Columbia Mechanic Goes Extra Mile For Customers

February 23, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

An auto mechanic has just fixed your brakes. You can't pay the bill because you've forgotten both checks and credit cards. Do you call a cab?

The scenario took place last week at Won's Foreign Car Service in Dobbin Center. The mechanic told the customer to take the car home and pay later.

"I was shocked because that's just not the way most people do business these days," said Michael Saltzman, the customer who was picking up his car.

Won's patrons say that's just business as usual for Won Tae Yi, whose shop has been recognized twice by Washington Consumer Checkbook for outstanding service.

"The whole business is run on honesty. Business is done on a handshake here," said Saltzman's wife, Susan.

"I trust the customer, and the customer trusts me," saysYi, 57, a native Korean who has spent 38 years fixing engines for Americans.

"If a customer spends $100, they want to know: 'Why do I need to spend $100? Why do I need a brake job? Why do I need a CV joint?"

Yi will tell them, and if necessary, draw them a picture.

On one workbench in the cluttered garage sits a gearbox without its casing.

Yi said he uses it to show people why their transmissions make noise, or why their gears slip out.

Last week, he showed customer J. Michael Sheehan, a Columbia architect, why he needed to pay $400 for brake work.

He held up a brake disc from the front of Sheehan's VW Golf next to a new disc. The wear was clearly visible, as wasthe wear on brake pads.

"He just tells it like it is," said Sheehan, who noted that Yi did not try to scare him into replacing both back wheel bearing sets when only one needed replacement.

"He's willing to work with us; we're on a budget. It wasn't your typical, 'no, you've got to fix it today,' " he said.

Perhaps the difference is that Yi does not come from the modern school of auto mechanics.

Helearned to repair cars as a teen-age civilian employee of the U.S. Army following the Korean War.

And he went on to repair trucks for the Navy in Vietnam.

He emigrated to the U.S. in 1972 and opened his first foreign car repair business soon after in the corner of a friend's body shop in College Park.

He moved to his current shop on Dobbin Center Way 11 years ago, pulling in $400 the first month.

Columbia was a much less crowded place back then, and so was his parking lot.

"I worked any kind of car -- domestic, foreign. I was really hungry," recalled Yi, who now has to put cars on his lifts to makeroom for the overflow of Hondas, Volkswagens and Nissans in his garage at night.

His business was almost completely word of mouth until the summer of 1988, when Consumer Checkbook gave him 100 percent ratings in all of its service categories.

He never had heard of the consumer magazine until a customer told him about the listing, which explained why his already-popular business had begun to reach its saturation point.

Now it is not unusual for Yi to do $20,000 worth ofbusiness in a month and deal with anywhere from three to a dozen cars a day.

All of this in a shop with only four bays and the help ofonly two mechanics and his son, John, who retired as a Marine Corps first lieutenant last year.

"I can't take the customers, all of them," Yi said.

John Yi explains that new customers now have to waitlonger to get appointments.

Regular customers -- some of whom come from as far away as Vienna, Va., -- still can drop off their cars without appointments.

Despite the heavy workload, Yi still keeps upthe routine that helped fill his lot with customers.

Whenever a customer drops off a car, he drops whatever he is working on to hear the complaint and do a quick safety check of the car.

After diagnosing the problem, he gives an estimate his customers swear by.

"He'll tell you exactly what the dollar amount is and it's to the penny,"said Susan Saltzman. "He will never open-quote you a price."

Eventhough his business has outgrown his Dobbin Center garage, Yi has noplans to start another shop elsewhere.

"Let's put it this way: the customers come here to talk to Mr. Yi," his son explains. "He can'tbe in two places at one time."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.