Family business

The morning sun shines directly into the room bouncing off the walls and floor ending in a splash of bright. The faint smell of oil and rubber and exhaust drifts through the side door that goes into the shop.  A woman sits patiently with legs crossed reading from the stack of magazines, jiggling her top leg. A man stands at the counter, hands resting on the counter, paying his bill. Meanwhile, keys come and go from a peg board on the side wall, mechanics pop in and out, and the phone rings on the counter with an echo from another phone in the shop.

Nichole Allen takes care of all this — the woman, the man, the computer, the mechanics, the bills, the ringing phone . . . and even me. All with a wide smile.

Terry’s Auto Service, in Clive, Iowa, is a family business that has survived for nearly half a century. Begun by Terry Allen at the end of the Vietnam war, he has employed family and friends from the very beginning.

“Even my mom and dad worked for me for a while,” Terry says. “They never charged me a dime. It’s always been family.”

Terry’s hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. His work shirt is buttoned tight against the chill. His hands are large and dense. His mustache moves up and down to catch the smiling corners of his mouth as he launches into a story.

“It was summer and I told my daughter Nichole she had two weeks to get a job. She didn’t think I was serious. After two weeks, Monday morning rolled around and I told her to get up, she was going to work with me. I brought her in and had her answer the telephone — 20 years ago today.”

The mustache moves.

“I’d never worked in the office, it was new to me.” Nichole picks up the thread. “I had to learn a lot about cars because people expect you to know what you’re talking about. Over the 20 years I’ve worked here, I know a lot about cars. I’ve just been forced to.”

And Nichole’s labor turned into one of “love,” to use her own word.

“The great thing is the mechanics communicate well with me. I can trust what they tell me. They are honest guys, that’s why we hire them. That’s why we keep going. We just try to be honest and fair and you know people come back to see you. It’s not hard to figure out. You’re just nice.”

She flashes another ear-to-ear grin to underscore her point.

“My customers are kind of like my family. I’m very lucky to have such clientele. We are on our third generation of customers, almost onto the fourth. We have children that have come in with their parents, and when they start driving they come in with their own car, and when they get married they come in with their wive’s cars, and then their kids get born, and they come in. We haven’t advertised for over 15 years.”

In 2006, Terry sold the automotive side of the business to his friend Eric Johnson. Terry runs the exhaust side. Nichole works the front desk for both.

“Family is everything to me. You know, I didn’t notice it as much until my mom passed. You don’t know day-to-day how much time you’re going to have with someone. I feel so fortunate to work here with one of my sisters and a brother-in-law married to another sister and my cousin.”

Nichole pauses.

“I was having lunch with my dad yesterday and said we are so lucky to be having lunch together every day for 20 years.”

Nichole smiles to herself.


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