Northpoint Service Center Began With Toasters
A small business Q&A with Tom Willetts, Northpoint Service Center owner and Fox Point native.
For Tom Willetts, it all began with a toaster.
What started as an obsession with taking things apart when he was just 6, blossomed into a love so strong for helping others and fixing things that it took him away from what he thought was his path in life and brought him to a whole new area.
Willetts owns Northpoint Service Center in Fox Point, once known as a Mobil Station and Fox Point Service before that. In 1983, Willetts was just about to start graduate school when he found out that the then-Mobil Station was available. Willis put down the money to get the property and all the equipment in one shot in a bankruptcy auction.
Willetts had a degree in psychology and a minor in communications and said wanted to be a school counselor or a school psychologist.
"You got to know something about people to be able to help them," he said. "I get a kick out of, and smile quietly inside, when I ask someone to describe a noise to me and they try to make the noise. And there are somewhere I can diagnose it over the phone. I don’t take credit for it, they’re that good. It’s just they can make those noises as well as the car."
Patch chatted with Willetts about his business and his career.
Q. Did you always have an affinity for cars and fixing things?
A. Yes. When I was a little kid, probably when I was 6 or 7. My grandmother had noticed I liked to take stuff apart. That was back in the day when they still had Fix-It shops. You could take a toaster in and pay 50 or 75 cents to have it fixed and put it back on your counter and use it for another 15 years.
She went to a fix-it shop and got this huge box full of old appliances, anything you can think of. It was my Christmas gift. And I took every single one of those apart. I don’t think I was able to fix any one of them, but I really think that’s where I got the start. I owe a lot to my dad too, because he was a do-it-yourselfer. If his lawnmower didn’t work, he’d figure out what it was and I was right there next to him while he was doing it.
I started when I was about 15 at Appleby’s down the street, just scrubbing bay and stuff. Worked my way up there, had different jobs working for them. Put myself through college doing that and then we had a falling out and I came down here and they continued with what they were doing.
Q. How has the economy impacted your business?
A. Usually when the economy is a little lean, we do really well because people are keeping their older cars, fixing them up, they’re not buying new. Same with lawn and garden equipment. Our main business is auto repair, but the lawn and garden equipment is something is started because my customers wanted us to do it and we knew how.
I didn’t change any of the overhead which is one of the keys to offering as much as you can without changing overhead is good business.
Last year our sales were way off, but 50 percent. Way low. It was not a good year. This year has been, I won’t say outstanding, but it’s been one of the better years.
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Q. Have you always lived in the Fox Point area?
A. Yes, I grew up in the Fox Point area and in fact, my great-grandfather was mayor of Milwaukee, Thomas Brown. I’ve got a lot of customers that were grade school companions, and I also have three customers that are professors from the university whose classes I took.
Q. What is the best thing about your job?
A. I’ll answer this, and I’m being honest, but it’s going to sound corny. I’ve always been someone that wanted to help people. This is a business that really needs somebody in it that really cares and is honest. There are not very many of them. There are good shops out there, but they’re few and far between. The best thing about having this business is I’ve been able to help people and do things for people that if I were working for somebody else even in this field I wouldn’t be able to do.
Q. Why did you choose to open your business in Fox Point?
A. I had the clientele. When I was working for Appleby’s (another service station), I had people coming because I was working there. I had a very good following. I’ve had the privilege of watching families in 28 years, I’ve watched families, people come together, get married, have kids and now they’re kids are getting married and having kids. It just boggles my mind. I look at the parents, my original customers and I say, ‘Are we that old?’
Q. What are some other services that you offer that customers may not know about?
A. Our main business is cars. I do a little boat work, but I don’t like it. I liked it when I was younger and more agile. When I could climb down underneath stuff. I can’t do that anymore. In my head I can, just the rest of me says no.
Auto, little bit of boat and lawn and garden equipment. We’ve repaired people’s garage door openers, those toasters that I was talking about earlier.
Q. Do you have any advice for anyone else who may want to start a small business in the North Shore, or specifically Fox Point?
A. I did a lot of homework before I started this. I sat across the street and counted cars. I wanted to know how many cars came in here versus how many cars drove by. Recorded the direction they drove. I used to stop in after the station was closed and I’d read their pumps so I knew how much gas they were pumping. I had a pretty good idea of how much work they did because I could tell by the number of cars that came and went, how long they were in the shop, and so on. I developed what they call a pro forma; it’s almost like formulating a hypothesis. It says under these kinds of circumstances, this is what kind of income you can generate. This is the type of sales you can expect, etc. And in addition to that, I went to three other places that used to be or were still in the North Shore that would be willing to talk to me.
The first year, I was within five percent of what I had predicted. I thought that was pretty good considering this is not my forte. The thing I would say to anyone interested in starting a business is be prepared for a helluva lot of paperwork. A lot more than you can ever imagine. There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through to get a business started. Hire people that know more than you. If you have any areas you’re not strong in, or have any question about, hire someone to cover you.
I would never want to go to a shop that never made a mistake because the odds are, it’s coming.
Owner, Northpoint Service Center