Building A Legacy – Clem’s Garage
For Dennis Clem, running a service station has always been a family affair. It started when he was a young boy sitting next to his father in a tow truck responding to calls from stranded drivers. Years later Dennis’ own son, Bill, would sneak down and sleep across the front door so his father would have to wake him up when a call came in.
Clem’s Garage was opened back in the 1940’s when servicing tractors from the local farms was bigger business than servicing cars. Dennis remembers whole families would come into town with the tractors and spend the day visiting friends and picnicking next to the garage while the technicians completed their repairs and maintenance. But Dennis’ fondest memories were of the pool table his Dad had at the garage where farmers would play to pass the time. Dennis learned how to play pool from one of those farmers and enjoyed spending time watching and playing with the men who visited his Dad’s garage. Clem’s garage was more than just a service station, it was a gathering point for the community, and the center of the universe for Dennis and his six other brothers and sisters.
As a teenager Dennis received his qualifications to conduct state inspections and started working for his father. Eventually his father retired and turned the garage over to Dennis and three other of his siblings. The technology changed, cars and not tractors became the mainstay of the business, and the service station expanded into a larger garage, more tow trucks, but the same family with the same commitment to the community. Eventually Dennis’ two sons Bill and Craig had started working for Clem’s Garage. Like their father, they started by sweeping floors and running errands until they were old enough to get their state inspection license and starting working on cars. The small family garage became a growing mainstay in Winchester and by 2010 had become a repair and maintenance garage with 4 bays, a towing service with 8 trucks, and employed close to 30 people.
The Clem family believed in paying for everything in cash so with each expansion or new building they saved and bought what they could afford. But in 2010 Dennis saw an opportunity to create more than just a great family owned service station; he saw the opportunity to create a legacy. After talking with his siblings it was decided that Dennis would buy out his brother and sisters. While that decision was simple enough; to complete the buyout Dennis would need to do something that Clem’s Garage had never done its more than 60-year history, borrow money. To reserve working capital and maintain its flexibility to expand and grow in the future, Dennis looked at acquiring a loan to complete the buyout and retain ownership of the company. He looked to his local banker to help guide him through new challenge of obtaining a loan. Due to the size of the loan and the collateral requirements, Dennis’ local bank contacted Dave Phillips with Wells Fargo bank to help complete the deal. Clem’s Garage was in a good financial position, had plenty of collateral with equity, but being in a service industry made it a risky loan for most banks. Dave recognized this and called upon the Small Business Administration’s lending program to provide the guarantee that would make the buyout possible. The 7(a) Program is SBA's primary lending program. It provides loan guaranties for small businesses unable to secure financing on reasonable terms through normal lending channels. The program operates through private-sector lenders who provide loans which are, in turn, guaranteed by the SBA. A maximum loan amount of $5 million has been established for 7(a) loans. The eligibility requirements are designed to be as broad as possible in order that this lending program can accommodate the most diverse variety of small business financing needs. Thanks to the Small Business Jobs Act, the loan to Clem’s Garage carried a 90% guaranty to Wells Fargo Bank and business was not required to pay the SBA guaranty fee, a savings of over $30,000 to the business.
Today Dennis Clem owns and operates Clem’s Garage with both his sons and five grandchildren as part of the overall staff. The operation has truly become a family affair. Dennis and his sons Craig and Bill built homes on the 10 acres that include the service station and main office building. And one of the best upgrades to the location is the conference room that Dennis remodeled this year. There is a conference table and chairs where Dennis meets with his grandchildren once a week to provide mentorship and hear their ideas on how to improve the business. There is a kitchen for large family meals that often happen when someone has to work late. He’s even built a room above the office to serve as an apartment for one of his grandchildren. But with all the changes and remodeling, the pool table that served as the hub of activity some 60 years ago still has a place in the corner of the new room and still draws a pretty good crowd. What used to serve as a gathering place for the community, now serves as an ongoing legacy for one man’s family. The art of passing down a trade to multiple generations in one family is becoming more and more a thing of the past. And that might have been the case for the Clem family if Dennis had not had the vision to create a business centered on just that. Dennis Clem has built a successful business that has continued to serve the community for over 60 years, but what he is most proud of is building a legacy for his family.