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A history lesson

While this shop exudes history, the services it provides customers are very current.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 09:00
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You have to appreciate the retro vibe of the place: the period signage, the awnings, the squared off roof. Then there’s the name: Adolf Hoepfl Garage; definitely not slick, but memorable. Despite being a little hard on the tongue — as co-owner Kathryn van der Pol points out, “Texans like to be helpful; one of our slogans is Friendly, Expert Service since 1946; its ‘helpful’ without the ‘l’”—it denotes nearly seven decades of history in the Houston area.

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Construction started during the 1945 post-World War II boom. Building materials were manufactured on site using wood from trees felled on the property — no box stores back then. Then 5 years old, Hoepfl’s son Eugene remembers helping his dad make concrete blocks.  Hoepfl eventually sold the shop to his son in the 1990s, who, in turn, sold it to Kathryn and Sybren van der Pol in 2004.

“My husband always wanted his own auto repair shop,” Kathryn van der Pol reports. “We looked for a couple of years and we liked this neighborhood, and this particular business had an outstanding reputation in the community for honesty and integrity. When we met Eugene and Virginia Hoepfl, they were people who were like salt of the earth. You could look at them and trust them. That was why we wanted to buy this business, because we felt like we could make it work.”

And the van der Pols continue to carefully cultivate the shop’s legacy. “We are in a unique position because of our history,” Kathryn van der Pol has written. “People see our old timey shop and expect us to stay true to these traditional American values and principles of hard work, fairness, honesty and persistence.” Part of the front building actually serves as a sort of museum, displaying antique equipment the Hoepfls left behind, plus special exhibits honoring Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July and Sept. 11.

History permeates the place, but it has also taken its toll. The classic neon sign out front was rusty and inoperative; a hurricane had damaged the other signs and awnings. “The first floor was actually covered in pea gravel,” van der Pol recalls. “The second floor was covered in asbestos shingles, two different construction materials, and both were a neutral color; when you were going down Shepard, the building was not very visible.”

A restoration commenced, the building was painted a unifying color with eye-catching red trim. “It took us about two years to really to figure this out. I think it’s a lot easier to start a building brand new than it is to take one and fix it up,” van der Pol admits. “(However) when you have a building that’s already been lived in and loved as much as this one, you start to see what will work here and restore it step by step; you’re not on a big construction schedule where you have to think of everything ahead of time.”

But if the building was a bit run down, had the business faded as well? “The clientele had aged with the business,” she observes. “I think the average age of some of our customers was over 60 when we bought the business; we still have many customers that age, some over 70, 80. But this neighborhood was going through some transitions and there are younger people and families moving in; our challenge was to appeal to that part of the community.”

So they got proactive. They joined the Chamber of Commerce, met a lot of fellow business owners in the area. “We are also active cyclists so we started offering free oil changes in exchange for donations to the MS society,” van der Pol relates. They also sponsor a community cleanup day, a car show (a great period locale) as well as fish fries. And as teacher of Latin before moving into the automotive world, Kathryn van der Pol has the instinct to instruct, and focuses on, among other things, history.

“We reach out to the local elementary schools,” she explains. “We started programs that have this theme, of cars being symbols of our independence. So on Constitution Day and Presidents Day we will have an essay contest, or will go visit, make a presentation and hand out pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution. I would dress up as Dolly Madison — one year my husband even dressed up as James Madison. We do a really inspirational program about how our founding documents came to be. I think that relationship with the schools has helped us with the community.”

But education can work both directions; transitioning from teaching to service tech was quite a leap for van der Pol. “It’s been really hard,” she laughs. “I just did it step by step. Virginia Hoepfl worked with me for like three months when we first started, showed me how to do the accounts and the bookkeeping. Sybren taught me how to write service and how to get approvals from customers. Turned out I was actually pretty good at it. I didn’t really know much about hiring people, and I think that was a big struggle at the very beginning. But we now have employees who have been with us for five years. Considering we’ve only been in business for 9 years, we now have a very good team.”

Also, van der Pol recently took a small business program from Goldman-Sachs. “This helped me see that it isn’t enough just to run your business, you have to learn how to grow your business,” she relates. “That program gave me a lot of confidence to put us on a pathway to do that.”

That path might be defined by her adoption of kaizen (ky-zen), a concept she picked up while living in Japan.  Meaning continuous improvement, it was popularized by William Edward Deming, an American statistician and consultant who helped Japanese businesses rebuild their post-WWII economy.

“Sometimes those improvements feel like inches,” she laughs, though they did just completely rebuild their website so it can be viewed clearly on a smart phone. “I keep a blog on the website, and we have a Facebook page. We’ve also added hybrid repairs to our repertoire of services. Technologically we keep upgrading our tools and equipment, diagnostics, scan tools; we just got the latest OTC touchscreen.”

Keeping an eye on the past and the future; now that takes real talent.

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