Illis Auto Service has served generations of Ann Arbor customers
Tucked away between the YMCA’s rain gardens and the elevated train tracks that run over Huron Street is a simple brick building with Illis Auto Service.
The name of the shop is advertised on a brown awning and a matching street sign in classic serif font. There is often a mail van in the driveway. It may be easy to miss as you drive past, but for longtime Ann Arbor residents, Illi’s is known as the place to go to seek honest and thorough service.
Story of Illis
Founded in the late 1940s, Illi’s has been a staple on Ann Arbor’s west side for decades.
The shop was passed on between two generations, from founder Elmer Illi to his son Ron. Raymond Roberts owned the business from 1979 to 2002. In 2002 Larry Young bought the business.
Although Young is not an Illi, Young is no stranger to the family – he attended Pioneer High School with Elmer Illi’s grandchildren in the 1970s.
After graduating from Pioneer, Young enrolled in a mechanical engineering program. He soon realized that he was better suited for the practical learning of car technology.
“I got into auto technology, so I realized this was my field,” said Young. “Let me read it in the book and then go over here and do it with the car. I feel good there. ”
He began dual studies with Jim Bradley Pontiac Buick GMC and graduated as an associate, then began a career as an automotive repair technician at many auto repair shops in Ann Arbor. He was working as deputy service manager at Fischer Honda when he received news that Illi was hiring a technician.
Despite the downgrading of the job title from assistant manager back to technician, Young was drawn to the higher pay Illis auto technicians received.
“It was a step up financially to come here,” said Young. “I’ve earned more here as a technician than as a manager.”
Young said he was also drawn to the possibility of future ownership.
“I was kind of burned out in the dealer vibe,” said Young. “Everyone expects you to do something, and you have to go to someone else to ask them to do something. You can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s the right thing, I’m doing it.’ ”
The day to buy Illis came earlier than Young had imagined. Roberts’ health deteriorated rapidly in 2002, and Young began purchasing Illi’s that year.
Roberts died in early 2003. Young says he misses his friend, but he still keeps the memories of Roberts alive in the store. The plants hanging over the waiting area have been around since Roberts’ time, and his toolbox is still in the same place. There are some original artworks from the 1960s and 1970s on the wall. The effect is a feeling that the shop has stalled over time, retaining an accessible, old-fashioned charm.
Competent and well paid technicians
Young also maintains Roberts’ basic business practices. Turnover of auto technicians can be quite high in most stores, but many at Illi have worked together for years – and even brought their families together during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
“We have what we think are the best technicians in town,” said Young. “And probably the highest paid technicians in town. If not the highest, then darn close. It makes them happy to be here and makes them want to be here. “
Young’s overall goal is to serve the community, he said, noting that he was not interested in selling Illi’s to a larger auto service company or expanding into multiple stores.
“Spreading it too thinly would mean more money with less service or less quality of service,” said Young. “I won’t get rich quick with this decision, but I felt that maintaining a reputation and serving a smaller clientele better than serving one was more important.”
This motto fits with Young’s self-proclaimed business motto “high moral integrity”.
“You have to be profitable, for sure,” said Young. “But that doesn’t replace the feeling that customers feel that they are in good hands and want to send their friends and family over here. That is our recipe for success instead of the owner running away with as much money as possible. “
Illis survival during COVID-19
COVID-19 has dealt a severe and sometimes fatal blow to small businesses across the country. Many relied on federal aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to obtain loans from the paycheck protection program, even though the aid was not distributed fairly.
Young said Illis survived thanks to a “relatively small” PPP loan and a contract with the United States Postal Service to service their vehicles.
“We were apologized for (the loan), so it turned out to be essentially a grant,” said Young. “We didn’t have to pay it back. We have the right things, the right paperwork, and it’s been used right. Between that and the post, (it) probably actually saved Illis. “
Young said his business had shrunk to around 50% of its usual profit during the worst part of the pandemic. At the end of 2020, the business expanded to 65%. In mid-2021, business was back at 100% for a month or two.
“We were out on appointments for two weeks for a while,” said Young. “It was like everyone was driving off at the same time and everyone heard their brakes making noise and their air conditioning not working well enough.”
Now, says Young, business is pretty stable, if still a little slower than before the pandemic.
Local, cross-generational customers
Fortunately, Illi’s clientele is mostly made up of loyal locals who typically come to the store year after year.
“We have many children and grandchildren from previous customers,” said Young. “They introduce their children and say, ‘This is where you can get your car.’ We get this multigenerational thing that also tells us we’re doing the right thing. ”
This goes for ex-Ann Arbor resident Jordan Siden, who first visited Illi’s after his parents recommended it to him when he got home from college the last minute. His car was repaired before the school holidays ended.
“Not only was he ready to turn the car around so quickly, he also told me about a recalled part (and said), ‘We won’t charge you for it because it’s covered,'” Siden said. “He’ll do his best to explain everything in insane detail … I have permission to just ask him any questions I have.”
Since moving to Detroit, Siden has been traveling to Illi for major repairs such as inspections of his used car.
“My current car is such a mess, (but) we really trust Illis,” said Siden. “(Young) never seems really rushed or stressed, he always takes the time to explain things.”
Rackham student Laura Saunders also spoke about Young’s thorough explanations for his work. Saunders went to Illi a few years ago to replace a flat tire shortly after she moved to Ann Arbor.
“I was new to Ann Arbor and the location was convenient,” Saunders said. “But when I described the situation to him (on the phone) he said, ‘Okay, we probably need to replace the tire, we can bring you in on this date and it will cost about that much.’ I thought that sounds reasonable. “
While the cost of repairs may be prohibitive to some, Young sticks to his prices.
“It may take a few visits before someone sees, feels, and understands the difference, but once they do it it seems like they’re here forever,” said Young. “Because they understand, yes, you come to an oil change, and yes, it is an expensive oil change if you look at it that way. But what you actually get is a master mechanic who will thoroughly check your vehicle and while he does that he just goes on and changes the oil and filters. ”
The future of Illis
Young said he and his team would love to expand the classic car repair business, but the specialized car gives his technicians an opportunity to develop their skills. He said there were usually one or two classic cars in the store at the same time.
“That comes with the fact that we’re a little more old-school here and our kind of mom-and-pop business,” said Young. “And it is fun. You see some pretty cool and some pretty exotic cars. ”
The Illi’s team is also looking forward to specializing in electric vehicles, said Young.
“We decided not to go with the hybrid trend, but we’re definitely more interested in going with all-electric vehicles,” said Young. “Most importantly, the fact that they still have a steering suspension brake, which we still do on all cars, including hybrids.”
Most importantly, Illi’s will continue to be a place that cares about its customers, Young said.
“We’re not a highly competitive place,” said Young. “I see it as my job to basically tell you what’s going on with the car, but in such a way that you understand the priority level.”
The Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at [email protected]