Celebrating 20 Years at S&S Automotive & Towing, INC
Auto, repair, and towing. If you ask Clint Schmelzle, these are the three words he hopes others would use to describe him. And if you ask anyone else, that’s the most Clint Schmelzle answer you’ll ever get. It makes sense, though, given the fact his auto repair and towing shop, S&S Automotive, is celebrating 20 years of business.
As the only AAA certified shop in the area, it’s no surprise people beyond the borders of Nemaha County know him by name. And for those who do, it’s no surprise that Clint will likely be able to tell you most of the names of the people he’s helped along the way.
That’s because Clint and his family have spent the past 20 years building more than just an auto repair and towing shop. They’ve built a place where customers know their car is in the best hands. A place they can call when they break down in the middle of the night. A place where they feel like they’re family.
Anyone who knows Clint knows he’s a simple man. So, it makes sense the start of his journey was just that - simple.
“Growing up as a kid, there was always something - like fixing a bike tire - that you had to wait for someone else to do it, or figure out how to do it for yourself. It’s no fun learning how to ride a bike without a tire.”
So Clint did just that. He taught himself some of the basics whenever something needed to be fixed. As he got older, he started mowing lawns for extra cash. He picked up a few more basics on the lawn mower, like keeping the blade sharp, changing the oil, and filling it up with gas.
His curiosity for mechanics spiked a bit more when he bought his first vehicle, a 1966 AMC Rambler. Which, according to Clint, “kind of rambled down the road.” But, nonetheless, it helped him learn how to work on vehicles.
When it was time for Clint to get a job in high school, he started working for Bob McKinley in Axtell. That, Clint says, was probably the “real start of true mechanics.” It was then he also retired the Rambler and bought a 1975 Chevy pickup truck. And while it kept him grounded in his mechanic work, it also got him grounded by his parents after he got slapped with a speeding ticket for going 97 miles per hour in a 55.
“It definitely ran better than the Rambler,” Clint jokes.
Between his work at Bob’s shop, his own tinkering, and a little bit of work in his high school metal’s class, Clint was able to better explore the world of mechanics. That’s when he decided to pursue an education in the field at Manhattan Area Technical College.
After wrapping up school there, Clint decided to head to Emporia in 1993, where he secured a job at Williams Automotive. But why Emporia?
“It’s where women outnumbered men three to one, so I figured it’s a good place to go I guess,” Clint says.
As it turns out, it was the right move. Williams Automotive is also the place where Clint met his wife, Dana, who was the office manager at the time. It was also in Emporia where Clint met his future partner, Tom Scott, and together they decided to open up their own hobby shop. But back home, Clint’s family was vying for him to come back and start his own business in a vacated shop in Seneca.
After a few more years and a few more jobs in Emporia, Clint and Tom Scott put together a business plan, presented to banks in Seneca, and that’s how S&S was born.
“We opened up, got in debt, and have been working at it ever since,” Clint laughs.
Choosing a name was the easy part, though. Clint recalls a business in Emporia named S&S; it was a gas station, repair shop, and cafe all rolled into one.
“Everyone knew where S&S was in Emporia. We also wanted a place like that with a name that was short and simple.”
With Clint’s last name and Tom’s last name, they had their very own S&S. In fact, Clint still hangs on to some of the very first checks they ever wrote, like shop rent, which was paid on June 30th, 1997.
A few years later, Clint and Dana bought out their partner, but the name S&S still stuck.
“I have three little S’s running around and a wife with the same last name, so we kept it,” Clint says.
He Gets By With a Little Help...
Those who have been to the shop know exactly who the other S’s are. Customers know Dana not only as Clint’s wife but also as the shop’s bookkeeper.
“I can run the shop, but she keeps me out of jail,” Clint laughs. “She makes sure the taxes and insurance are paid. That my I’s are dotted and T’s crossed.”
As for the other S’s, you’ll likely spot them around the shop helping out. And they’re not hard to miss, either, with bright blonde hair and blue eyes. Clint and Dana’s three sons, Austin, Garrett, and Tanner, have grown up inside S&S. And it looks like the love for mechanics runs in the family.
Austin, their oldest son, is attending Pittsburg State University next year to pursue a degree in auto technology.
“He’s kind of an apprentice,” says Clint. “I think he’s very capable of learning it if he wants to.”
As far as Austin taking over his dad’s shop? That’s way too early in the making. Clint says it’s a step in the right direction, but doesn’t know if it will happen. And he’s more than okay with that, too.
“As parents, you want things better for your kids, and try to steer them down the right track. But if it doesn’t work out, you know, that’s fine.”
Garrett, has more of an entrepreneurial spirit and has always been great at Marketing and Sales, he is mechanically inclined but Clint and Dana foresee Marketing & Management in his future. Dana says, "Since he was little, he has always thought of things to build, create and sell, lemonade stands to books, to small projects for sale, that boy is always trying to sell something!"
Tanner, their youngest, also shows a lot of interest in the field and comes to the shop to work every day after school.
“Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. Working, working, working. That’s Tanner,” Clint says.
But the shop’s success is also largely due to Clint’s loyal employees and customer base. With some employees having been there for nearly 12 years, Clint says he definitely couldn’t do it all without them.
“Like ‘em, love ‘em, want some more of them,” he laughs.
As for his customers, Clint estimates he’s helped upwards of seven thousand people. From coast to coast travelers to his fellow neighbors, Clint could tell you the ins and outs of most of them. One of his favorite parts of the job is getting to help multiple generations.
In fact, he can pull up customers straight from his data base, tell you their number, then likely tell you more about them beyond just their vehicle. While that may come as surprise to most, it’s not to those who know Clint and the way he does business.
“Let’s see...Ralph Koch was number 1,240,” says Clint as he clicks through his computer. “And then I got to work on Ron’s truck, which is now Hunter’s truck.”
Clint will also tell you a major part of his success has been strong support from Seneca and surrounding communities.
Besides helping repair or tow customers’ cars, S&S Automotive also gives back to local charities. Everything from thank you notes to sponsoring local events to donating old cars to help the fire department train new recruits - it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
“You kind of have to be that tight-knit community,” he says. “People have to put all their faith in you. But they help us, so we help them. It’s pretty neat.”
A Bump in the Road
The past 20 years haven’t been without a few bumps in the road - a few bumps many of Clint’s customers don’t even know about. In particular, a few terrifying weeks for the Schmelzle family in late Summer of 2013 when Clint suffered not one, but two strokes.
It was a typical Saturday morning; Clint was talking to his cousins in the shop when he strangely sunk down towards the floor without knowing why or having any control over his body. One of his cousins, Mike, who was a nurse, quickly checked Clint’s pulse and handed him a Gatorade to increase his blood sugar. It was when Clint couldn’t get the lid screwed off the bottle they decided to take him to the hospital, where it was confirmed he had suffered a stroke.
Clint was sent home without a cause after doctors ran a few tests. Everything was seemingly fine until the same thing happened a couple weeks later while Clint was at the shop.
“I felt a little dizzy and lightheaded and was seeing some stars. I was like well, this doesn’t feel very good. It was kind of like bright lights and darkness,” Clint remembers.
And so he decided to go to the hospital once again, but doctors couldn’t give him any clear cut answers about what was happening. An experience Clint describes as ‘really frustrating.’
Two hospitals and countless tests and scans later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota finally had some answers. They told Clint he had a hole in his heart that needed repairing. While one in every three stroke victims has a hole in their heart, most don’t need repairs because the hole is microscopic. However, Clint’s hole was larger than most, which meant he needed to undergo heart surgery.
And that’s exactly what he did, but a bit closer to home at the Nebraska Heart Institute. The surgery was successful and quick. So much so that Clint had surgery early one morning and was home by late afternoon the same day. What’s more, Clint’s surgery was performed on a Thursday, and he was back to work that next Monday. He even snuck into the shop and did some paperwork in between. Which, in Clint’s words, is ‘kind of taking it easy.’
Since then, Clint says he’s been ‘real good’ and reflects back on the time as just another bump in the road, but certainly one of the most frustrating ones.
“There’s always a bump. I could tell you story after story, but the stroke was kind of an unforeseen thing I had no control over,” Clint says.
Dana describes the time as one of the scariest times of their lives, at one point uncertain if they were going to lose him.
“We are so thankful to God that he had no residual effects and made a full recovery.”
While Clint’s heart got some major repairs, the shop was still lacking. Those who have been part of his customer base for a while would tell you there wasn’t much to look at. A toolbox for a desk and two stools for customers to sit on and wait out their repairs, or strike up a conversation with Clint.
The toolbox was a lot more than a makeshift desk; it was also a makeshift bed for Austin.
“I had to come do payroll, so Clint made a bed for Austin and he took naps in there quite often until he got bigger,” Dana remembers.
Today, you won’t find anyone napping in the toolbox, but you may spot a customer or two snoozing on one of the couches in the new customer waiting room. The couches are just one of the many improvements made in 2015 when the shop underwent major renovations.
Along with the waiting room equipped with a TV, coffee bar, and family momentums, the Schmelzle’s also added an office and a restroom for customers. And yes, Clint has a real desk now.
“It just gives me a cleaner, free space that’s more quiet and comfortable. And it has heating and AC,” Clint laughs.
Although S&S Automotive has always specialized in more advanced services, it’s keeping pace with today’s customers by introducing technology that makes everyone’s lives a little bit easier.
“We work really hard to educate our customers about their vehicles using the technology that’s available to them already,” says Dana.
That includes simple, yet powerful features like a texting tool and email reminders. With so many people plugged in and too busy for phone conversations, you can simply receive a text from S&S letting you know when your vehicle has been estimated or when it’s ready for pickup.
And for those who aren’t great at keeping tabs on their vehicle, email reminders let you know about upcoming appointments, when it’s time to replace a belt, and even when you’re about to reach 100 thousand miles and need some tuning up.
S&S is also ahead of the curve when it comes to technology inside the four walls of the shop. Customers are greeted with a Welcome Station and can use a kiosk to check in if Clint’s too busy or on the phone, which, if you know Clint, he usually is.
“With just a few, quick keystrokes customers can find their vehicle, add any problems they are having, then hand their keys to Clint and head on back to work,” Dana says.
The technicians are also becoming more tech-savvy by incorporating tablets that help perform digital, visual inspections. If they spot something wrong with a vehicle, the digital inspector will highlight problem areas in red, which the technicians can then share with customers so they too can see first-hand what’s going on with their vehicles.
Introducing all this new technology has been a learning curve, though, especially for Clint, who just got his first smartphone a couple months ago.
“It’s the exact same as Tanner’s so he can help me with it,” Clint laughs.
While Clint is still getting acquainted with the basics, he does admit the integration of technology has helped get the shop get up to speed and saves tons of time with data entry. Just ask him about his most recent discovery of Ctrl C and Ctrl V - the classic copy and paste shortcut on the keyboard.
“It’s saved a year off my life,” Clint jokes. “You know, now you don’t need that paper, you don’t need that ticket, you don’t need that ink pen, you just scan everything - poke, shoot, and send it.”
More Than Just a Business
While many rely upon S&S for everything from simple oil changes to complete engine repair, it’s the genuine and caring customer service that makes the shop such a pillar in the community. That because Clint’s bottom line isn’t like most. He doesn’t cut you short. He doesn’t sell you what you don’t need. He just wants to make sure every customer is treated right.
“He’s the guy who walks people to their cars. Or when someone pulls up and honks the horn, Clint will talk to them so they don’t have to get out of their car,” Dana says. “He talks on everyone’s level to make sure customers understand what’s going on with their cars.”
Clint also goes to a lot of customers’ homes, picks up their cars, and delivers them when they’re finished. He even picks them up from their workplace. The shop also has an after-hours drop service to cater to those with difficult schedules - like farmers, who oftentimes work from dusk ‘til dawn.
“Most people trust Clint so much that they just say, ‘Do whatever it needs, Clinton’ and toss him the keys,” Dana says.
The Next 20
As for what the next 20 years holds, Clint has two simple words: “Oh gosh.” While he’s fully prepared to see self-driving cars and even more technology introduced into the world of mechanics, Clint is prepared to just keep going forward.
He reflects back on how several technicians got out of the business once vehicles became more technologically advanced and everything wasn’t carbureted anymore. But Clint held his ground, adapted to all the fast-paced changes, and now has a solid understanding of both sides of the business - everything from older vehicles to brand new ones off the lot.
And while the business is constantly changing to keep up with technology and state and government regulations, Clint’s philosophy for tackling the future ahead is quite simple, just like Clint himself.
“You just gotta keep going forward,” he says. “When you’re thrown another curve ball, you just step back away from the base and hit it.”