By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
Things have changed quite a bit in the last 80 years. When Willands Tech Auto first opened in Ferndale rent was $15 per month, car batteries were $3 and gas was 10 cents per gallon.
Olve Willand first opened the shop in 1937. It was the only dedicated auto repair shop in downtown Ferndale.
Ron Willand started working in his father’s shop when he was around 13 years old.
“My brother and I, we washed windows in the place and swept the floors, did the garbage, things like that,” Ron Willand said. “We did a little more as we grew older, working in the shop. Putting on a muffler or a tailpipe.”
After high school, Ron Willand attended Bible school for two years, but came back to work full time in his father’s shop in 1963. Eventually, he would purchase the shop from his father, and enlist his own kids to work there.
“At one point most of all our family has been in the business,” Eileen Winton, Ron Willand’s daughter, said. She works in the front office. “Whether siblings or my mom, at one point all of us have worked here.”
Ron Willand explained the secret to the auto shop’s longevity.
“To make a business last this long, first and foremost is your honesty,” he said. “You do what you say you’re going to do and you do what you charge for.”
The other key is staying relevant, staying educated on the latest makes and models, and investing in the latest equipment, he said.
In the last 80 years, there have been big changes in the auto repair business. Things like oil and antifreeze are no longer universal — they have to carry many different kinds for different cars. Disposing of those spent fluids has gotten more expensive too, Willand said.
Overall, it’s become much more costly to run a shop.
In 1980, the first cars with built-in computers rolled off assembly lines, and dramatically changed auto repair.
“You had to change your way thinking. It was no longer spark, fuel or timing,” Ron Willand said. “It was what is the computer doing, why is it doing it.”
And it’s only gotten more complicated since then. Now there are cars that have multiple computers linked together, that control things like the seats, door locks and windows.
“All the little things that we took for granted that were mechanical before now have computerized control,” Ron Willand said.
That requires investing in diagnostic tools, and educating customers that what used to be a simple repair might not be so easy, Winton said.
“When they walk in the shop we used to be able to look at it and say this is what the problem is,” she said. “Now [they] have to pay to have it diagnosed to find out what’s going on.”
Keeping customers in the loop about what’s happening with their vehicle is important at the shop, Winton said.
“We have a lot of ladies that come into the shop and we care quite a bit about making them feel like they’re educated, like they know,” she said.
Maintaining a good reputation is key to making a business last so long, she said.
“We knew that this was not the cheapest shop in town,” she said. “But it’s the best shop in town.”