In 1923, Stanley Ward moved from Cripple Creek, CO, to Pasadena, CA. “Pops,” who had owned a movie theater in the mining town, decided he wanted to be in the fledgling automotive business, so he opened his first garage with a handful of employees, a gas pump and two tow trucks, one of which was a Stutz-Bearcat with the back half cut off.
“It had a hand-operated hoist with the proverbial hook at the end of it,” says great-grandson Jim Ward. “Other than photos, the history is a little sketchy. There are only a few references to the business’s early days – a 1923 written contract with AAA and a listing for Fair Oaks Garage in the 1924 Pasadena telephone directory.”
But, while the Wards may not have been experts at keeping historical documentation, they were great at building a Southern California automotive legacy for excellence that has continued for nearly a century.
Jim says that by the time he joined the family business in 1978, Ward Service consisted of an auto repair shop and gas station at one location and a towing service, gas station and repair shop at another. “I started working in high school for our gas stations,” he says. “I’d work after school and on weekends and summers at the gas station pumping gas. Then, when I turned 16, I started driving tow trucks. In April 1984, I started working full time for my dad as a service advisor at the repair shop.”
“When we opened here, I would say it was like starting over again even though it was just a 10-mile move.”
Ward says that, unlike many of his friends, the Southern California street racing and hot-rodding culture didn’t call to him. “I did have a ‘67 Camaro SS/RS 396, but it wasn’t really a race car. Though I’ve had lots of cars, most of our racing was in boats and water ski racing. But the business part of the automotive industry is what I really enjoyed. I really took to service advising customer interaction – I enjoy that to this day. That’s to my demise. I can’t let go of it. I have people who run the business for me somewhat so that I can still be a service advisor and interact with the community. I enjoy that.”
Ward says that commitment to community was evident from the start. “We towed for the City of Pasadena since the beginning, in 1923. We did all the police towing and we handled all the highway patrol for decades – in the 1990s, when the city wanted to renegotiate the towing contract, we realized it would become an unprofitable relationship for both sides.
”My uncle was running the tow business with 10 tow trucks and, frankly, he was ready to retire,” Jim says.
“My dad and I were always in the repair part of it. We were located in Old Town Pasadena, which by 2001 was being developed into a really nice area. Someone came in and offered to buy our garage, as well as some other properties including our gas station and some storage facilities. Within about two years we were able to sell all those properties, which allowed my dad and his brothers to retire,” Ward explains.
“We do a lot of picking up and delivering vehicles for the fleets, as well as a lot of giving customers rides around.”
Ward and his wife Melanie spearheaded the move to Monrovia, CA, where they lived – the move was dictated by number of factors, not the least of which was a shortage of available space in Pasadena.
“We had owned a big piece of property down in Pasadena in an industrial area. When we sold our properties, we figured we could just build a new shop on our place there, which was a little more than an acre in size. However, it was close to the hospital and the city said it was going to develop it as a biotech area. We just weren’t able to put an automotive operation there.”
Ward says a real estate friend of his in Monrovia told him about a potential location in a neglected hardwood company warehouse. “We initially passed on the location because it was in such rough shape. But, the city of Monrovia worked with us very closely and helped us with the renovations. They made it very easy for us to transition to our new location.”
Ward says his shop has given him plenty of room to grow. “It’s a large, old steel building that looks like an airplane hangar,” he says. “It’s 14,000 square feet indoors and we have a large parking area outside, part of which is covered with an awning. We have nine hoists right now, and I just bought two more hoists that we’re putting in in the next couple weeks.
“We have five technicians, who are all well-versed in different things. Most of the guys can work on pretty much everything, but we can handle everything from simple domestic repairs to more complex European nameplates to light- and medium- diesel. We do about 15 vehicles a day.”
In addition to his versatile techs, Ward employs three service advisors (including himself), as well as two porters who pick up parts and pick up and deliver vehicles to customers. “We do a lot of picking up and delivering vehicles for the fleets, as well as a lot of giving customers rides around,” Ward says. “If we went to a management seminar, they’d probably say I do way too much, but we find it works out well for us.”
Ward Service offers both undercar and internal engine work, but chooses to work with a local engine rebuilder for machining and rebuilding of hot rod engines and more unique requirements.
“We offer a three-year, 36,000-mile guarantee on all our work, and they back me on that. And I really, really appreciate that.”
“We have a shop in town here that specializes in hot rods and in the older vehicles. He loves them, and we get along well. He sends me the newer stuff and I give him the older stuff. We help each other when we get jammed with one or the other,” Ward says.
“I don’t really have any competitors. We all try to get along, and I think we do. We help each other – there are plenty of cars out there.”
It’s partnerships like this that has helped him grow his business since moving to Monrovia. “I grew up in this area, and one of my best friends owned the local tow service, Foothill Towing. When we moved here, I told him we were moving right down the street! He was relieved when he found out we had left the towing business!”
Still, the transition from his family’s history in Pasadena wasn’t without its hurdles, Ward says.
“When we opened here, I would say it was like starting over again even though it was just a 10-mile move,” Ward recalls. “We realized that our customer base had been the businesses in downtown Pasadena. For most of them we were just too far away. So, we started over again.”
Assembling the right team to do the work was really the easy part, Jim acknowledges.
”We scrambled. We did whatever we could to get business in here. It was a process,” Ward explains. “It took a couple of years to build this back up and we still work every day trying to make sure we’re okay.”
A key to his shop’s success has been simultaneous specialization and diversification. “A big part of our business’s transition has been our fleet business,” Ward explains. “I remember going to a seminar years ago, and they said you only want fleet work to be so much of your business, because you rely on it too much. Our secret is to have lots of fleets, so that we’re not just catering to one.”
An active, well-known participant in his community Rotary Club, AYSO soccer club and on the board for the YMCA, Ward has been able to take on service of several local municipality fleets. “Our city closed their maintenance yard down, so we do all the maintenance trucks, police cars and fire trucks. Our neighboring city, Duarte, has done the same thing, so we service many of their vehicles. In addition, we have construction companies, an ambulance service and an alarm system company, with about 80 vehicles. We have one or two of those in here every day.”
Though he says business has responded since the post-move drop-off of the early 2000s, Ward acknowledges the need to keep driving his message forward never gets any less important.
“Being involved in the city is our biggest thing, honestly. We do send a lot of mailers out, and email reminders and stuff to people. That keeps us in touch with them. But, the draw for new customers tends to be through word of mouth, through our chamber, through the different organizations we’re involved in.”
Still, he struggles with keeping the bays full. “Marketing is probably my weakest skill. We’re not always busy. Especially with Covid going on, there’s times when we’re not as consistent and booked up as I’d like to be in order to keep these guys busy. They’re all good people who work for me with families to feed, and I want to make sure they stay busy, so they can succeed and do well.”
Despite the uncertainty 2020 has presented, Ward says his relationships helped get through some tough times. “Some of our fleet services had work that they had been putting off. I would call each one of them individually and got them to come in and do that work. Our local CarMax dealer shut down its repair and maintenance department due to the pandemic, so we hooked up with them and they ended up sending us six to eight cars a day for about a six-week period.”
In addition, as a Federated Car Care Center, Ward says he’s thankful for the support of his local Federated store, Hanson Distributing Company.
“Dan Hanson and his team have been great partners. They’re great people, super ethical. I like buying from them, because if I have a problem, I just call Dan, and he handles it. I appreciate their help and the things they’ve done,” Ward says.
“I like buying from Hanson’s and I don’t shop them – their service is second to none, both to us and to our customers,” he continues. “We offer a three-year, 36,000-mile guarantee on all our work, and they back me on that. And I really, really appreciate that.”
Ward says he’s witnessed record-breaking weeks as well as unpredictably slow periods over the past nine months, but acknowledges that his company has proven its resiliency time and time again.
“Our 100th anniversary is coming in 2023 – we’re getting ready to start planning a great celebration,” Ward says. “Since 1923, Ward Service has survived the economic ups and downs, changes in technology, the gasoline wars and multiple relocations. We look forward to many more good years of serving our surrounding communities.”