Behind the Scenes: Jerry Carpenter
Liskey’s Automotive has been around since 1960; what comes with being in the same community for over 57 years?
My dad bought the business in 1972 … and came back here and worked for George Liskey, for quite a few years. That’s where the name came from – the original owner, George Liskey. I kind of came into the scene about 1989. I graduated, went into the military for four years and did four years in the navy. At that point, we were in the middle of being bought out by the city of Lansing. Through condemnation laws, the city of Lansing bought our business for parking for the
We thought about moving our business, maybe out of town. The more we looked at our customer base — they didn’t necessarily live downtown, but they worked downtown. So, we thought it was quite essential to stay downtown and decided to move right across the street. We were right there on the other side of Larch Street, and we moved over to this location: an existing body shop. We approached the owner and he was interested in selling, so we purchased the building and had to buy a few houses for parking, and then tore the houses down. The downtown area has always been very good to us, we appreciate that – it meant a lot to us. One of our big things was, ‘We stayed downtown to serve you.’
What are some things that have remained the same throughout the whole time the company has been operating?
I think, just our philosophy of business in taking care of a customer: looking at their car and repairing their car as if it were one of our own. We understand customers come here not because they want a new car, but because they want to maintain their car. Their car is a big investment and very vital to them. We fix it as if it were my grandmother or mother who would come in here. We want to make sure they’re safe; we’re not out here to oversell.
Did the closing and repaving of Michigan Avenue affect your business?
I think that every little bit of growth in downtown Lansing, from the stadium district to the new apartments on the backside of the ballpark, have all been a huge enhancement to the downtown area, and it’s enhanced our business as well. Bringing people back downtown to live has been a huge part of our success. Michigan Avenue is a main corridor: a gateway between us and East Lansing and [it] connects us. I don’t know if it being rough hurt us; if anything, it helped us. In our business, the [bad] roads are good for
What was it like to grow up as part of a family business?
We spent a lot of hours in here as children. We spent our evenings and our weekends here to help start the business and grow the business, as a family. Everybody partakes in helping the success of the business. It’s been rewarding being able to have my wife LeeAnn as part of our family now. The way we met is she hit a curb, came in here and needed car repair, and next thing you know, we’re going to the movies together.
How much of the company is still a family business now?
It’s all family. My wife, my dad and myself. Now, my dad is very active in his farm, the Peacock Road Family Farm. Probably for ten years now, he has kind of stepped back from this and I’ve been taking care of day-to-day business.
What are some of your duties in that day-to-day role?
Everything, especially customer service … LeAnn really takes care of all the bookkeeping. Other than that, we both share the obligations of advertising, but I deal with customer service, customer relations, parts, techs, employees, etc.
What lessons have you learned by operating a smaller scale operation versus a giant corporation or franchise?
I think being an independent, automotive repair shop is more personal. Our customers are more like family members to us than they are just some customers. We try to make that relationship or bond with our customers to ensure that when they come here, their car will be fixed at a decent, fair price, yet be safe and taken care of properly. We look at customers as part of our family. A lot of our business is referrals. We have been very fortunate to have a lot of customers — generational families that have come in
Your dad, Ed, is pretty well-known in the area and has been given awards and accolades. What is it like to have that to look up to?
Big shoes … he’s got some very big shoes to fill. He has definitely made a name for Liskey’s. It has been very rewarding. When we found out we were getting bought out from the city of Lansing, I was actually in the Navy. My dad sent me a letter — a three page, handwritten letter — letting me know … because there would be nothing more rewarding for him than to pass it on to the family and keep it in the family. So then I got out of service and came back and worked for dad. I started at the bottom, sweeping floors and taking out trash. You learn from the bottom up; it was quite an honor to be able to step in and work in a family business that was very-well established.
What do you think some of the advantages are of working in a family business?
A little bit of freedom, being able to have that knowledge that you’re not given secondhand: You’re getting it right from the family. We all share the same ideas, the same thoughts, the same motivation and the same drive.
What is one of your favorite parts of your job?
There’s a lot of reward when customers call you back to let you know how much of a difference and how much they were appreciative of our service. A lot of our business is doom and gloom. We’re here fixing problems. They don’t come to us because they want to, they come to us because they have to. They have a problem; we become a problem solver.
But those phone calls that you get from a customer who calls back to let you know they really appreciated your service, those are some of the most rewarding things. Of all the bad calls, it only takes one good call to make it all good. Normally you don’t hear the good, you hear the bad. But those calls you do get with a thank you, those go a long way.
Liskey’s has won awards in the City Pulse, Top of the Town Awards for a couple years. What do those awards and recognition mean to your company when you receive those?
They mean a lot. That means we are being recognized out in the public. You strive to do your best, be profitable and take care of your employees, your building, your customers. But when you do get some of those rewards, it’s very honorable being recognized that you are doing something right, and people do notice and it’s getting mentioned. Those do mean a lot.
What’s next for Liskey’s?
Automobiles are changing fairly rapidly. With so many makes, models, electronics and types of information out there, it has become challenging for independent repair shops to stay profitable. That is a little bit of a concern. We’ve always felt ourselves as an equal to the dealer, if not better, because we’re more personal with our customers; but the struggles surrounding information on new cars is a concern. I think it’s a concern within the entire industry. Do we go back to where we’re more specialized in what we do in repair shops?
We’ve tried to take whatever comes in our parking lot. At times, it can be challenging. A dealer only works on a Ford or a GM or a Toyota, so they’re fairly efficient at it. We’re going to work on whatever you’re driving, and the information and electronics have been coming at us really hard in the last four or five years. The information to repair those cars has become costly to get a hold of. So, as an independent, automotive repair facility, there have been some tough times. But we still feel there is a niche there for us, and we’re staying positive and keep plugging away.
This conversation with Jerry Carpenter has been edited for space and clarity.