Growing up in Gardiner and Modena, Bill Franz was that kid who could take apart anything and put it back together. “Mechanically, I think I was born with it,” he says. What began with taking apart his brother’s BB guns at an early age progressed to Franz working on motorcycles by age ten. By the time he was 12 he was working on airplanes alongside his dad, a chemical engineer for Texaco who worked on small planes as a hobby at a small grass strip airport in the region.
Franz’s mechanical aptitude led to his becoming an auto mechanic. Today he is proprietor of his own auto repair facility, Franz Auto Service, Inc. The location at 117 North Chestnut Street off of Route 32, formerly known as “Bill’s Garage” — a different “Bill” — has been Franz’s for about two years now. The garage handles about seven or eight cars on an average day, he says, with the slower winter season now coming to an end. With two mechanics working for him, he spends much of his time these days managing the business end of things; ordering parts, doing estimates and talking with customers.
A reputation for being “straight-up” with the people who bring their cars in is “definitely what we pride ourselves on,” says Franz. “I don’t believe in jamming stuff down people’s throats that they don’t need. We hear stories all the time from people who were told at other garages that they needed something done that they just had done. When you come here for an oil change, for example, we’ll look the car over and say, ‘Okay, the brakes are getting thin, maybe another two oil changes we’ll look at it again.’ It’s not, ‘You can’t drive the car until you get brakes’ and scare you into buying something.”
That kind of approach to customer service has meant a lot of loyal clientele, says Rose Cardella, who manages the front desk. “Billy and I have a lot of interaction with the customers; we know them by name and we treat everybody like family. We even bring people home if we need to. And he makes sure that people are comfortable with the work that’s being done.”
“When I talk to people about their car, I don’t just go out and say, ‘Well, you need this part and it’s going to be this much money,'” Franz says. “I talk to them and say, ‘This is what this part does, and this is how it works. I try to break it down into something that they can understand, and give them a little bit of an idea what’s happening with their vehicle.”
Recently, New Paltz Times sat down with Bill Franz to find out a little more about a day’s work in an auto repair garage.
What is the hardest part about running your business?
Just keeping track of everything that’s going on at all times. Knowing whose car is in the shop, who’s working on it, where he is with it as far as completing it… you’ve got to keep the schedule flowing. So if one guy gets tied up on something and it’s taking a little bit longer, you need to give another job that you had planned for him to somebody else. It’s also knowing each guy’s strengths and weaknesses. They’re both capable of doing any of the work, but one might be stronger on certain kinds of vehicles or better with electronics. Overall, it’s a juggling act. There’s good days and there’s bad days.
What makes for a good day?
When everything goes smooth, when we get all the parts, when nothing unexpected breaks or happens.
And a bad day?
Just the opposite of that! As far as people, we rarely, rarely have any kind of issue with customers.
How did you get into this line of work?
I started in this business pumping gas at Ireland Corners Garage in Gardiner in 1984, then moved up to changing tires and doing mechanical stuff. After that I started doing a little bit of management there. When I started with Bill [at Bill’s Garage] I was a mechanic, and then he moved me up front and hired another mechanic. So then I was doing what Rose does now, all the billing, setting up appointments, all the phone calls, taking care of customers.
What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry?
All the technology… the computer systems. When I first started, computers were just starting to come out. Now, a lot of the time with newer vehicles there are programming fixes; the car runs on a program and a change of part is not going to fix it. You do a programming update called a “re-flash,” something that you download from the manufacturer website and transfer from our computer to another box then into the car. Or if it’s something where the computer goes bad, you can’t just buy one off the shelf. A new one comes blank and you have to program the VIN number and the whole operating system that runs the vehicle.
How did you make the switch from “old-school” car mechanics to all the technology?
Just doing it. You kind of get the basics and then you learn as you go. It’s like anything; once you get the knowledge, it’s not hard to really understand how it works. General Motors used to have a place down in Tarrytown; they had the assembly plant, but they also had a school that was open to anyone, so you got some training from there, stuff like that. Cars are definitely a lot more complicated now, and it’s changed a lot, but the basics are kind of the same still. Certain sensors still basically work the same way; they still do the same thing, but they use them a different way, or they duplicate them for some purposes. A lot of new cars are what you call “fly-by-wire” where you step on the gas pedal there’s no mechanical linkage out to the engine. So then they have to use two sensors; one on the gas pedal, one on the engine.
Where do you see the future of auto repair going?
Just like with airplanes, where they have avionics shops that do just the radios and instrument repair, I think you’re going to see the same thing in the auto industry with navigation systems; I think that’s going to be a specialty field. Take a Toyota Prius, for example; the radios have a touchscreen display that controls the radio, the heating and air conditioning… there’s a bunch of stuff in it, and when they go bad, to get a rebuilt one it’s $5,000 dollars. So I think you’re going to start seeing specialty shops popping up for that kind of stuff.
Will you still be in this business ten years from now?
More than likely… unless someone comes along with a bag of money! No, I’m not looking to get out. We just made a pretty sizable investment in new equipment. We bought a wheel alignment machine and the lift that goes with it. It’s the top of the line, best you can get, certified by Mercedes Benz dealerships; we’ll have it for a long time. I plan to just continue to upgrade to the most modern equipment and keep doing stuff right and keep on top of things.