Retail and Small Business & Startups

Auto repair is a family affair for one of state’s top businesses

Veenstra’s Garage has been a family-owned business since at least 1925.

April 25, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Veenstra
Mike Veenstra is the third-generation owner of Veenstra’s Garage, and his son, Jason, 29, also works for the family business. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Veenstra’s Garage will be among almost 60 companies from throughout the state honored May 6 at the 10th Annual Michigan Celebrates Small Business event at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Mike Veenstra, the third-generation owner of the repair shop at 1304 E. Fulton St. in Grand Rapids, will receive the Jeffrey Butland Family Owned Small Business Award. He said the garage was started by his grandfather and was first listed in city directories in 1925. John Veenstra had worked as a mechanic for Stutz Motor Co., which made high-end cars in Indianapolis from 1911 to 1935. John’s son, Gil Veenstra, took over the garage and was eventually followed by his son, Mike, 55, who began working full time after receiving an automotive degree from Ferris State University in 1979. Mike’s son Jason, 29, also works at the garage.

“This event really fosters the entrepreneurial spirit in Michigan and highlights the incredible economic impact these companies have made,” said Carol Lopucki, state director of the Michigan Small Business Development Center at Grand Valley State University.

“This year’s award winners have $110 million in total revenue for 2013, and employ 1,653 with an expectation of creating 436 new jobs in 2014.”

Veenstra’s Garage and other small businesses were selected for awards by the Small Business Administration based on their staying power, financial performance, innovation, response to adversity, contributions to their communities, and advocacy for the advancement of small business.

Recipients in the other categories are:

  • Small Business Person of the Year: Michael Olen Nevins of Full Spectrum Solutions Inc., Jackson.
  • Veteran Owned Small Business: Michael A. Bunting, ATIGROUP Inc., Flushing.
  • Young Entrepreneur of the Year: Tyler J. Decker, Pure Liberty Manufacturing, Ottawa Lake.
  • Counselor of the Year: David Broner, SCORE, West Bloomfield.
  • Main Street USA: Alison Barnett, Leaps and Bounds Therapy Services PLLC, Whitmore Lake.
  • Innovation: Adam Loukus, REL Inc., Calumet.
  • Government Contracting: Chris Hunt, Engineered Materials Technology Inc., Sterling Heights.

Michigan Celebrates Small Business also names The Michigan 50 Companies to Watch, which are growth-oriented second-stage businesses selected based on business expansion to global markets, job creation, technological innovation and philanthropy. The companies represent every region of the state and a wide variety of industries, and have from six to 99 employees and generate between $750,000 to $50 million in annual revenue or working capital from investors or grants in 2013. All of the companies are privately held and headquartered in Michigan.

Three Grand Rapids companies are among the 50 to Watch: Bulman Products Inc., Dominion Systems and Legal Copy Services.

Other West Michigan companies on the 50 to Watch list are:

  • Double O Supply & Craftsmen Inc., Byron Center
  • TG Manufacturing, Dorr
  • Next Level Manufacturing LLC, Jenison
  • Regal Financial Group, Kentwood
  • Dynamic Conveyor Corp., Muskegon
  • Great Lakes Potato Chip Co., Traverse City
  • Hospitalists of Northern Michigan, Traverse City
  • MyNorth Media, Traverse City
  • NeXt I.T., Muskegon
  • Smart Vision Lights, Muskegon

The entire list of 2014 Michigan 50 Companies to Watch can be found at michigancelebrates.biz/the-event/2014-award-winners.

Veenstra’s Garage employs about 11 people. One employee retired after 30 years on the job; another retired after 28 years.

Mike Veenstra said he believes in the business strategy that recommends hiring people who are better than yourself.

“We have a strong team” as a result, he said.

“We have a company that has stood the test of time. We made it through the Depression, and I don’t know how many recessions. We’re thriving today,” he said.

Like most small businesses, Veenstra’s Garage used to advertise in the phone book, but today it reaches a narrow demographic slice of the market, he said — too narrow. So recently Veenstra’s hired an Internet consulting firm and invested in an upgrade of its website and online marketing focusing on SEO — Search Engine Optimization — and best words to use for increasing click ranking on Internet searches.

Consumers now are “a little more discerning” because so much information is online, he said.

The Internet consultant was aware of the annual Michigan Celebrates Small Business event and urged Veenstra to submit entry information about his company because any award received would be good publicity and mean higher visibility among the competition.

Veenstra said the auto repair business in general can be difficult because there is so much competition. In his case, four other shops are within a mile of him.

He said those shops that compete on price alone are forced to rely on cheaper, lower-quality parts — and they tend to pay their employees less, too.

“To attract quality people and then to offer a product that we are happy to stand behind — that comes at a cost,” said Veenstra.

However, he recalls that, after he took over the business, customers who came to the shop often would mention that the service his father had provided to them was “expensive, but he was fair. They were comfortable (with that),” he said.

The Great Recession was hard on many under-employed or unemployed people who had to bring their cars in for repair, said Veenstra. It caused some to forgo maintenance and minor repairs, so that when the economy began to recover, there was an uptick in business as extreme as the downturn.

For years now, Veenstra’s Garage has been a neighborhood business where military vets learn they are welcome to share their experiences — if they are willing to talk about them — while waiting for work to be done on their vehicles. It started with World War II vets and then Vietnam War vets and now, those returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Veenstra said the stories sometimes left employees with a better understanding of what those veterans had gone through “for the freedom we enjoy today.” Once, a woman who was waiting in the shop listened to another regular customer, a Vietnam vet, talk about what he had experienced. He had been wounded and came home with a permanent disability. Later she sent a check to anonymously cover his repair bills.

Shop talk at Veenstra’s these days no doubt includes mention of the potholes on the streets and roads. Hitting one of the big ones “impacts the whole vehicle,” noted Veenstra. “We’ve had broken wheels and cars younger than normal with blown-out struts and shocks.”

In past years, Veenstra’s Garage has won other awards including the Better Business Bureau Integrity Award, and it has been listed in the Best of Grand Rapids readers survey in Grand Rapids Magazine.

Underwriters of Michigan Celebrates Small Business include PNC Bank, Michigan Economic Development Corp., DTE Energy Foundation, Comcast Business Class, Varnum Law, Accident Fund, Michigan Credit Union League, Consumers Energy, Constant Contact, Two Men and a Truck International, Hungerford Nichols, Huntington Bank, McLaren Health Care, Michigan Business Network, AARP and Dynamic Edge Inc.

Michigan Celebrates Small Business was launched in 2005 by the Michigan Small Business Development Center, U.S. Small Business Administration, Michigan Economic Development Corp., Edward Lowe Foundation, Small Business Association of Michigan and Chris Holman, Michigan Small Business Advocate. The mission is to highlight the contributions small businesses make to the state’s economy.

More than 1,000 are expected to attend this year’s event. For details and to purchase tickets, visit michigancelebrates.biz.

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