Family Business On Cruise Control

I’ve heard more than once, “watch guys are car guys…” If that’s true, then you watch geeks will enjoy reading this. And even though it’s about cars, it’s still very much on-brand with Watch Patina’s theme: sharing a person’s story about something dear to them. This time a family business.

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Jason and Mike didn’t grow up intending to carry on the business their dad started. In fact, the brothers went on to pursue professions outside of the car industry. But in 2010, when their dad passed away, they felt compelled to put their careers on hold and take the wheel of Albany Auto, Inc. At a time when their family was dealing with loss, Jason and Mike were thinking of Albany’s employees and how shutting down would impact their livelihood.

When Albany Auto raised its garage doors at 4030 North Rockwell Avenue for the first time, the year was 1978 and that section of Chicago’s North Center neighborhood was little more than an industrial corridor with unpaved roads. A lot has changed since then, including Albany’s business model. Jason and Mike’s dad, Ken, started out in the wholesale business – selling cars and trucks to dealerships after he fixed them up. When Jason and Mike took over, they were the driving force behind changing gears to a retail focus – taking in body and mechanic jobs off the street and selling collectible cars to the public.

Jason and Mike decided to segment the car sales portion of the business by establishing a division called Evolve Motors. Like Albany Auto, Evolve Motors has built their reputation on customer service. Jason says most of the classic cars sold are bought through Evolve’s website, never having been inspected – let alone test-driven by buyers – a testament to the rave reviews and referrals from satisfied customers. Their latest initiative at Albany Auto is the Chicago Car Club – an avenue to connect with sellers of classic and collectible cars.

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Albany is not your typical automotive shop. Take whatever gas station or roadside garage imagery you have completely out of your mind: you won’t find swimsuit calendars hung on the wall or “out of order” tire air stations. As I strolled the facility, with my camera in tow, I couldn’t help but notice how clean it is: The showroom’s flooring gleams and the detailing area is tiled. Jason and Mike have a pride in ownership that would make their dad proud.

The other thing I couldn’t help but noticed was the variety of vehicles on the lot – from your everyday Hondas and Audis to American muscle machines and European roadsters. And the circumstances that brought them there varied too: oil changes, tune-ups, collision repair, restorations and collectors storing their trophy cars. If you’re a kid-at-heart – and a car guy – Albany Auto is a fun place to hang out. For Jason and Mike – and their sister Sarah – it always has been. Growing up, Albany was their second home; a place to fiddle with boats, jet skis, and snowmobiles – their family’s favorite recreations.

Their dad grew up around cars too. But instead of an acre-and-a-half car heaven, he punched the clock at a gas station. That’s where he taught himself how to fix cars. There and by working on cars in his parent’s driveway for fun.

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When Jason worked at the garage in the summertime during high school, he did so under the watchful eye of a veteran mechanic. That was Jason’s introduction to cars, which was fueled by trying his hand at modifying his friends’ Mustangs. Even though Jason admitted he’s more of a watch guy, he thinks it’d be cool to someday own a ’90s Mustang to remind him of his memories working at the garage and his early days of driving – a period of newfound freedom. Specifically, he has a soft spot for a 1991 Mustang LX Coupe.

Since joining Albany, Jason has earned several certifications necessary to be able to solve car-related issues and be able to work with insurance companies. His game plan to tackle servicing typically includes writing an estimate for parts and labor. Jason described his role at Albany as similar to a quarterback’s on a football team. As much as he oversees each service, he also trusts Albany’s expert crew to do their job – be his eyes and hands to help diagnose car trouble and ultimately accomplish the job and make the customer happy.

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Mike is the sibling that really got the car gene passed down to him. That’s why he’s the perfect man to head up Chicago Car Club. Mike told me the idea behind it is, “to unearth cars with stories. Locate classic and collectible cars that are tucked way. [Cars] that either got passed down through generations or acquired somehow, somewhere…” Mike went on to say the goal of the Car Club is to “get that car for a fair deal – or sell on behalf of the owner – and get it to the enthusiast who’s chomping at the bit to own that car…” Aside from being a place to inform sellers and connect them with Mike, the site will also share the stories behind the cars for sale. For example, the red ’73 De Tomaso Pantera currently for sale was owned by the original President of the Pantera Club in Northern California.

About collecting and selling classic cars, Mike said, “the most valuable parts of classic cars is the paperwork – the bill of sale, owner’s manual, emissions tests, etc.” (Sounds a lot like vintage watches and their box and papers). He gave an example: “One of the hardest things to do is prove mileage. [On older cars] a lot of the odometers only went up to five digits, so when a car would go over 100K miles the odometer would start back at zero. If a car was kept nice, it could be argued that 130K mile car had 30K miles. But if a car has documentation from oil changes, you can follow the timeline of miles to dates to help prove mileage.”

Be sure to follow @chicagocarclub on Instagram. Scroll their feed to see all the sleeping, dusty, glove-compartments-filled-with-paperwork cars they’ve found…

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Since Mike is in the business of hunting down old cars, I had to ask him what his grail car is. He thought for a moment and then said with conviction, “A Mercedes 300 SL convertible from the late ’50s/early ’60s. To me, that car was so ahead of its time… it didn’t look like anything else that was produced at the time.”

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Six years ago Jason and Mike’s reaction to their dad’s passing was to help Albany’s family of employees. Not only can their hardworking staff continue to feed their families, but because of their genuine caring nature, Albany’s customers enjoy the same level of exceptional service their dad delivered when he ran the show. For example, any car coming in – even for the smallest repair – gets a “quick wash,” which consists of washing the exterior, shining-up the wheels and getting a vacuum.

Jason told me, “we’re here to help people. If someone comes in with car trouble or was in an accident, it’s a traumatic thing. I like helping them and making them feel better.” As for Mike, one of the most satisfying parts of his job is when he finds a cool car a good home.

Jason and Mike didn’t need to become proprietors of Albany Auto to understand the importance of treating people right – just being Ken’s son was enough to learn that. Wherever the road takes them, their dad’s legacy will be honored as they continue to do right by people.

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Check out @evolvemotors on Instagram to see what treasures are for sale…

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