Two years ago, as the engine of commerce chugged along as if running on fumes, Sven Osusky ignored conventional wisdom and opened his own business: EuroPro Automotive in Spokane Valley.
As it turned out, his timing couldn’t have been better.
“We kind of worried about the economy,” Osusky recalled. “But sometimes a recession can work in favor of a business like ours, because people fix their older cars instead of buying new ones.”
Osusky’s biggest surprise has been AutoPro’s growth. “We sat down with our accountant before we opened and set projections, and we’ve surpassed every one of them.”
He attributes his shop’s success to customer service.
“People want to know what they’re paying for,” Osusky said. “We have to make money, but we try to treat customers the way we want to be treated – like friends and family.”
He described what drove him to auto mechanics during a recent interview, and offered advice for keeping vehicles running smoothly between service visits.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Osusky: In Slovakia.
S-R: How long have you been interested in mechanics?
Osusky: Since I was a little kid, fixing my bicycle.
S-R: When did you first learn engine repair?
Osusky: After I finished eighth grade, I went through three and a half years of schooling in mechanics. The first year was all in a classroom. The second was half classroom, half shop. The third was mostly shop, and the last half year was all shop.
S-R: What brought you to America?
Osusky: A couple of things. My dad lived here – my parents were divorced. And it was an opportunity to someday start my own business. Slovakia was under communism then, and it was really hard to own any kind of business.
S-R: How did you learn English?
Osusky: At Ballard High School in Seattle. I was 19 when I came to America, and went back to high school for English and history classes.
S-R: What was your first job in this country?
Osusky: I worked at Minute Lube.
S-R: Weren’t you a bit overqualified?
Osusk y: Yeah, but it was something I could do part time while going to high school.
S-R: How did your career evolve from there?
Osusky: I didn’t see myself going anywhere at Minute Lube, so I got a job at Phil Smart Mercedes-Benz in Seattle. When the luxury tax kicked in, I switched to Volkswagen-Audi because they were more common cars and weren’t hit with the luxury tax.
S-R: What is the hierarchy among mechanics?
Osusky: I started out as a trainee, eventually working up to journeyman. And through Volkswagen schooling, I became shop foreman.
S-R: When did you come to Spokane?
Osusky: In 1999. My wife, Heidi, and I wanted to buy a house with some acreage for the kids. And her mom lives here.
S-R: Did you and Heidi meet in Seattle?
Osusky: Yes, we met while I was going to night school at ITT (Technical Institute).
S-R: What did you study there?
Osusky: Electronic engineering. Today’s cars increasingly rely on electronics, so it’s a good background to have if you want to work on them.
S-R: Does Heidi work at EuroPro?
Osusky: She’s the office manager.
S-R: What did you do in Spokane before opening your own business?
Osusky: I worked at Appleway Volkswagen for 12 years, the last 11 of them as shop foreman.
S-R: What did that job involve?
Osusky: Fixing cars others couldn’t fix; helping mechanics just out of school; taking care of shop tools; dealing with unhappy customers – kind of anything and everything.
S-R: Did you have any other business experience before starting EuroPro two years ago?
S-R: Did you have a business plan?
Osusky: This move was probably 10 years in the making. We came really close to buying a business in Seattle early on, but it didn’t happen. Since then, it’s been an ongoing process of learning what we needed to do to open our own business.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Osusky: I really liked a service manager I worked with at Campbell Nelson (Volkswagen) in Seattle. He was a level-headed guy who really knew how to talk to customers and listen to their concerns.
S-R: How knowledgeable are your customers?
Osusky: We have a lady in her 60’s who comes in with the owner’s manual for her BMW convertible and says, “I want to learn.” And then there are people who just hand me the keys, a credit card and say, “Whatever it needs, fix it.”
S-R: What advice do you offer motorists about maintaining their cars?
Osusky: Watch the tire pressure, oil level and coolant level.
S-R: How has the trade evolved since you first started learning mechanics as a teenager?
Osusky: The biggest change started in the early ’90s with the introduction of computers and being able to scan cars instead of just replacing points, distributor caps and spark plugs. Systems are a lot more complex today, and backyard mechanics are slowly disappearing.
S-R: Are cars getting better?
Osusky: Definitely, in terms of emissions, fuel mileage and safety.
S-R: Is there anything you miss about the old cars?
S-R: Do you prefer to work on older cars or new cars?
Osusky: They both offer unique challenges, so you learn something new every day.
S-R: What cars do you typically work on?
Osusky: Everything from early Jettas and Golfs to late-model (VW) Phaetons and high-end 7 Series BMW’s.
S-R: Do you have a favorite car?
Osusky: Probably the (high-performance compact) Audi S4. We like to do autocross, and it’s fun to put the S4 through its paces.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Osusky: Every day it’s something different.
S-R: What personality is best suited for auto mechanics?
Osusky: People who are willing to learn.
S-R: Can good mechanics make a decent wage today?
Osusky: A journeyman mechanic can expect to earn between $20 and $25 an hour.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who’s considering a career in auto mechanics?
Osusky: Get behind a guy who does it and follow him for a day. See what he does. It’s not the easiest thing.
S-R: When you’re out and about and people discover you’re a mechanic, do they tend to describe problems their cars are having?
Osusky: All the time (laugh). And I try to give them the best advice I can without seeing the car.