Ducks are known for gliding along the water with seemingly little effort, all the while paddling furiously just beneath the surface. Observers are none the wiser, appreciating the beauty while the serious work is done out of sight.
That’s about how it looks at Olson Tire & Auto Service at 601 Forest St. in Wausau. While heavy traffic navigates the S curve at 6th and Forest streets, the building looks roughly the same as it has since Kent Olson opened for business on Nov. 17, 1987.
Oh, it’s expanded to its current 12,500 square feet from the original five bays that were crammed into the space that’s now dedicated mostly to offices and a waiting area. And the culinary-conscious will readily identify the Subway that’s long been a tenant at the streetside corner.
But the furious paddling is going on behind the building. There, in 2012, Olson opened an out-building of 6,600 square feet for washing and detailing autos and storing winter tires. And under way, stretching all the way back to 7th Street, is a 10,000 square-foot structure that will house a state-of-the art paint booth — think Jetsons on a moving walkway — and body shop.
“It’s the evolution of the business,” Olson said. “We took what we do and would integrate that with body shops because we didn’t do that, but it wasn’t being reciprocated.”
Olson has learned a thing or two about the back-and-forth needed to get a major construction project done.
“The biggest challenge? Probably working with the community and moving at the pace you need to as a business,” he said, crediting the city for doing just that.
Meanwhile, Olson has helped the city — and local businesses — by promoting workforce development. He’s led the North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board and Wisconsin Automotive Truck Education Association, and helped organize the Heavy Metal Tour that introduces middle-schoolers to vocational careers. And he’s taken on plenty of expense in the body-shop project.
“We’re working with the city to fix the storm water at 7th and Division streets,” he said, also pointing to the boundary with some residential properties that run between his new building and Forest Street. “We’re going to have a clean fence line along here, and we’re going in jointly on some nice planters.”
Olson may have a deeper appreciation for being able to enjoy a clear vision for his business because things were so comparatively foggy early in his automotive career.
“I worked for a guy like me in Minnesota; a family-run business,” he said of a college job that turned into a seven-year stretch, adding with a thoughtful pause, “Ultimately, I had some ideas that ... they didn’t share.”
It’s for this reason that he hosts occasional cookouts for vendors and employees, and has held Christmas celebrations and other outings. It’s all to show appreciation for those who have helped Olson Tire & Auto reach $3 million in annual sales and grow from three employees to 19 (17 full time).
As he answers phones, greets customers, and visits every corner of his expanding enterprise, Olson manages its growth with his own family in mind. Sons Evan, 26, and Aaron, 23, work in customer-facing capacities for Olson Tire & Auto.
“I think I took it for granted at first,” said Evan Olson, guest services manager, “but as I grew into it, I realized what a great opportunity it was.”
As the boys matured into businessmen, they also began to realize that taking over a successful family business is no guarantee of future success.
“We get people coming in here and quoting us that XYZ percent of second-generation businesses fail,” said Evan Olson, countering with lessons drawn from their father that have left an impression on how to treat customers. “He likes to work, and he likes to teach people about their cars.”
The younger Olsons have already made an impact in this digital century.
“When we started, we were the lowest-rated auto repair shop in Wausau on Google search results,” said Aaron Olson, whose generational aptitude allows him to comfortably run the business’ social-media presence. “We use an app where customers get a text after six months encouraging them to leave a review. We’ve had great word-of-mouth, but getting all of that online has been a big transition.”