Tom Schoenmann’s business has come a long way since its 1986 beginnings when Tom’s Auto Center was just two bays in a rented building and was completely run by the owner. Now, 30 years later, the auto shop has seven full-time employees and 12 service bays.
“I started reflecting on this a month ago and thought, ‘Wow, where did the time go?’ … You’re having so much fun, and a few challenges, that the time does slip by fast,” Schoenmann said.
Schoenmann started his business after spending eight years working for Ken Olson at Ken’s Automotive on Farwell Street.
“Then, like anything, you think you can do it yourself,” he said.
Schoenmann told his wife, Lisa, that he felt he could run his own auto mechanics business.
“That’s how Tom’s Auto Center started; it was a dream,” he said.
The owner said opening his own shop was difficult, yet did not feel that way.
“You’re so young, and you feel invincible,” Schoenmann said. “When you start, you never know what you’re going to get.”
There were many hours spent in getting Tom’s Auto Center from a dream to reality. The shop initially opened in a two-bay facility that Schoenmann rented south of the village on Highway 51.
Schoenmann was the only employee for a several months before his wife, Lisa, came to work there. Prior to hiring any employees, if Schoenmann would road test a vehicle he worked on, he would need to shut down the shop.
“We’ve been working side by side ever since,” he said.
After a few years, Schoenmann expanded Tom’s Auto Center to four bays by renting the back half of McFarland Truck and Auto Body’s building.
Eventually, the business grew into a 12-bay facility on Paulson Road that was built in 2000.
Schoenmann never expected to become an auto technician. He grew up on a farm in the DeForest area and would do small engine repair on farm equipment. During a visit to his adviser in his senior year of high school, the adviser suggested Schoenmann study auto mechanics at Madison Area Technical College after he expressed an interest in automotives.
He thought after going to MATC he would look into another field.
“And I never did. I dabbled in woodworking … but working with my hands has always been in my blood,” he said.
The anniversary date of Tom’s Auto Center is easy to remember – April Fools Day.
“I thought, ‘Is the joke going to be on me?’” he said.
Schoenmann mentioned it’s a special day to him, because his mom always brought out the fun on April Fool’s Day.
In fact, the owner didn’t tell his parents he was opening Tom’s Auto Center until one week before April 1. He also didn’t mention he quit his job two weeks earlier and didn’t have any income.
“They said, ‘What?’ and I said ‘No, it’s not an April Fools’ joke,’” he said.
There was also a practical reason for opening April 1; Schoenmann said it’s best to start in the spring, because business begins to pick up during this time of year.
Schoenmann has seen the changes in automotive technology during the past three decades. He recalls when electronic ignitions were a bit intimidating and how now most car parts could be interchanged no matter what the make.
But one of things that has remained consistent is how the Tom’s Auto Center is focused on the people it serves.
“Customers are really the key,” he said, adding many of the customers have become friends. “That’s what’s really neat about a business. We have great friends that we met through our business.”
There are two things Schoenmann finds fun about his businesses – having the customers vehicle repaired correctly and having a satisfied client whose automobile will be safe on the road.
“We work and fix vehicles, but our whole business is a true people business,” he said. “The people we work with, our great friends and fantastic customers. It’s all about the people and that’s what we enjoy the most.”
We would like to thank The McFarland Thistle for reprint permission.