is forcing him to abide by the new credit card processing regulations which will require installing new dispensers to accommodate the new EMV chip cards.
In addition to that expense, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has proposed a continued evolution of gasoline standards that include more renewable fuels. The introduction of E15 (a fuel mixture that contains 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline) will require installing new fuel tanks and pump lines; none of his current equipment is compatible. He is not sure when this will happen.
“Both of these mandates—the new credit card processing equipment and the new gas tanks and lines—will require an investment that I’m not sure I’m willing to make considering the cost and limited amount of revenue we can generate from gas sales,” Keith offered. “There is a lot of talk about how much money is made selling gas, and there are a lot of conspiracy theories about that. I’ve heard them all.
“The gallons we sell have shrunk over the years,” said Keith. “We used to have a car wash and sell tobacco, but we gave those up when we started to focus on the auto repair side of the business. I can foresee a time in the near future when we won’t sell gasoline at all.”
Thanks to his participation in a peer group of other auto repair store owners, Keith’s business strategy gets plenty of feedback. He meets with his peers three times a year, and just last November he hosted a group of 18 auto service center entrepreneurs here in Grand Rapids.
“This group is facilitated by a professional, and we meet to discuss one another’s business plans and challenges. Frankly, I can’t imagine running this business without that type of support. These owners come from all over the country, including Kansas City, Detroit, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maine. We operate the smallest shop in this group yet we’ve generated the most revenue per square foot of operating space.”
Keith appreciates the support he’s received from Grand Rapids State Bank’s business lenders in the years he’s owned the business: Chris Lynch and now Jared Pink. From advice on the buyout of the contract for deed to setting up a line of credit, GRSB’s lenders have helped him when he’s needed it. He borrowed money to purchase a new wrecker and other equipment and now has an operating line of credit.
“As I look ahead, I envision having to change the appearance of our store to something that sells who we are and what we do,” said Keith. “We have a great location and great people. We’ve had two good years in a row and it looks like we’re on our way to a third. This is exciting, and I look forward to the changes ahead.
“As I make major changes to the business, it’s scary to realize that there are things I can’t measure and predict, but so far, so good,” Keith concluded.
Jack's Auto Service Center on the corner of US Highway 2 and MN Highway 38.