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Auto shop owner prizes education for employees, community

Ken Wanless, owner of Downtown Auto Specialists in Spokane, has been selected as one of the five winners of a Working Forward Small Business Award from Synchrony Financial. (Courtesy of Synchrony Financial / Courtesy of Synchrony Financial)
Ken Wanless, owner of Downtown Auto Specialists in Spokane, has been selected as one of the five winners of a Working Forward Small Business Award from Synchrony Financial. (Courtesy of Synchrony Financial / Courtesy of Synchrony Financial)

At first Ken Wanless thought it was another annoying solicitation call and almost hung up. He’s glad he didn’t.

The call from Synchrony Financial was to inform Wanless, the owner of Downtown Auto Specialists, that his business had won a $20,000 Working Forward Small Business Award.

Downtown Auto Specialists was one of five small businesses across the nation to receive the award. On Dec. 7, representatives from Synchrony Financial presented the check to Wanless.

“I’d received an email from Synchrony that asked ‘What would you do if you got $10,000 for your business and $10,000 for your community?’ ” Wanless said. “I started dreaming about what I could do.”

He’s owned Downtown Auto Specialists for two years, and prior to that he owned Perfection Tire on Second Avenue.

“We’re a full-line auto repair shop. We do everything from oil changes to engine overhauls,” he said.

Construction of a new waiting room was already in progress and extra cash would speed up its completion. But what Wanless really wanted was for his employees to receive further training.

“Technology in our industry is moving so quickly,” he said. “If you don’t keep up with technology you’re going to get left behind.”

As for what he wanted to do for the community, well, he had dreams for that, too.

“Spokane has always been a military town,” said Wanless. “I wanted to create a skilled trade scholarship for family members of fallen heroes or for those getting out of the military that didn’t have a transferable skill. They would have to be local and plan to stay in the community.”

Those dreams appealed to the contest judges at Synchrony Financial.

The Synchrony judges were touched by Wanless and his wife’s commitment to the community, the company said in an email. “We were also impressed by their desire to improve customer service in the shop by making sure the employees have better technology and to remodel the waiting area to make it more comfortable. Their goals truly embody the spirit of our purpose statement here at Synchrony Financial to improve the success of every business we serve and the quality of each life we touch.”

Wanless is excited about offering further training to his employees (five, including him) and a revamped waiting area will make his customers happy, but it’s the scholarship money that makes his eyes shine.

“The world around us really undervalues the skilled trades,” he said. “A mechanic can make $60,000 a year in this town, yet an entry level IT person gets treated with more respect.”

At first he thought he’d sponsor just one scholarship, but now plans to start a foundation to be able to offer multiple scholarships. He’s passionate about helping kids work with their hands as well as their brains.

“This is about investing in our community,” said Wanless. “Spokane does a good job supporting small businesses. I owe our town.”

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