lowell’s history – part 1

As part of our 40th anniversary in October, we thought it would be nice to take a look back at part of our history. Lowell wrote the following retrospective in 2008 – mere months before I bought lowell’s from him. Lowell relates how we got started, how we ended up on Mechanic Street, and how we came to specialize in Toyotas.

Next month, I’ll the story of how I came to lowell’s. Enjoy! – Rob

Lowell’s Story

In 1979, I was a contented service manager at Muncie Buick in Winchester. I was paid well, had a new Buick to drive, a 40 hour work week, paid vacation, paid holidays and a good boss, Tommie Muncie. We lived in Madison county.

I have always been interested in business and while working at Muncie I started to buy old cars, fix them up and resell them. This had been going pretty well and was bringing in a little extra income. Our children were one- and five-years-old and we had just purchased our first home, incurring a sizeable mortgage payment.

One Sunday morning Betty, my wife, was reading the Lexington Herald-Leader when she noticed a garage for rent on Mechanic Street in Lexington. We had two or three cars we were working on and thought this would help solve the storage problem we were having. We jumped in the car and drove to Lexington to check it out.

The garage was 4000 square feet, about five times the size we needed to store cars. We walked around the building and peeked in the windows. Bluegrass Automotive, Towing, and Repair was the current renter. Our business name was created by adding “Lowell’s” to the top of the Bluegrass Automotive sign. Voila!  Lowell’s Bluegrass Automotive.

The next week I met with Louden Byrd, known as “Red” Byrd, the owner of Bluegrass Towing.  I bought most of the equipment he had in the shop.  Red assured me that with the repair customers he had and the towing business he owned, he would be able to supply me with all the “broken” cars I would need to make a fortune.

Now came the hard part.  I had to tell Tommie Muncie I was leaving to start my own business.  I can still remember standing in his office. He pointed out the rate of failure for new businesses and made me a couple of offers that were hard to refuse, but I had made up my mind. I was going to make the leap.

While at Muncie I had hired a 16-year-old, Danny King. Danny came with me as a mechanic to open Lowell’s. Note: Danny has stopped in over the years to say “Hello”.  He is now a grandfather.

Lowell’s was scheduled to open on (I believe) the first Monday in October in 1979. In a panic my mother called me from Cleveland telling me I couldn’t open that day as it was Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday. I wasn’t very observant at that time and didn’t know about it.  So before we had a chance to open… we closed. The following day we opened.

The string of cars promised by Red Byrd didn’t quite appear. Our current two-day sales are higher than our sales were for our first three months in business. We struggled in the early years.  Danny would work on cars, and I would also work on cars and run the business. It would be over a year before I started drawing a paycheck. In 1980, my pay was $3500 for the year, and was $7800 in 1981. This was half what I was being paid at Muncie, and with no benefits. Danny worked six days, and I worked six days and came in on Sundays to do the books.  I didn’t take a vacation until we had been in business for three years.

Gradually our sales increased, as well as the number of our employees. In the early 80’s I thought it would be a good idea to specialize. I decided on Toyota, Datsun, Nissan and Honda. At that time general repair garages, such as ours, were sending their “foreign” car customers to the dealers. I thought this was a good opportunity. We quickly dropped Datsuns and Hondas and would only take new customers if they owned a Toyota. It was hard to turn away sales, but in the end it paid off.

My family moved to Lexington in 1989, cutting our commuting time from 40 minutes one way to five minutes. We loved country living but Lexington has more to offer.

We are a true family business. Betty started helping part-time and her hours increased as our children grew up.  Amy, our daughter, has helped us in the past, assuming many different duties. Brian, our son, has been working here officially for 12 years. Before that he would spend a lot of his free time here helping and tinkering with junk cars and parts we had lying around. He is now our service advisor, technical advisor, and computer guy. He spends the bulk of his time dealing with customers and technicians. Undoubtedly he has the most challenging job in the shop. Brian also has a great knack for diagnosing cars when technicians run into a difficult problem.  My father (paid in coffee) helps with our letter and postcard mailings.

Over the 29 years we have employed four husband-and-wife teams, children of employees, and various brothers and sisters.  We have attended weddings, births and funerals. I have been the best man at weddings (twice for one tech who was married twice) and Betty was the Lamaze coach for an employee.

Our years of owning our own business have and continue to be a challenge, a challenge on which Betty and I thrive.

Thank you all for being a part of our first 29 years.

Sincerely,

Lowell and Betty

honest pricing

When you have your car serviced, you deserve absolute clarity on what will be done to your vehicle and what it will cost.

At lowell’s, we give you all-in, honest prices for our services. We know that getting your car fixed can be intimidating, so we do all we can to give you control over your vehicle’s service.

no games

“Shop Supplies.” “Recycling Fee.” “Document Retention Fee.” “Environmental Disposal Charge.” “Fuel Surcharge.”

A lot of places find ‘creative’ ways to make you pay more. They often include special fees and charges like those above. Other places hide costs in fine print. Some places underquote by leaving out commonly-used parts.

We don’t do any of that.

We never use fine print, and we quote a fair price for the entire job. If we end up not needing parts that we initially quoted, you won’t pay for them.

lowell’s charges for just three things: 1) the parts we use, 2) the work our employees do, and 3) the Kentucky sales tax we are required to collect and pass along to the state. That’s it.

no pressure

What we do with your car is your decision.

We’ll tell you what your Toyota or Lexus really needs.

We’ll identify what needs your attention now, and what can wait for later. And we’ll never try to scare you or trick you into making a service decision.

If you choose not to approve a service item, that’s fine with us. If you don’t have enough time for service right now, that’s fine, too.

It’s your car; we let you decide.

no surprises

We get your permission first.

We always ask you before doing additional work on your vehicle. That way, we can prevent any unpleasant surprises when you pick up your car.

 

No games. No pressure. No surprises. We think this is the right way – the only honorable way – to do business.

making it easier to get on with your life

We know that getting your car serviced isn’t always convenient – you’ve got plenty to do, and waiting for a repair or arranging a ride can be a hassle.

A lot of customers don’t know that lowell’s can help you get on with your life while your car is being serviced. Consider any of these options to make your life easier for your next appointment with us.

Shuttle Van

Let lowell’s give you a ride to work or back home in our Sienna courtesy shuttle. A lot of customers who live or work close to downtown like this option, but we provide rides all over town!

Loaner Vehicles

Or, drive yourself wherever you need to go with one of our loaner vehicles. lowell’s has a fleet of six loaner vehicles which are free to use while your car is being serviced. When you make your appointment, just let us know that you are interested in a loaner, and we’ll reserve one for you!

Loaner Bikes

Finally, if you are feeling particularly energetic, lowell’s offers loaner bicycles so that you can pedal where you need to go.

You are always welcome to wait in our lobby or our great neighborhood. But if you’ve got places to be, we hope that one of these options will make your next visit with us a little (or a lot) more convenient!

new public art at lowell’s

In early October, local art group PRHBTN sponsored six new street art murals around Lexington.

One of the biggest new murals is right next to Lowell’s! We can see this huge, beautiful art from our front door, and we chronicled artists Yu-baba and Key Detail as they painted.

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We think that this new mural is part of what makes Lexington and our North Lime neighborhood such a great and unique place to live and work. Come down to lowell’s to see it!

 

north lime

This month, we’re updating our logo, our colors, and our design.

You’ll see these new colors, logo, and design first on our emails, website, and buildings (which are freshly painted), and we’ll continue to roll out the new design throughout all of our materials in the coming weeks.

One new element of the design is the ‘north lime’ designation which goes along with our logo. We are proud to be part of Lexington’s resurgent North Limestone neighborhood, and we wanted to celebrate that in our logo.

North Lime is where we work every day. It’s where we get to see you. We’ve been here for 37 years, and this neighborhood is in our blood.

We’re still here at 111 Mechanic Street, in the heart of North Lime. And we can’t wait to see you here soon!

uncovering a bit of our history

As we peeled away some sixty to seventy years of paint, we started to make out faint outlines of block letters underneath all of those layers.

At first, all we could see was ‘ETE  HOME  F’. Then, below that, we could make out ‘LEXINGTON – DANVILLE’. At the top of the building, we could start to see ‘H & G’.

We were hooked. We wanted to know what was here before.

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We’ve often wondered about the origins of our buildings here on Mechanic Street. We’ve known that our main building was built in 1949, but we didn’t know what kind of building it was.

That changed as we prepared to paint our building this year.

As we scraped away more paint, we could find more clues, but the clues were never very clear. Eventually, it started to look like ‘H & G COMPLETE HOME FURNI’, and we were pretty sure we were dealing with some sort of furniture store. That seemed a little odd, given the structure of our building, but maybe our building was just a warehouse for the store.

Finally, with most of the paint removed, the top line looked a lot less like ‘H & G’ and much more like ‘BAUGH & GARNER’.

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Several internet searches (mainly, the great historical images at the University of Kentucky’s ExploreUK) confirmed that our building was part of Baugh & Garner Incorporated, a furniture store on the corner of North Limestone and Mechanic Streets. The four-story building for the store was built in 1922, and our building at 111 Mechanic Street was built a quarter-century later as a warehouse for the store.

We can’t find any contemporaneous pictures of our building when it was part of the store, but we do have some good pictures of the store itself from 1921, 1932, and 1933.

We’d love to know more about Baugh and Garner – when it started, who ran it, when it went out of business, when the old building was torn down, etc.  If you can share any additional details, please let us know!

 

 

 

How we make recommendations

We look over your vehicle every time you come into Lowell’s to identify service items which might need your attention. We put our recommendations (if any) at the bottom of your invoice, and we prioritize and color-code them for you.

Recommendations

What do these mean?

But what do those color codes mean, exactly? What’s the difference between “Needed” and “Needed Soon”? What is “Due by Mileage”?

We have five classifications we use here at Lowell’s based on your future costs and your safety. Here are the guidelines we use when we prioritize your recommendations, from low to high severity:

  1. DUE BY MILEAGE – For these service items, we can’t  tell whether the service is needed through a visual inspection alone, but your vehicle’s mileage indicates that the service is due.In other words, the service may have been done elsewhere, but we can’t tell. This is why DUE BY MILEAGE often comes up with newer Lowell’s customers. If you’ve recently had the service done, then it probably isn’t necessary. (And be sure to let us know so that we stop bugging you about it.)
  2. NEEDED – These items are likely to create long-term damage to your vehicle if left untreated. They are not safety risks, and we haven’t seen any damage occuring on your vehicle yet.If you choose not to address this item today, monitor that part of the vehicle and consider scheduling this service or repair with your next regular visit with Lowell’s (i.e., the next time you change your oil).
  3. NEEDED SOON – These items are likely to create moderate vehicle damage (less than $750) in the next six months if left untreated. They are not safety risks, but they could be currently damaging your vehicle.If you don’t address this item today, consider scheduling an appointment with us in the next one to two months.
  4. URGENT – These items represent a near-term safety risk or are likely to create significant near-term vehicle damage (over $750) if left untreated. In other words, something could easily go wrong in the near future.If you don’t address this item today, schedule an appointment with us in the next three weeks to repair your vehicle.
  5. CRITICAL – These items are immediate safety risks or are currently creating significant vehicle damage. Vehicles with a CRITICAL classification shouldn’t be driven.If you don’t address this item today, please consider towing the vehicle from the shop.

Based on our experiences with vehicles like yours, we assess how severe the service item could become. Most of our recommendations fall into the DUE BY MILEAGE or NEEDED categories. We only rarely use the URGENT or CRITICAL classifications on a vehicle.

You and your car are unique. You may be able to drive with a problem we’ve identified for quite some time, or you may experience problems sooner than we predicted.

We hope that these categories help give you a general idea of the importance of each item as you review your recommendations. And, as always, you should feel free to contact us whenever you have questions about your invoice or your vehicle.

What do we do with your old oil?

What happens to your old motor oil after you leave the shop?

Most people don’t know. Most people don’t really think about it.

Because oil can easily damage the environment if it seeps into soil or ground water, Lowell’s has recycled your used motor oil for many years.

Motor oil is made up of about 85% oil and about 15% additives. Contrary to perception, the oil component of motor oil doesn’t typically break down. As the oil is used to lubricate your engine, however, the additives do break down as they absorb contaminants. Once those additives and contaminants are removed, the remaining oil can be re-refined and reused as new.

 

When we drain the used oil from your vehicle, we use rolling steel containers with an attached drain pan which helps us catch the oil. We also capture other vehicle fluids — from your transmission, power steering, brakes, and cooling system, for example — in much the same way. When the rolling oil containers fill up, we pump the oil out into much larger standing tanks.

Every two weeks, a recycling service comes to our shop and pumps the used oil into their trucks. We also store used oil filters, which they pick up every few months. After picking up the oil and filters, our recycling service transports the oil to their facility in Columbus, Ohio.

There, they re-refine the waste oil to remove fuel, water, additives, and other contaminants, and they distill the refined oil into new petroleum-containing consumer products. They also crush the oil filters, extract the old oil, and send out the filter body as scrap metal to other recyclers.

Related Post: A greener oil change See how Lowell’s offers high-quality oil changes using recycled oil.

Eighty-six percent of our waste oil is recycled directly back into new motor oil, like Valvoline’s NextGen oil. About 5% is used for asphalt paving and roofing materials. The rest is used for other petroleum-based products.

In the video above, Valvoline explains how old motor oil can be recycled into ‘as-good-as-new’ (in our case, we think of it as ‘better-than-new’) NextGen oil.

Call the shop if you’d like to learn more about our recycling process, or about how you might use recycled products for your vehicle.

A better auto repair invoice

InvoiceHeaderEvery customer deserves to understand exactly what we’ve done while servicing their vehicle at Lowell’s. Over the past few months, we’ve introduced a new invoice design which helps do just that. We built it from scratch to make  it easier to see just what you are getting with every visit to Lowell’s.

After looking at a lot of invoices, we think ours is the best invoice in the repair industry.

But why care about your mechanic’s invoice? Because the invoice tells you a lot about your mechanic, and whether they want you to be informed about your car and their work. Here’s what our invoice does for you:

Easier Reading

New Invoice

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We’ve placed basic information about you and your vehicle along the left side of the invoice, while the main part of the invoice shows details about this visit to Lowell’s.

Making Our Work Clearer for You

We’ve organized the core of our invoice into three sections to help you see what we did (and what we did not do). A dark red bar visually marks the beginning of each section.

Your Service Request outlines the reasons you brought your car into Lowell’s.

What We Did contains the details surrounding the work we’ve done to your vehicle.

What We Recommend tells you about items we noticed during your service which might need your attention soon, along with estimates for addressing each issue.

Job by Job

Lots of repair places lump their work into a big jumble which makes it hard for customers to figure out what they’re paying for. Many dealers, for example, take the labor from several separate jobs and smush it all together into a single big labor charge. That makes it really, really hard to decode what they’re really, really charging you for.

At Lowell’s, we want you to see exactly what you are paying for. For each distinct job in our What We Did section, we show you our labor (in bold) and every part used (indented). These items are grouped together by job – a Lubrication Service, say, is clearly separated from other work, like a Brake System Flush. Our charges for each component of a job are also clearly shown.

The Best Warranty in the Business

We really stand behind our work here at Lowell’s. Most of our repair work carries an unmatched 3 year, 36,000 mile warranty – three to twelve times the warranty of most dealers and other shops for the same work.

Whenever we do work for you which carries a warranty, your invoice will clearly show that with a green “warranty box”, which describes the duration of the warranty for that particular work.

Because we also note the date and your vehicle’s mileage on each invoice, you can easily see whether a repair is still covered. (And if it is, we’ll fix it, of course.)

You Can Plan Ahead

When we notice things during your service which might need your attention, we try to prioritize those items for you in the What We Recommend section of the new invoice.

Related Post: How we make recommendations at Lowell’s.

We color-code each recommendation to help you understand its urgency: Red means that the item represents a potential safety issue, and should be addressed immediately; Orange means that the item could damage your vehicle soon if left untreated; Yellow denotes items which you should address to keep your vehicle operating smoothly; and Gray indicates items which might be due according to your vehicle’s mileage (usually these are items we can’t confirm the need for with a simple visual check and which might have been done elsewhere).

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Our new invoice clarifies our work, and helps you plan how to keep your car running long into the future. We think it reflects the unique ‘spirit’ of Lowell’s toward automotive repair: open, direct, clear, and easy to understand.

As always, we’d love to know how we can do better (with this invoice or any other aspect of our service). Let us know what you’d like to see in the comments below.

No Stupid Charges

Reason #54 from our Why Should I Choose Lowell’s? series.

Since the economy slowed a few years ago, it seems that a lot of businesses have found some ‘creative’ ways to inflate their prices with unexplained (and inexplicable) charges.

These silly fees have found their way into the auto repair industry, too. Some places tack on up to 15% more to your invoice with them.

Here’s a screwball example from a local dealer:

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This invoice describes a fairly standard brake job for $252.88.  But then the dealer goes on to add $18.89 in “miscellaneous” charges:

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In this case, the miscellaneous charges magically add another 7.5% to the bill!

Document Retention Fees. Shop Supplies Charges. Environmental Disposal Fees. Fuel Surcharges. What the heck are these things, anyway?

This dealer is basically making customers pay its bills.  Next thing you know, they’ll just forward their electrical bill to you.  Or tack on a “staff training charge” or a “we-just-bought-new-equipment fee”.  Just kidding.  Hopefully.

We think the whole idea is just silly.

We don’t like it when our suppliers apply stupid fees to us. And we bet you don’t like it either.

So we don’t do it at Lowell’s.

Instead, we figure out a fair price for our service, and quote that to you.  Then – and this is the key – we deliver our work for that price.

That’s it.  Pretty simple, huh?

At Lowell’s, the price we quote is the price you pay. No silly games. No hidden fees. No unpleasant surprises when you pick up your car.

We think that’s a smarter way to run a business. We hope you do, too.