Located about 170 miles northwest of Minneapolis and 175 miles southeast of Duluth, Henning, Minnesota, could certainly be termed “remote.” The “Gateway to the Lakes,” Henning is near the center of Otter Tail County, which has more lakes (1,048) than Henning has residents (854).
Henning is also the home of Auto Fix, an Auto Value Confidence Plus Certified Service Center, and Jeff Weller, the 2021 Auto Value Technician of the Year. For Jeff and Holly Weller, Henning and Otter Tail County are simply home.
“I have four brothers and my dad was an implement mechanic, so growing up, it was just natural to be wrenching on something,” says Weller. “After graduating from high school, I went to a local tech school, Alexandria Technical College, to study diesel mechanics.”
Weller says his career path included working for a local road construction company for a few years, then for a trucking company in St. Cloud, MN, when he came to the realization after a year that the heavy equipment wasn’t what he wanted to be working on. “So, I took a job at a Ford dealer in St. Cloud and then we got to a point in our lives where we wanted to move back home to Henning. I was able to get positions at a few dealerships in Central Minnesota as well, and I got some excellent training. I ended up becoming a Ford Master Technician.”
After moving back to Henning in 2005, Weller took jobs at several local facilities for about five years but decided that working for someone else wasn’t the right option. “Honestly, I almost got out of this profession. I started taking some classes for computer repair because I’ve always been decent at electronics,” Weller says. “I started my own business doing computer repair part-time but after about six months I recognized that it wasn’t taking off and my only other option was to start my own shop.”
Taking the skills he learned working for others and tossing out the business practices he saw were ineffective, the Wellers bought an empty welding shop in May 2011. “It wasn’t perfect for what we wanted to do, but it was a good building and we were able to make improvements to gain the success we’ve found in our small town.”
Weller says his reputation for quality repairs helped him get Auto Fix off the ground but it was the assistance from members of his community that really helped. “A lot of people already knew me, so it was not that hard trying to get my name out there, but I also worked with a really good guy at our local bank – without him, I don’t know that I could have gotten this going. He gave me all the help I needed to get started – he must have known it was going to work out.”
In fact, for such a rural area, the Wellers say things have worked out better than they could have imagined.
“We’re very rural – the closest dealerships are almost an hour away and my goal was and continues to be to let drivers know that I don’t want you to have to leave town and go to a dealership, I want to work on your cars here. To do that, I invest in everything I need so that they don’t have to leave the town. We work on pretty much any make and model.”
The problem isn’t getting the work, Weller says – it’s getting the parts.
While in a rural town, their Auto Value supplier is able to make the 36 mile delivery every day from the bigger town of Fergus Falls. “Our rep Barry Leitch meets with us once a week to ensure we have the necessary inventoryto get the jobs done,” Jeff says.
His wife Holly explains, “We see great benefit in our warranties. The warranties that we’re able to offer our customers, only exist because of the warrantly programs Auto Value and our other parts suppliers offer us. If we’re searching for something, they, hands-down, help us find what we need. And if we can’t find it, all we need to do is call our rep, Barry, and he is looking for it for us, finding anything from a special tool to an actual part, He’s a great resource for us and we talk to him multiple times throughout the week. Auto Value just stands behind their parts and what it’s taking for us, as a mechanic, to install them and to keep the customers running. We have a great relationship with them.”
Weller says this level of partnership is critical, because his shop can’t be hampered by delays. “We just can’t tear a vehicle apart to the point it’s disabled and then have to pull it out and pull it back in while we wait for a part. Still, I am one of the only people in the area who will even look at the more exotic cars.”
The Wellers say they’re currently building a second shop in the nearby town of Ottertail.
“It’s about 13 miles away and is a quickly growing community,” Jeff says. “They’re on a big lake and the population doubles (or more) in the warmer weather. We purchased land and broke ground for our new building. The planning is over – now it’s time to get things done. Luckily, my wife is taking care of most of the paperwork, the permits and the planning – without her, there’s no way this is happening. We have not been given a formal timeframe, and part of that is because we know how hard it is with materials. But we both anticipate being up and operational for the fourth quarter of 2022.”
Holly Weller says their partnership with Auto Value has already paid dividends in the planning for the new location.
“Barry has helped us plan for what needs to go in the shop as well as on the shelves. Jeff’s focus has always been, ‘Keep the customer in our community,’” she says. “That’s why we offer so many services that you don’t often see at a small shop. ”
The new facility will be a larger footprint than the Henning location, with five bays, three lifts (with the ability to add two more), a waiting room, office, break room and dedicated training room.
“We’re expecting to start there with one service advisor and two technicians,” says Jeff, “and one of our technicians here fully expects to be in the Ottertail shop.”
To fill the staffing needs of the new location, the Wellers will initially look inside, then, as needed, to the outside community. One of the key roles, Jeff says, is a service advisor to duplicate as much as possible Holly’s presence in Henning.
We need another Holly,” Jeff says, “so our plan is to hire somebody, train them here until the new shop opens, then they’ll stay here, while the two of us go over to get that shop rolling because her and I are both going to need to be there, at least initially. Our end goal is to have enough people where we can just work between the two shops.”
Holly agrees. “We really do work as a team to make everything go. He takes care of the back, takes care of the guys, troubleshooting, diagnosing, and managing the training. Continuing education is a priority for us, with guys that are working on their ASE and other certifications, and he helps coordinate those things. I’m more in the front and I take care of everything employee and customer service related.”
The Wellers say they’re doubly fortunate to be a busy shop and have a tea that works together. Finding new pieces to fit that puzzle may seem like a daunting challenge, but Holly says that’s not the case.
“Jeff and I have really never had to search out employees,” she says. “We’ve been fortunate in our community, for them to seek out Jeff. That’s part of the charm of being here – you really are part of a family. And I mean that literally, to some degree. One of our technicians is Jeff’s brother and another technician is our son-in-law.
“Our third tech came to us when he was 16 through a program with the county, stayed through high school, then came back after college. By the time he was ready to graduate, he knew he wanted to be in the community.”
To replace herself, Holly says she simply went shopping.
“Recently, one of our customers who works at a local retail store was having her oil changed. She has great customer service skills. I’ve seen her deescalate people at her counter who are upset at her or a situation. It was perfect timing because I didn’t have anybody else at the counter. I told her, ‘I’ve seen you. I’ve seen your customer skills. I’ve seen what you can do. Would you consider changing fields?’ And she said, in a heartbeat, ‘I’ll think about it.’”
Recognizing that her customer service skills complement Jeff’s technical expertise, both Wellers says there are more important things than automotive knowledge.
“It takes a certain personality. They don’t really need to know that much about cars,” says Jeff.
Of course, finding and retaining techs continues to be an important role. His reputation precedes Weller to some degree. He was named the Auto Value Technician of the Year in 2021 after moving through a series of regional competitions. “We finally got to the National Technician of the Year Program in San Antonio, TX, last year and 13 Technician of the Year finalists sat for a custom ASE exam. The exam was 100 questions and 90 minutes long,” Jeff recalls. “There was a time limit, but they said we weren’t expected to complete the test, just get the most answers correct. They said the people who had won in the past never finished so that took some of the pressure off.”
Weller says he decided not to second-guess his choices. “I was going with the first answer that came to my mind,” he says. His instincts were correct. He was the FIRST technician to finish the entire test that day and scored the highest.
The next night, Weller says he was presented as the Technician of the Year in an event at a local rodeo. He credits his love of electronics for helping him answer the diagnostic questions and for pushing his employees to continue to be as well-trained as possible.
“You must have patience, and you must use the tools that you have when they’re needed. You have to invest in test equipment and information. It’s tough to fix a car if you don’t know how it’s supposed to work,” he says.
The Wellers say training classes from their parts and equipment suppliers are a real benefit and both locations have dedicated training rooms that are designed to be conducive to training, not simply double-purpose storage, or break rooms. The concept allows the techs to focus, making them better equipped to serve the needs of the broad Otter Tail County community.
“Our customers are number one,” says Jeff. “But if they’re not happy in the front, you’re not going to be successful.”
Keeping that satisfaction means knowing that they don’t have to do it all.
“There’s a gas station downtown that does service work,” says Holly. “They’re really very good with tires and some repairs. But they don’t do anything electrical, very little diagnostics. They’re often telling their customers, ‘You know what? Jeff can take care of that in town.’ And we do the same thing.”
Sometimes, the customers are more concerned about the appearance, says Holly. “We have customers who come in all the time and tell us, ‘I’m sorry. My oil change was done by the other place the last time.’ I assure them it’s okay.’”
As their footprint expands, the Wellers say this commitment will only continue.
“Partly through word of mouth, partly through my marketing via Facebook, local radio ads, ads at the local restaurant and community involvement, we’re reaching our customers and keeping busy,” Holly says. “Partly through our use of Tekmetric and the DVIs and full text-to-pay capabilities as well as MyShopManager and the customer service marketing campaigns, we’re able to reach our customers in a variety of ways.”
It’s all about being home – and being a family in a small community. “You’ve got to ebb and flow and be open and take care of each other,” says Holly Weller.