A friend once told me that the hardest part of getting started was…getting started. He was convinced it had something to do with the Laws of Physics or the Inertia of Rest or something like that.
I’m not a physicist, but I am a student of human nature and, as far as I’m concerned, that couldn’t be more true. I know. I’ve been agonizing over the best way to get started here and I have to tell you that over the past few weeks I’ve come up with a dozen clever ways to introduce myself. But, realistically, they were clever bordering on contrived, and contrived just wouldn’t be my style.
Don’t misunderstand me, starting off on the right foot is important and I really believe everything they say about never having a second chance to make a first impression. But, I’m willing to bet our relationship will ultimately be judged more on how it develops over time and not by how cleverly I managed to craft an introduction. It will have lots more to do with how we communicate and whether or not that communication is relevant and meaningful for both of us, than it will on a couple of clever paragraphs crafted for what, by definition, will be a one-time-only first column. Consequently, I’ve decided the best way to get started… is to just get started!
For those of you who’ve had the opportunity to get to know me over the past 20-plus years I’ve been writing to this industry: Here I am. I’ve gone through all my drawers, taken the pictures off the walls, packed my tent and parked my van in Akron, OH. I’ve joined an incredible team of young professionals dedicated to this industry and committed to your future.
If you’ve allowed me to become a part of your life over the years, you know just how much that means to me. If this is the first time we’ve met and we’ve never had the opportunity to get to know one another, let me tell you a little bit about who I am, where I’ve been and what I hope to accomplish here.
DEEP INDUSTRY ROOTS
First of all, you should know that I am of this industry. I was born to it: a fourth-generation participant whose family made the transition from coach building and garaging to automotive service and repair. My grandfather and great-grandfather were involved in garaging and servicing the earliest cars and trucks, and my father and both of his brothers worked in the business as mechanics at one time or another. After my uncles moved on to pursue other interests, my father remained in the business eventually transitioning from mechanic to technician. I have pictures of me at the tender age of two standing in front of a “T” bar, tire breaker with a screwdriver in one hand and a tire iron in the other. I was pumping gas, washing windows, checking oil, fluids, belts and tires since before I can remember — early enough to require a milk crate to almost reach the center of the windows!
History repeated itself in our family when both of my brothers came to work with us at our service station in Santa Monica and at our independent shop in Simi Valley. Both are still involved in the industry to this day — one as a manufacturer’s rep for Hunter Engineering; the other as a technician for the City of Loveland, CO.
We eat, drink and sleep just about everything automotive. If you cut us, we’d probably bleed 30W. And, if our family had an “official” Crest of Arms it would certainly have something automotive on it somewhere, a grille or a connecting rod and piston, something! Working on cars and trucks isn’t something we just do, it’s an integral part of who we are — the one single thread of continuity woven through the fabric of our lives.
As an adult, I started working for my father strictly as the means to pay for college. That worked well until my father suffered a bout of tendonitis in his hands and could no longer work “in the back.” The two technicians we had at the time chose that moment to negotiate a better situation for themselves. Only my father didn’t see it as a negotiation, he saw it as blackmail. Being stubborn and from Brooklyn (realistically, the same thing!), and being cursed with a legendary temper, my father responded by telling both individuals to pack their iron and get out.
It would probably have made more sense to think about how the cars that were still in the shop, or the vehicles yet to come in for service, were going to get fixed, but that just wouldn’t have been my dad.
With all the arrogance of a kid in his 20s, I went to my father and suggested that if the two individuals he had just summarily run out of the place “could do it,” I could do it too! After all, how hard could it be? He could supplement my lack of experience, skill and ability with his own, and I could furnish a pair of hands free of pain and willing and able to do just about anything. With more wisdom than I deserved, my father allowed me to find out just how hard “it” could be. Without ever teaching a lesson in his life, he managed to teach me everything I know.
Every step, every operation, the use of each tool or the research required to approach a job was accompanied by an endless stream of seemingly unrelated questions — each indelibly etched in my brain. The questions proved to be the mortar that held each answer in place — each answer another brick in a foundation of knowledge that has served me faultlessly to this day. His methods were unique, unless of course you have an extensive background in Zen. He was the perfect “Master,” and I was his most willing pupil.
THE EARLY YEARS
I knew I would never leave this industry the day I finished my first “tune-up.” I had a psych class and we were studying alienation when a customer came in with an old Chevy that was running rough and stalling in gear. My father walked me through the process of gathering information, driving the vehicle to verify the symptoms and then doing whatever was necessary to find the root cause of the problem. With each tune-up related part that was removed from the vehicle came a litany of questions: What are you looking at? Why are you looking at it? How does it work? Why does it look the way it does? How did it get that way?
I remembered the abject terror I felt knowing that I wouldn’t survive the experience. I was positive I would be electrocuted, burned to a crisp or, worse yet, dismembered. But, more than that, I remember exactly what it felt like when I finished, slid behind the steering wheel, turned the key and had the vehicle spring to life and run flawlessly. I remember my father placing a glass of water on the air cleaner while it was running, then just smiling and walking away when there was barely a ripple.
Instant gratification: the absolute antithesis of alienation. Could there be anything better than that? I couldn’t think of anything; can you?
I learned to “listen” and “feel” and how to approach both the vehicle and the owner. I got to experience the richness of this industry and to do work that was as satisfying as it was challenging. And, I ran headfirst into the stereotype and stigma that has held us all captive from our earliest beginnings. I had my future father-in-law ask my soon-to-be wife if she really knew what she was doing marrying a grease-monkey.
I remember him asking me how I was going to support his daughter on the limited income I could expect from this profession. I had people tease me about my hands: the calluses, cuts and bruises, and the grease under my nails. And I had people ask me why anyone as bright as me would do something like this. And, I came to know first hand the frustration of inadequate compensation for a lifetime of learning: work as mentally demanding as it was physically challenging.
In 1984, I had my first opportunity to leave the shop carrying the message of what it was like to do what we do: a “State of the Industry” message to a group of industry leaders involved in building the equipment we use every day. By that point, I had been working as a professional technician for almost 20 years and those 20 years had taken their toll. I had become frustrated and angry, ready to pack my iron and leave on my own.
No one told me what to talk about or what I could say. No one told me there were things better left unsaid. No one expected very much, so no one paid very much attention to me. Consequently, I gave them what they asked for: a State of the Industry message, only I gave it to them with a different perspective, a backward look at the industry from the bottom of the microscope looking up. That speech was requested and repeated nine times that year and resulted in a writing career that has spanned more than two decades. I’ve been fortunate to share my experiences over the past 22 years with the service industry — my life, my family, my business, my triumphs and my failures.
After that first speech, I made a commitment to remain in this industry; to “fix” it if I could, or to at least make it better if I couldn’t. Everything I’ve done since has been acutely focused toward that end. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that in a number of different ways over the years, not the least of which is to let you know that you are not alone — not alone in the uniqueness of our shared experience; and not alone in the joy, satisfaction or frustration of what we are asked to do every day.
I’ve been fortunate in that by responding to what I’ve written, you have let me know that I’m not alone either.
I’ve found a new home here at Babcox, a new home where everyone shares the same values and the same vision for both the industry we serve and for a more successful future for us all.
If you’ve been with me for a while, I promise the only thing that will change with this move is my address, and, of course, my age. If you’re reading me for the first time, I promise to share everything I have to share openly and honestly, and after more than 20 years of doing this, I can promise you aren’t likely to be bored.
So, what do you say we get started: I’m the new guy. My name is Mitch Schneider and I just moved here.