Archived Story

Get ‘em in, get ‘em out

Published 7:19pm Monday, November 14, 2011

BUCHANAN — “The sign out there is pretty straight-forward. Pete Smith. He’s the man around here!”
Justin Normandin refers to the simple red and white sign over the industrial door at 501 N. Redbud Trail in Buchanan that announces Pete Smith’s Auto Clinic. It

Daily Star photo/KATHIE HEMPEL Pete Smith, with 15 years of experience is most comfortable under a vehicle. His partner says he is a bit of a diagnostic magician and that his talent with cars is unsurpassed.

answers the question for many area residents as to where Pete Smith, former manager of Midas in Niles, disappeared.
Smith and partner, Normandin, opened the garage in September with little fanfare. This hard-working duo met when Normandin worked for Hoffman’s Auto Parts in Niles several years ago and Smith was a mechanic with Midas here.
The two began to “hang out” and became friends. Normandin left to work at a car dealership in Indianapolis and Smith racked up 15 years experience, as he was promoted from Niles Midas to the Elkhart location, back to Niles, off to Benton Harbor and finally as manager of the Niles shop. The friendship endured.
Why their own business?
“After a while, we had enough money saved up ,and he (Smith) had the talent. I had the parts and business side of it understood,” Normandin said. “After seeing Pete do his magic on cars – it comes pretty easy to him – and how he takes care of people .… I’ve worked on cars myself and struggled .… after seeing him do it, it was really easy to put all my investment and time into it because I was pretty sure we’d be fine.”
For Smith, the decision to get into business was more personal.
“I came to sort of a five-year plan. I have three boys and want to leave them something,” he said.
Why Buchanan?
“Buchanan kinda chose us,” said Normandin, who first saw the ad on Craig’s List. “If you look around, the facility is clean. The landlord’s a really nice guy. He helps out with everything we need. Everyone around here knows Ralph McDonald, and everybody says the same thing.”
They found the location a decent size for their startup. Smith owned his tools and, after installing lifts and purchasing other equipment such as the dynamic computerized diagnostic machine, they were in business.
As blustery days approach, no one wants to be caught out in the snow and cold with a car that won’t go or with heat that doesn’t work. Now is the perfect time for making that appointment to winterize and check on tires.
No problem, says Normandin and Smith.
“Our motto is ‘get ‘em in: get ‘em out.’ We tell people who call to come in the next day and the earlier the better. If they have time when they come up here, we can often do it while they wait. If we can, we will drop them off or drop the car off (locally), and, if they have to leave it, we will often have it ready by lunch, Normandin said.
There is no charge for basic diagnostics and a free estimate is always given before work begins. Normandin stressed the customer will always know what needs to be done immediately and what is possibly a future problem, but not urgent, often allowing the customer the ability to budget for the upcoming expense.
The team sees the advantage of having a full service, local garage. Once they get to know a customer and his or her car, they can foresee problems and hear any changes in the way the car’s motor is running.
“When people bring their car in, they have no way of knowing if the problem is a big one or something minor. Pete is a master at figuring out exactly what needs to be done. Just ask Joe Scanlon,” said Normandin.
Scanlon, former Buchanan mayor and Midas supervisor, hired Smith in 1996 for Midas.
“When I first met Pete I was impressed with his easy-going personality and his work ethic. That hasn’t changed. He does great work and I would never hesitate to recommend to him,” said Scanlon.
Full service means exactly that. Whether it is an oil change or transmission work, Smith does it all. Need tires? They will pick them up and install them. Custom exhaust work is one of their specialties. When a customer wants something special or “something weird” they have the pipe bender and talent to get the job done.
With all the computerization in today’s vehicles, there is a need for constant training and retraining. Smith gives the Cadillac Escalade as a prime example.
“Absolutely every wire on the new Escalade is connected to some computer chip. Things change every couple of years. It’s crazy — you have to continually take courses and stay up on the changes or you’ll be left behind, especially given the new hybrid cars out there and even cars that park themselves,” he said.
It is unlikely that Normandin and Smith will be left behind. Both are empathic about delivering the best customer service and high quality workmanship. If a customer needs a body part they see if the pair will pick it up while at recycling facilities in either South Bend or Benton Harbor.
“Often if we are there anyway and see the part, we can take it off and bring it back for our customer. Just let us know and we will put it on our list,” Normandin said.
He says the shop’s labor rate is a bit cheaper than larger shops with bigger names. They have the ability to do that, as they are not a franchise shop.
What does the future hold? The pair would hope to perhaps be in a position to purchase the entire building they now occupy only a portion of, as McDonald may want to sell it in five or so years. They would also look to adding on a paint shop, as their next hire, “Shorty,” is an expert paint man.

Pete Smith’s Auto Clinic can be reached at (269) 695-3433 or

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