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In 1996, the shop moved to its current location at in Covington (top, photo courtesy of Smith's). That same year Smith's added a second building with 35 bays and 25 full and part time employees. (bottom, photo by Christine Charlson)
Donnie Warfield is a mechanic at Smith's. (Photo by C. Charlson)
COVINGTON, Ky. - What does it take for a family business to survive and thrive for 25 years or more? Our weekly feature shares the secrets to success of local businesses with staying power.
What started with car-junking, tire and used parts sales in 1924 is today a full-service auto repair business that's still all in the family.
Third generation co-owners Alan Smith and Michael Smith share responsibility for daily operations and work at the business. They live in Kenton County.
1. Who are your customers?
Our customers are just everyday people. Actually, a lot of our customer base comes out of Cincinnati. We also do work for dealers who don’t have a repair facility, so we have a lot of commercial accounts.
2. What’s the great thing about doing business in Covington?
Well, I think one of the advantages is we’re really close to the expressway, so we’re really convenient. For the Cincinnati people, it’s right across the bridge. If you have your car repaired here and you plan on waiting, there are all kinds of restaurants around here and on Main Street. But I think it’s mainly convenience.
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In 1924, Joseph Smith started junking cars, selling tires and used parts on Pike Street in Covington. Following the 1937 flood, Smith moved his business to 415 Main Street.
His son Lew quit school at age 16 to help his father run the business. After serving in the Korean War in 1952, Lew returned in 1954 to resume working with his father, working seven days a week, 10 hours a day.
“If you wanted to make a living, you went to work every day,” Lew Smith was quoted as saying.
In 1966, Lew moved the shop to its current location at W. 5th and Main Streets in Covington. The new shop featured eight bays and two employees, solely repairing mufflers and brakes. In the 1980s Lew’s two sons, Alan and Michael, began working at Smith’s full-time. In 1996, the shop added its second building growing to 35 bays and 25 full and part time employees. The business now acts as a full-service auto repair facility.
Meet the Bosses:
Third generation co-owners Alan Smith and Michael Smith (pictured below) share responsibility for daily operations and work at the business. They live in Kenton County.
3. What’s challenging about doing business in this region?
Challenges these days are keeping up with technology. It changes every year and you’ve really got to stay on top of it. And that’s a real challenge is keeping the guys on top of everything so they’re able to repair the cars.
When (the Obama administration) did the Cash for Clunkers , that really hurt a lot of auto repair shops, because most of our customers are probably second or third owners of a car. When they had the Cash for Clunkers, all the older cars were junked. I’m finally starting to see some of my customers who I haven’t seen for 15 or 20 years because they aren’t buying new car because money is so tight right now.
4. What has proven to be the key to your business’s longevity?
I’ve always thought giving customers really good service and a fair price –not too cheap, not too high, just be very fair with them. And I think more importantly, actually caring. There are so many places that don’t care anymore and you’re just a number. But when you come into our shop, a lot of times we all know them because we’ve been working with them for 20 or 30 years. We have a lot of repeat business. Knowing your customers is one thing I think really helps.
5. Fill in the blank: “I bet you didn’t know…” about Smith Muffler and Brakes…
What a lot people don’t realize is we were primarily a muffler and brake shop and an undercar specialist. Now we’re actually rebranding, it’s on the website, Smith Muffler Complete Auto Care .
We’re trying to get the message out, we do everything now, everything except bodywork and we have for many, many years. And a lot of people say, I didn’t know you did that, but we do. We do a lot of AC work and engine diagnostics work, engine rebuilds, transmission replacements – we do a little bit of everything.
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