TOPEL’S SERVICE CENTER, LAKE MILLS, WI
Nearly 75 years ago, Clifford Topel and his family were so successful at keeping their farm equipment in peak condition that neighbors regularly came knocking for help.
“In September 1948, Cliff and his brothers, father and other relatives built a repair facility for their family farm on the south end of Rock Lake,” explains Tara Topel, owner of Topel’s Service Center, Lake Mills, Wisconsin. “People would stop by and say, ‘Hey, can you fix this? And can you fix that?’ Cliff decided to make a business out of it, and started working on the cars of the time. It became known as Topel’s Lakeside Service and he offered repair and towing service to motorists and farmers all over Wisconsin.”Cliff’s son, Dan, and his wife Tara began operating the facility at the beginning of 2003, with every intention of carrying on that tradition. Luckily, they had their mentor guiding them every step of the way.“Cliff was working up until he was 94,” Tara says. “He was still coming in every day, doing small engines. He actually just passed away on January 29, 2020 at the age of 96.”
Topel’s Service Center, a Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center, is located just off I-94 on Rock Lake, considered one of the cleanest lakes in Wisconsin. A bedroom community for commuters between Madison and Milwaukee, the town also serves as a getaway for Chicagoans, almost doubling in population during the summer.
The Topels say that, due to the proximity to Rock Lake, they’ve considered expanding into marine service but because of the sophistication of today’s boats, haven’t gone that far. Land-based vehicles keep the family operation busy enough.
“Vehicle service and repair accounts for about three quarters of our business, and the towing makes up the other part. Dan does the majority of the towing, so I focus on running the service center,” Tara explains. “Dan was born into the business,” she says. “His dad was 50 when they had him and he was so excited to have a son that the day after he was born, Cliff put ‘Cliff Topel and Son’ on his truck.”
Since those early days, family tradition has been more than just
“I know that being part of this business has been great for our family,” says Tara. “It really gave me an opportunity to be there with my two kids as they grew up. I know I made a lot of withdrawals from the business, and now my family gives me an opportunity to make the best business that we can have. Over the years I realized that If I worked anywhere else, I would be part of professional organizations. I would be the best, whatever it was that I could be, so I decided that I was going to be the best business owner that I could be.”
While the younger generation has retained their founder’s business practices, they’ve realized that not everything nostalgic is worth retaining. Case in point, the shop is currently operating out of its original location, designed to accommodate 1940s farm tractors but not conducive to modern operations. “We’re working right now on expanding from an antiquated little shop into a 14,000-square foot building which will include commercial retail space,” explains Tara. “We are pleased that we’ll be able to retain the look of the original structure but with much better efficiency. We’ll break ground in late September and hope to be moving back in in March or April of 2021.”
Space in a local business park has been arranged that will allow the shop to operate in about its current space during construction. Tara says the city of Lake Mills has been extremely helpful during the planning stage.
“They’re really motivated, and they know what our plans are. We’re a pretty small community. So, it’ll just be a matter of communication.”
“Many years ago I was at a training event, and I got a fortune in a fortune cookie that said, ‘If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.’ I recognized that as my life with the towing business and the service center. I realized that we needed to divide and conquer. So, at that point then Dan really started focusing on towing, I focused on service center, and that’s been working really well so far. We still help each other in both areas.”Tara says her business skills were sowed at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, when she studied public relations but flourished under real-world conditions.
“I made it through to my junior year, and that’s when Dan and I got together. And I thought, ‘I don’t have to worry about getting a better job if we take over the family business.’ When I look back now, I kind of wish I would have taken some business classes – I just ended up going through the school of hard knocks instead. There are a lot of things that we learned the hard way that I probably could have learned by taking classes. Sometimes we learn hard, but we learn good. And it’s gotten us to where we are now to be able to grow.”Thanks to their professional business partnerships, the Topels say such a move during a pandemic is not terribly unsettling to them.
“Events during the pandemic have given us an opportunity to fine tune our best practices,” Tara says. “We were already facing road construction right in front of our shop that started just after everything closed down here in the spring. So, we were already prepared for that with pick-ups, and drop-offs; it actually kind of gave us a little bit of a head start. Not that it was a great thing to happen, but for us it was a little bit of a silver lining.”
Another risk Tara says she took during this COVID-19 pandemic was to actually start the hiring process, counter to what other shops might have done.
“Our business coach, Bob Greenwood, always says a lot of the trouble that people have is just because they’re understaffed. And to be able to give a kind of quality service that we need to give, we’ll need to have the right people in the right places. I knew a lot of dealerships in the area had laid people off, and so even though I wasn’t quite ready yet and our space isn’t quite ready, I pushed an ad out and I was able to hire a technician. He had been laid off and he lived in town – it’s been really great for us so far.”
The Topels plan to nearly triple the number of employees in their new facility, alleviating their primary business challenge.
“I think our biggest challenge is that we’re limited on space. So, the solution to that is taking a huge risk right now, even during the uncertain economic times, and expanding, and growing, and hopefully being able to take advantage of the low interest rates.
“Honestly, I love our competition. We have some really great other shops in town. We just all do things a little differently. For me, it’s about making things more convenient, and using the loaner cars, and being extremely thorough for people.”Giving back to her industry has benefitted her business dramatically. Through involvement with local schools as well as industry associations, Tara Topel says the future is solid. “It’s just very evident that we need to go into the tech schools to find quality people, and I especially try to give as much support as I can to try to get more females into the industry. I attend meetings and reach out to the schools in any way that I can with whatever resources I gained through my education and training.”
Community involvement has been just as important. From volunteering with a number of church and civic programs to serving first responders, Tara says it’s time well-spent.
“Again, I think it’s more about just supporting the community than it is about directly what’s going to come back to me and our shop. We’ve reached out, in many cases just to ask how they’re doing ad if there’s anything we can do to help. We wanted to give back while they took care of other people.”
There’s time for celebration as well. “Every year we hold what we call ‘OctopelFest’ – it’s the anniversary of when Cliff started the business in 1948. My husband Dan brews up a couple of batches of beer, and we just have a big open house and allow everybody to come in to celebrate with us. I’m hoping once we get into the new shop to be able to do more clinics and different things as well.”
As a Bumper to Bumper shop since September 2005, the Topels recognize the value of this business relationship, especially with their warehouse distributor Packerland/Auto-Wares Group of Companies of Madison, Wisconsin, a member of the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance Inc. “Our monthly Certified Service Center Group meetings when we network with other CSCs in the area is likely our strongest asset with Auto-Wares. The training they provide both at Tech Expo and locally, in addition to the Confidence Plus North American Warranty help us live out our core value of professionalism. The general manager of our Wisconsin stores, Darrell Kamin, is extremely responsive to our needs, big or small. He listens intently and acts swiftly when needed to help meet our demands,” Tara says. “The National Training Conventions with the Alliance are top notch and a real treat for us as shop owners to travel, learn and network with other shop owners and all levels of staff from Auto-Wares and the Alliance. Brittani at Auto-Wares is very detailed and comprehensive in getting that all planned out for us.”
Tara says a key factor of the Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center Program is assistance for her customers and assistance for her shop. “Being able to offer SafeRoute Roadside Assistance to our clients as well as having access to executives and administration who seek out input and listen to our needs as a shop has been valuable.
“The best way to summarize this is being in business for yourself, but not by yourself. Being able to have corporate support of a large organization allows us to brand ourselves and provide service that helps us be superior to other shops. Having the experience and support of our fellow CSCs and being able to influence how our programs are presented and offered allows us to focus on our client’s needs. This helps us keep their vehicles safe, reliable and efficient,” she explains.