Inside Track: Getting there fast is half the fun for Zaagman
He avoided the family funeral business and instead struck out on his own in automotive repair.
The license plate on the back of Richard Zaagman’s red Audi station wagon reads “ZIGZAAG.”
“Just like the way he drives,” his wife, Joyce, said, looking at the back of the car.
Richard Zaagman has loved cars since he was a youngster pushing toy cars around and saying, “Vrooooom,” and that interest helped form his business, Community Automotive Repair, now in its 37th year.
“Squealing the tires — that was always it,” he said. “The sense of acceleration has always intrigued me. I have to work at not getting tickets.”
Zaagman’s career could have been all set up for him. His great-grandfather started Zaagman Memorial Chapel in 1890, and eventually it passed down to Richard’s father. The funeral home, at 2800 Burton St. SE, is currently in its fifth generation of family ownership.But Zaagman looked for a way out of entering the family business, for several reasons. For one thing, he didn’t like the aspect of four more years in school. To him, it was a mountain he didn’t feel like climbing. And at the age when he was determining his future career, he went through a socialist period, he said, and the “fancy black cars and funeral home hoopla” did not appeal to him.
“At the time those decisions were being made, I had no desire,” Zaagman said. “At that age, I was attracted to the communal lifestyle.”
A brief flirtation with a degree in automotive repair from Montcalm Community College was sidetracked, and he ended up joining a Christian living community. His skill to give back to the community was repairing cars, but after awhile, the cars began to pile up and something had to be done.
In 1976, he found a gas station with two repair bays for sale at 846 E. Fulton St., available for what he recalls as a small amount of money. About a decade later, the gas pumps were removed and the nature of the business began to evolve.
“It changed the whole feeling of our shop,” Zaagman said. “When you pump gas, you’re not taken too seriously as a repair shop. After those were gone, we really started to grow.”
Along with the removal of the gas pumps came a façade improvement and the addition of a fourth repair bay. A few years later, four more bays were added to the back of the shop. Fifteen years later, Zaagman expanded the office and parking areas.
Soon, pending city approval, Zaagman said Community Automotive Repair will expand once again, with a net gain of three repair bays and an expanded, two-story office area.
Although Zaagman is 60 years old, he said he plans to continue to work. His father worked until he was 84, and Zaagman uses that fact to remind himself to keep spending money to make money.
It’s not just expansions that have kept the repair shop moving forward. In the world of ever-changing cars that have become more complicated, Zaagman “strongly suggests” 40 training hours a year for his technicians — even going so far as to fly them across the country to get that training.
“We do whatever we can to stay up-to-date — investing in the shop, training or equipment,” he said.
Regardless of how advanced the technology of new cars has become, Zaagman said cars still need as much work as ever. Although they could run smoothly for five years on just oil changes, it’s not recommended.
“Nowadays, it’s very easy to forget about what cars need,” Zaagman said, “because they’re made so well, and some people don’t appreciate them.”
Computer systems, use of stainless steel and other modern upgrades make servicing them more complicated.
In the first couple decades of business, Zaagman said, the shop coped with weather-related service issues on a regular basis.
“Twenty years ago, after a hard, cold night, we’d come into work and there’d be several cars in the parking lot that were flooded (with gas) from the cold,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Along with making sure his technicians work to the best of their abilities with ongoing training, the shop also takes part in certified automotive technician forums on the Internet. If Zaagman’s crew is having problems with a car, chances are other technicians have, as well, and will have figured it out.
Zaagman also participates in conferences with various groups of auto repair professionals.
Staying on the cutting edge of auto repair is crucial at a time when automakers are doing their best to keep ahead of everyone else in the business to stay profitable. A shop either has to keep learning or be left behind.
“As things have become more difficult, you either keep up to date in everything, specialize, or go out of business,” he said.
Although the growth of Community Automotive Repair has increased steadily since it opened — currently servicing more than 75 customers a week — it did see a drop in business during one year: 2009.
“Usually a recession is OK because people aren’t buying cars but repairing them,” Joyce Zaagman said. “In 2009, at least in Michigan, it felt like a depression. People would come in (for an estimate) and turn around and go home because they couldn’t afford the repairs.”
But the shop survived the tough economic times. The market remains open for growth and Zaagman doesn’t have any plans to slow down. He said he thinks about retirement sometimes and wonders why he continues to spend so much money expanding his business. But then he remembers the days when the shop was staffed by members of the Christian living community. That changed as the business ramped up and he began to hire qualified mechanics — but his ethics did not change.
“When I started, it wasn’t just about growing my own wealth,” Zaagman said. “It was limiting my own income so I would have excess for those that don’t have the same things I do.”
He takes as much money as the business needs to stay profitable and that he needs to live a comfortable life.
“People … say, ‘The more money I have, the more I can do,’” Zaagman said. “At some point, you can say that’s enough. I try to live that way, but I’m not perfect.”
Although the shop has a more profit-minded business plan than when it first started and has more workers to keep happily employed, it still gives back. Community Auto offers free or discounted repair work to several local nonprofits. If a customer mentions the Inner City Christian Federation when getting an oil change, 100 percent of the price for the oil change goes to the organization, which often inspires the customer to donate money, as well.
“Although our business needs to have a net profit, we do feel as though some of our work can be given to people who need it,” Zaagman said.
Community Automotive Repair, like many other West Michigan businesses, believes that being invested in the community is crucial for its survival.
“As we continue to expand over the years, we know it’s a quality organization,” Zaagman said. “We know we are trying to make it a sustainable business as far as the community and environment goes.”