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Husband and wife team looks to position their repair shop for success

Thursday, July 5, 2018 - 07:00
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If you were to tool around the little town of Lake Mills, Wis., you’d probably notice the name "Topel" on at least two automotive businesses: Topel Truck Center and Topel’s Service Center, Inc., the latter also known as Topel’s Towing and Repair. They’re only connected tangentially but are about two miles apart, so there’s little chance of confusion, right?

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At a Glance:
Topel's Service Center, Inc.
Lake Mills, Wisc.
Dan & Tara Topel
No. of shops
Years in business
No. of technicians
Total no. of employees
Square footage of shop
No. of bays
No. of vehicles per week

“Actually there’s a lot of confusion,” laughs Tara Topel, who as Secretary-Treasurer of Topel’s Service Center has seen her share. “We just try to work together as best as possible; we refer them, they refer us, then we joke and say sometimes we get confused too.”

So let’s clear up some of this perplexity: while the Truck Center deals almost exclusively with towing and recovering heavy-duty vehicles like semis, Tara’s Topel's Service Center is light- to medium-duty towing and service. Both grew out of a service station founded by family patriarch Cliff Topel back in 1948. “He’s 94 years old,” she reports. “Up until just a couple weeks ago he was coming in every day, even on the weekends.”

It was Cliff who originally expanded into heavy-duty towing and recovery after noting that Lake Mills, despite being a rural town, was situated halfway between Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s biggest city, and Madison, the state capitol; the I-94 corridor would have lots of semis driving down it. But as Cliff approached retirement, he turned these duties over to his nephew Shawn, who eventually split this part of the business off in 2000 as his own Truck Center. Dan Topel, Cliff’s son and Tara’s husband, would take over the Service Center in 2003.

And now even the duties of this enterprise have been split. “I read a long time ago that if you chase two rabbits, they’ll both escape,” Tara relates, “so we try to have Dan focus more on the towing and me on the service center. I wear a lot of hats; I do the accounting, the HR, and the marketing. I have somebody who helps me with [the former two], but I oversee all of those operations, and I’m acting as the service advisor as well.”

Dan & Tara Topel

What Tara brought to the Topel table was a major in communications with an emphasis on public relations, a study she put into practice soon after she started dating Dan. Racing stock cars as a hobby, one night Dan won a race after his pit crew left. Tara happened to be in attendance and took pity on his solo effort to get the car cleared through tech. “I stepped in and helped,” she laughs. “After that I helped him find sponsors and create those relationships so he could race.”

Later they would marry and Tara would follow Dan into the industry, but found herself in unfamiliar territory. “(My dad) was a really big influence on my life, and if I wanted to spend time with him it was out in the garage,” she recalls. “I think that helps me now, but it’s been a sharp learning curve — just from where the industry was to where it is now; it’s exponential, with constant learning.”

But there was more than just education; Tara realized she needed to rethink her very relationship to the industry. “Up until (fairly recently) I saw my role in the business as just serving my husband,” Tara explains. “It’s not necessarily (a job) I chose, it was just what I felt was right for our family, so I didn’t always do it to the best of my abilities.

“But it came to a point where I realized that I had a choice, to go work somewhere else or stay with the business,” she continues. “And if I worked somewhere else I would give it my all — I would do everything I could possibly do to be the best at what I did — and I needed to do the same thing with this business. So I wanted to be more professional and to learn more about the industry and stay on top of things.”

Among other things, Tara joined the group Women in Auto Care. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” she states, “but being around successful women in the industry has really helped me feel like I wasn’t all by myself, like there were a lot of other people who were in similar situations. I am on the marketing committee for Women in Auto Care and that’s helped a lot too.

“That’s the part I enjoy the most, the marketing,” she explains. “I work really hard at staying No. 1 on Google; it’s their sandbox and if you want to play in it then you’re going to have to figure out what they want, whether it’s reviews from customers, certain words (in the copy), or lots of pictures. The more that you do those things, the more they’ll bump you up to the top.”

Like the press they got when Topel’s Service Center offered free rides to partygoers on New Year’s Eve. “It’s definitely community involvement and good will,” says Tara. “We take the stance of ‘hey, we don’t want to have to tow you home, we’d rather give you a ride,’ and keep everybody safe. Basically, people around here didn’t go out on New Year’s, so it helps create good camaraderie and support for local business people all the way around.”

Amazingly, the Service Center still occupies the same building Cliff Topel built back in ’48, but the facility has limitations. “It’s very tiny and we haven’t been able to do a whole lot of upgrades or improvements due to lack of plumbing and infrastructure,” reports Tara. “(However) the state government is coming through and redoing the main highway, so in 2019 we’re looking at building a new facility. We have two different properties right next to each other; we will temporarily relocate here in town and then build the new building. We’re positioning ourselves for the future — for the next 70 years.”

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