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Who is Reid Vann?

From the St. Louis Business Journal
July 6-12, 1981

Reid Vann is not your typical mechanic.

Which is fine, because the cars he works on aren't your typical cars either.

Vann, is the owner of an automobile repair shop bearing his name. The shop specializes in repairing expensive foreign cars BMWs, Mercedes, Porches and maybe an Audi thrown in to keep the place somewhat humble.

Vann is also the owner of a doctorate in electrical engineering from Washington University, and a former researcher in the burgeoning semi-conductor industry.

Nearly 10 years ago, however, Vann shucked the university, the laboratory and the semi-conductor industry for the garage, the repair bay and the car repair business.

The move marked the end of several years of frustration with university life.

Vann, a native of Georgia, got his bachelor's degree from Georgia Tech in the early 1960s.

“About 1960, I got into research in semi-conductors and that's where I stayed for the rest of my career,” he says. Jobs in Massachusetts, Maryland and California followed before Vann decided he needed more schooling.

“It became obvious to me that I was going to need my doctorate,” Vann says. In California, where he was working at the time, Vann couldn't find the right combination of job and school that would allow him to keep working and attend classes.

Enter St. Louis and McDonnell-Douglas.

“They (McDonnell-Douglas) were willing to give the most in terms of time off,” says Vann. Vann worked for the St. Louis-based aviation and electronics firm for about two years before moving fulltime to Washington University.

“They needed someone to set up a semi-conductor laboratory,” Vann explains. Vann thought he then had the best of all possible worlds. “I always wanted to be at a university; it was extremely nice.”

Back in the early 1970s, he adds, there “was lots of government money” around to fund various research projects. But a bit later, “the money started drying up.” And Vann started getting disenchanted with university life.

“They expected you to fund yourself and a lot of other people,” he says. “I had to spend a huge amount of time on paperwork, it was boring.”

So Vann then decided to turn a hobby into a career. The hobby was fixing his used Porsche® it was born from necessity in St. Louis, Vann says.

“I had big problems getting my car serviced here,” he says. “I had always played with my car myself. And more and more people here started asking me for help on theirs.”

But that didn't work. So Vann decided to fix cars full time.

“I had an instant clientele,” Vann says. His Forest Park Parkway location proved beneficial. “I'm surrounded by the hospitals,” and the doctors and their cars.

Vann first worked only on Porsches® and Audis. He later added Mercedes and BMWs to his line. He was the sole mechanic at the garage, and began with a trainee and a part-time bookkeeper. The arrangement didn't work.

“Each customer expected to me work fulltime on his car,” Vann says.

The shop now employs seven mechanics, in addition to Vann, plus a person to handle the repair parts.

Vann says his mechanics work on 10 to 15 cars each day, and charge the average customer between $150 and $200 for the work they do. This would give him revenues of between $450,000 and $600,000 per year.

And Vann says the shop is competitive with the repair departments of Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche® dealers throughout St. Louis. A random check of such dealers show they and Vann all charge between $30 and $34 per hour for labor on repairs. Vann likes to think he offers a better repair job for the money his customers spend.

“The people who get their cars serviced here generally take better care of their cars,” he says. “They don't want them breaking down again in a month.”

Yet Vann admits cars are becoming more complicated, making it tougher to find the mechanics qualified to work on them.

This is where the doctorate in electrical engineering comes in handy. Sort of.

“The biggest problem in any type of service business is that the man doing the work generally has a high school education and has never really been trained to think problems through,” Vann says.

“The biggest thing I can do is to think very logically about the problem. I try to help them (the mechanics) by telling them how I arrived at the conclusions I did. That tends to stop them from getting stumped and just replacing parts.”

The increasing amounts of electronic equipment in today's cars poses an additional problem for Vann, and probably other repairmen as well.

“Sometimes a piece of equipment to test something can cost $30,000 to$40,000,” he says. “And nobody's sure how to run the machine.” It's often easier and thus less expensive, to replace certain auto parts that may be defective, rather than use such a machine.

Vann says he's on good relations with virtually all automobile dealers in the area selling the cars he works on, BMWs, Porsches®, Mercedes and Audis.

If anything about his business bothers Vann it's the paperwork which accompanies it. The firm now has an IBM computer to keep track of inventories, for example. Vann hopes to use it for much more, mainly to free him from his desk.

As he says: “I have to be here most of the time, but I'd like to have it so I don't spend all my time writing estimates.”

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