By Carlie Kollath | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When your dad owns a car shop, it leads to interesting childhood memories.
“I remember one time I was sick at school and Daddy came and picked me up in an ambulance,” said Jeff “Jay” Robertson Jr. of Tom’s Automotive Service. “Everybody thought I was dying, but he was just out testing the ambulance.”
Over the years, Jay learned the ins and outs of the auto mechanic’s world. He also went to school for a business degree.
Now, he’s in the process of becoming the third generation of family ownership at Tom’s, a full-service mechanic and auto body repair shop.
Jay earlier this year took over day-to-day operations from his father, Jeff Robertson Sr.
The senior Robertson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December and is focusing his time on fighting the battle.
But that doesn’t mean he’s away from the shop.
“I’m the maintenance, fix-it, overall keep-the-business rolling guy,” Jeff said.
He said he has too much to do, including getting a new paint booth running and tackling other projects.
He’s also busy greeting customers in the lobby and holding a captive audience of employees, suppliers and customers in the office.
The automotive industry has been in the Robertson family’s blood for more than 50 years. Jeff Robertson’s father, Tom, started things when he came back from war and opened a Buick dealership in Tupelo.
The business ownership changed, and Tom was unhappy with the arrangements, Jeff said.
So, Tom left to become his own boss. He opened Tom’s Automotive Service in 1952 on South Broadway Street, in a building across the street from the current headquarters of Renasant Bank.
Tom’s started as just a general mechanic shop. It contracted with the city and worked on fire engines, ambulances and police cars.
“We’ve still got the old sirens and all the old stock,” Jay said.
The business has changed over the years. It’s moved buildings and expanded several times. It’s had changes with employees and with its services.
But it’s always kept its white “Tom’s” sign. The sign made the journey with the business around 1989 when it moved to its current location at the corner of Magazine and South Green streets. The father-son team said the sign is the second oldest in Tupelo, beaten only by One-Hour Martinizing’s sign.
Over the years Tom’s has developed a reputation for solving hard to fix problems, especially ones that other shops won’t touch or those at-home mechanics have created.
“We tend to get things that everybody has worked on a while,” Jay said.
Plus, the shop has its regular clientele. It has more than 40,000 customers on its rolls.
The skill of their experienced mechanics makes the business stand out, said Jeff and Jay.
The longtime downtown Tupelo business keeps its ranks filled with the highest certified mechanics it can find, recruiting from across the country.
“I have no rookies,” Jay said. “We have the highest qualified people money can buy. … We built a reputation of being able to diagnose it and fix it right the first time.”
Mechanics know how to use the equipment, Jeff said. Plus, each mechanic has its own specialty.
Even better, there’s little turnover, the Robertsons said, with most employees sticking around for at least 10 years.
Richard Faulkner is one of those longtime employees. The technician has been on staff for more than 20 years. The automatic transmission specialist said he stays on because he enjoys the work and the atmosphere.
“You come in and the day goes by really fast,” he said.
Tom’s shop is usually buzzing with activity. It has 44 vehicle bays and its own paint shop. Its business is relatively split between mechanic work and auto body repair.
Thanks to a car thief
Auto body work was never part of the plan, but the business was forced into it in December 2000 by a car thief. A man stole one of the cars Tom’s was fixing. The vehicle was beat up when it was recovered.
“My cousin was working at another shop and he came over and fixed it,” Jay said. “He helped us out of a tight spot.”
The situation worked out and other customers started asking about body work, so the business started with a part-time body shop man and then expanded to a full-time employee. Now, it has five body shop specialists, and Jay estimates it is either the first or second most used insurance-related repair shop in town.
“It was never planned,” he said. “It was never strategized. If that guy had never stolen a car, we might not be diversified in the body shop business.”
The goal of the body shop: “If we worked on your car, we hope you won’t be able to tell that we worked on it.”
Jay has plans to expand the shop, but right now he’s taking time to evaluate everything in the shop. He expects the transition with this dad to last about three years, depending on his health.
The shop already is trying new things, including selling Cooper Tires.
Plus, Jay has his eyes on new equipment.
“There are a lot of things I’d like to do, but we just can’t afford it,” Jeff said. “You spend so much putting back into the business, it’s unreal. That’s what’s wrong with most businesses now – you start making a little money and you want to live off the business. You can’t do that. It takes that money to run it.”
OWNER: Jeff Robertson Sr.(president)
HOURS: Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
ADDRESS: 317 Magazine St., Tupelo
PHONE: (662) 842-7931
FACEBOOK: Tom’s Automotive Service Center
ADVICE TO OTHER BUSINESS
OWNERS: “Care about your customer. That’s probably the most important thing you can do. After that, everything else falls in line.”