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ARCHIVED  October 8, 1999

Houska Automotive rolls with the changes

FORT COLLINS – Ask someone about Houska Automotive, and the answer is just as likely to involve bone-marrow donation or Project Self Sufficiency as carburetors or transmissions.

The plaques on the wall in the shop’s waiting area include a Community Service Award from the Disabled American Veterans, the Zumwalt Award for Community Service, a Larimer County Environmental Award and a citation as the Best of Fort Collins for automotive work. It appears as if Houska Automotive is an umbrella company for good deeds.

“My father started the business in 1952 at this location, then outside the city limits, with two bays,´ said shop owner Dennis Houska. “He was a B-17 mechanic, a real technician. And so the business was built on knowing what technicians needed and wanted to work well.”

In 1974, the younger Houska took over the business as it continued to grow. By that time, the shop included eight bays and employed eight technicians. Today at the same location at Riverside Avenue and Myrtle Street, Houska Automotive employs 22 people, including 12 technicians, and houses 22 bays, with plans to expand to 24.

An early aerial picture of Houska Automotive shows the building and a big field just to the south of it. The field is long gone, and the city incorporated the land where the shop sits years ago. In fact, there was a time when it looked as if city zoning restrictions would put the shop completely out of compliance with the neighborhood.

“But the city worked with us on changing the restrictions,” Houska said. “There are a lot of small automotive businesses in this neighborhood, and so the city worked it so that automotive [usage] was in compliance with city codes.”

City codes aside, today, Houska has no more space to grow. So Houska plans to open satellite locations and add ever more sophisticated equipment.

“We have negotiated with the city to open two new bays,´ said Bill Lange, front desk manager for the shop. “Dennis has been approached to open shops in the south of town and in Windsor. But for the time being, he is mainly concerned with making sure our regular customers get the service they need.”

While new locations may be down the road a bit, new equipment is on the way.

“We will soon have a dynamometer,” Houska said. “This is a huge piece of equipment that you can put a car on and get it up to road speeds. With it, we can test for engine performance and check diesel emissions.”

The dynamometer will be of particular use when it comes to identifying those elusive, intermittent problems that occur only when the driver is on the highway, going 75 miles per hour, and there isn’t a car mechanic within 50 miles.

“The other useful test this equipment can perform is for the accuracy of the speedometer,” Houska explained. “If you get pulled over for speeding but think that your speedometer is the culprit, we can do that test and make sure.”

Houska pointed out that the dynamometer is only one piece of the automotive-technology explosion. As cars and the computers in them become more complex, companies such as his must have the technologically advanced equipment to service them.

The Northstar system, for example, is on the way for general use. And on the Cadillac, it can already send a signal from space to open the car you have locked your keys in or send an ambulance if your airbag deploys. Some car computers will adjust the suspension to suit road conditions, others will learn the driver’s habits and adjust to them.

Key to staying competitive in the business is staying on top of these new developments, Lange said. And Houska holds its own.

“We don’t think too much about competition,” Lange said, “but if we are too busy and someone needs work right away, we send them to either Gilsdorf Garage or Summers Auto Repair. They’ve been in business since the 1950s, and we respect their work.”

In an average day, Houska techs will look at between 30 and 40 cars. They offer engine tune-ups, transmission work, brake work, electrical, overhauls, air conditioning, emissions, computerized four-wheel alignment, pre-purchase car inspections, factory maintenance, and 24-hour towing.

Houska employees are trained to perform all these services, but with all of the computer technology that goes into a new car, Houska found that the training technicians got in school simply wasn’t enough to build a tech’s competence in electrical work, hydraulics, air conditioning and computers. As a result, his training programs are extensive and ongoing.

The break room is outfitted with a VCR for training tapes, and training classes offered by Amoco are posted on the wall.

“We bring in high-school students to work with us so that they can get aquatinted early with what’s involved,” Houska explained. “We also work with AIMS Community College and pay half the tuition. Our techs are going to school all the time. In this business you have to be ready to change and learn. Otherwise you get left in the dust.”

In addition to training, other significant benefits of working for Houska help keep top-flight technicians on staff and attract new ones, the last of whom came from Washington state to work for the company.

“We offer a 401K plan, retirement, company trips and group parties,” Houska said. “We build the kind of environment where everyone helps out, which allows us to meet the needs of our customers.

“Right now we have a 1926 Buick in one bay and a 1999 Suburban in another one. We also have the techs to work with both of them.”

While Charles Houska, founder of the company, focused on developing the technical parts of the business, son Dennis has added community service to the company’s mission. Susan Dominica, special project coordinator for the private nonprofit Project Self Sufficiency, pointed to the role that Houska Automotive has in helping poor and welfare-to-work clients succeed.

“The main obstacle to getting a job is most often transportation,” she explained. “Our clients, mostly single moms, have to get to work, get to school for more training and get their kids to daycare. We contract with garages to get our donated cars evaluated and repaired so that they are in good running condition.”

In addition to doing contract work for the organization, Houska’s Kyle Zarn set up a free clinic for the women and Brendan Mahoney taught it.

“From the Houska mechanics, the women learned the basic car-maintenance and repair skills, which will save them a lot of money in the long run,” Dominica said.

Beyond running an automotive company that continues to grow and attract both clients and technicians, Dennis Houska has also distinguished himself as an advocate for bone marrow donation.

Joanne Coolman, coordinator for the donor center at Poudre Valley Hospital, talked about the contributions that Houska and his family have made.

“[Dennis’] dad Charles was a friend of Robert Graves, of Graves Dairy, who started the national bone marrow registry,” Coolman explained. “In 1991 both Dennis and his wife Noreen came in to sign the registry, and in 1995 he became a nonrelative match for an eight-year-old boy in California. The transplant was successful and the boy is still doing well.”

Houska said that he has been able to make an extensive contribution to bone marrow donor awareness because of his employees’ support.

“I took off for six weeks to ride in a transplant-awareness bike trip from Santa Monica, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida,” he said. “The shop kept going. In fact, the techs know more than I do. If a call for a tow comes in and we’re short handed, they send me out so they can keep working.”

In addition to riding cross-country to benefit the bone-marrow program, the Houskas sponsor their answer to the Bolder Boulder with the Houska-Houska race and pot luck on Memorial Day. There were 100 entries in the last race, and since the first race, $100,000 has been sent to support the donor program.

“We use these funds to type new donors,” Coolman said. “The process is fairly expensive, and so this is an enormous help.”

For next year’s race, Houska expects close to 300 runners. It appears, then, that Houska Automotive and the Houska-Houska are both poised for growth.

FORT COLLINS – Ask someone about Houska Automotive, and the answer is just as likely to involve bone-marrow donation or Project Self Sufficiency as carburetors or transmissions.

The plaques on the wall in the shop’s waiting area include a Community Service Award from the Disabled American Veterans, the Zumwalt Award for Community Service, a Larimer County Environmental Award and a citation as the Best of Fort Collins for automotive work. It appears as if Houska Automotive is an umbrella company for good deeds.

“My father started the business in 1952 at this location, then outside the city limits, with two bays,´ said…

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