Nelson’s Automotive (5415 34th Ave.) shut down in March 2020 just like everyone else did as they waited to see what the impact of COVID-19 would be. They opened back up a few weeks later when they were deemed an essential service.
But business has been slower in the past year as people drive their vehicles less, according to owner Nick Nelson. Nelson’s staff fix a lot of commuter cars – and with the work from home orders, these vehicles aren’t getting as many miles on them. “It slowed us down,” said Nelson. “The industry is down 30% as a whole.”
He’s hopeful that things will change as people get vaccinated and the restrictions ease. The prediction is that more folks will opt to drive instead of fly this summer, which will translate into increased business for small auto repair shops, he pointed out.
Nelson was able to keep almost all of his employees at his three locations thanks to a PPP loan. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that,” he observed. “The fact that we’re still around and running – I am thankful every day.”
To keep staff and customers safe, “we basically changed everything,” said Nelson. Staff began wearing masks and gloves, and they implemented new disinfecting protocols. Due to the high cost of disposable masks, they switched to reusable gaiters with the Nelson’s logo.
It was hard to find spit shield screens, and even the glass and plexiglass material was tough to come by last spring. He hunted around for the materials and when he found it, Nelson made the screens himself. He plans to keep them in place even after the COVID-19 threat has diminished.
There was a period of time where he worried about getting parts and supplies, but even when it was slow, they still received what they needed from their suppliers.
Nelson suspects that many of his staff had COVID-19 two weeks before the shutdown. He was the first one to get sick shortly after a surgery in February, and it ran through the rest of his employees. “We were all deathly ill,” recalled Nelson.
Keeping his staff energized and excited is the number one thing Nelson says he does every day as a manager. But he knows how important employee morale is. Nelson worked as a mechanic for years before starting his own business in 2007, and recognizes how demoralizing a cold, dark shop can be. And so they shut down on major holidays and plan to take their annual work camping trip up north in June.
One issue Minneapolis residents are dealing with right now is catalytic converter thefts. “We help people deal with insurance companies,” said Nelson. The part is required by law, but with an average cost of $1,000 the replacement can be a financial hardship for people. “We try to work with people and make it cheaper and more affordable,” said Nelson. One way they do that is looking at aftermarket options. They also have financing available for more expensive repairs.
Nelson’s staff encourage customers to use their remote option for drop-offs and to pay via credit card. It’s an option they always had, but more people are using it now. “I want people to know they can call us. There are no stupid questions,” said Nelson. “We will talk you through the good-better-best options.”
For the Nelson’s Auto staff, it’s all about building relationships. “I want people to feel like they can build a long-term relationship with us and bring us their cars for years to come,” said Nelson.
Three areas to pay attention to
Longtime auto shop owner Dan Swenson has also made adjustments in the shop due to COVID-19. They’re wiping keys down and wearing masks, and have implemented other safety protocols.
Swenson and Guy Lender bought Alexander’s (2904 E. 35th St.) in 1996 from Kevin Alexander who had started the shop in 1985. “Many of our customers are driving less. A few are driving more as delivery drivers,” said Swenson.
He pointed out that there are three areas of concern for cars that sit for long periods of time.
First, is the paint. “Contaminants left on paint for long periods can damage paint, and could be harder to clean off,” remarked Swenson. He encourages people to keep their vehicles clean.
Second are the brakes. Rust can develop quickly on brake surfaces. “Regular driving naturally cleans this rust off,” observed Swenson. On cars that sit for long periods, the rust can become embedded and require service to get back into good working order. “A regular drive every week or two will help keep this from happening,” recommended Swenson. “Just be sure to drive long enough that the car gets up to operating temperature – about 15 minutes. Cars that are parked outside are more susceptible to this rust build-up.”
The third area of concern is the battery. All modern cars have some current draw on the battery even if the car isn’t in use, he said. “This draw will cause the battery to become low on charge and this cycling will shorten the life of a battery. If your car sits for long periods without use you may want to consider a battery maintainer. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to install on most vehicles.”
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