Putting the service in Max’s | Business


1a: an act of retiring: the state of being retired

1b: withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life

1c: the age at which one normally retires

— www.merriam-webster.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Even though it was his 80th birthday, Ernie Rokos was sitting at his desk at Max’s Service.

After all it was a Monday. And a Monday meant a work day, same as it has for many of the 26 years of Mondays he spent at the downtown business. To his right were balloons to mark the occasion.

Later would come the traditional Texas sheet cake, prepared by office manager Sue Costello, with permission from his wife of 50-plus years, Kathy. Cake would be accompanied with Moomer’s ice cream, compliments of his little brother, who was also at work at Max’s on Monday.

“I’m just a pup compared to my brother,” said the 73-year-old George Rokos who, like his sibling, works the first three days of the work week in the longtime downtown Traverse City appliance business, which opened on Sept 29, 1950 at its current and only location, 135 E. State St.

The Rokos brothers joined Max’s Service on Feb. 1, 1996. They were part of the employees that came over when Max’s bought out Garthe’s, another longtime appliance company in Traverse City.

Despite 26 years with Max’s, the brothers rank just ninth on the seniority list.

Bill Hurley is churning toward 45 years at Max’s Service on Sept. 26. Hurley still works full-time at Max’s, just as he did when starting there in 1977.

“We should both retire, but then what are we going to do?” the 77-year-old Hurley joked to the birthday celebrant while checking on the status of a part.

From former owner Jim Owens — who still works mornings at Max’s like he has since Nov. 24, 1970 — all the way on down, this is one business that may know what the concept of not working means, but chooses to dismiss the idea.

“We definitely know what retirement means, but it feels good and keeps me active,” said Ernie Rokos, who started at Garthe’s after graduating from high school in 1959 and returned to join his brother and father — Erine Rokos, Sr., who was the manager at the other long-time TC appliance store — after college and 20-plus years at DeWeese Hardware.

Even Owens, who took over the company from his father-in-law, Max Crandall, doesn’t know how to step away from the workplace. Jim Owens has been with the company for 51 years. His seniority date on the company ledger is Nov. 24, 1970.

“I did retire and I don’t like to be retired,” he said. “So I keep coming in because I like to.”

That’s the same sentiment Ernie Rokos Jr. and Hurley expressed as reasons to keep coming into work.

“It’s enjoyable,” said Hurley, who noted his 57th wedding anniversary is July 31. “It gets me out and gets me with other people. It keeps my mind working. Now it’s my body that keeps going out.”

“Because I can,” the new octogenarian said in a half-joking, half-serious manner. “It makes me feel wanted. Plus I don’t have any meaningful hobbies.”

All in the family

While the Rokos brothers enjoy an actual family experience at work, there is one that permeates at Max’s.

“For me it’s a sense of family,” said office manager Sue Costello, who has been at Max’s Service for 26 years. “We all really care a lot about each other. For me it’s a sense of working for a company that strives to do the right thing, that takes care of people, takes care of its customers and is fair with people.”

“It’s great working with these great people everyday,” said Jeff Owens, who is the third generation of ownership. “I’m really lucky. We have a great group… a great group.”

Jeff Owens has 27 years of working at the company his grandfather started. But he said that is somewhat deceptive.

Jeff Owens said he actually started at Max’s as an eighth grader in 1986, well ahead of his May 30, 1995 official seniority date. Jeff Owens said he remembers his father interviewing Hurley in his living room before he came on board in 1977.

“It was the only time we could get together,” Jim Owens recalled. “He was working somewhere else until he decided to come with us.”

The family atmosphere at Max’s is especially apparent in the back-and-forth banter during the business day.

Younger brother George Rokos actually has a longer tenure in the appliance game than Ernie. George started at Garthe’s out of high school in 1967.

“I’ve had one job,” he said. “One house, one wife.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate,” George Rokos finished, ignoring the ‘one prison term’ comment by another longtime employee at the downtown Traverse City store.

Even the long-tenured Hurley isn’t immune to a jab from a co-worker. While talking about working for Garthe’s before joining Max’s, 26-year employee John King joked it was because he was fired from the other business.

Hurley said the banter keeps things light at the workplace.

“It really is,” Hurley said. “You can just about tell them anything and they don’t take offense. It’s kind of fun doing that.”

The atmosphere is also beneficial, especially since Max’s employees are often talking to customers when things go wrong. A leaking dishwasher or a broken washing machine halfway through a mountain of dirty clothes is not usually a time for jokes.

“When you work enough with someone long enough, there’s a lot of give and take,” Ernie Rokos said. “Not that there’s not stressful times, but it helps get over those. It can’t be all 100 percent business all the time every day.”

Slow down

While Max’s service and its employees keep going strong, there has been some scaling back from the workforce.

Both of the Rokos brothers are at their respective desks on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ernie Rokos said he and his wife also head to Alabama for the first of the year after he’s put a tank of gas through the snowblower.

“I have a Monday, a Hump Day and a Friday,” Ernie Rokos said of his work week.

“I have a four-day weekend,” George Rokos said. “It’s plenty of time to get my chores done.”

Jim Owens said he reserves mornings for work and afternoons for hitting the links. He added the morning shift is a chance to work alongside his son in the office they share.

“I come in and do a few necessary things each day,” Jim Owens said. “I work three or four hours and go play golf. I get to see my son — I get to see both of my sons — every day.”

Even Hurley said he’s slowing down, right after moving equipment around in the back of the store that would make a younger person groan.

“I’m 77,” Hurley said. “I work here maybe 70 hours for the two weeks. I average 30 to 35 hours here. That’s good enough.

“By the time 2, 2:30 rolls around, I’m done. I’m going home.”

A lot of the employees gave credit to management for both the work environment and making everything run so smoothly at Max’s.

“Jeff has been really nice,” George Rokos said. “He lets me pick my schedule. He’s an amazing boss. He’s pretty laid back, pretty easy going, but keeps you in line. All the good things a guy needs.”

“We have a great boss,” Costello later added.

It’s also something that benefits both management and the employees.

“They’ve been good to me,” Hurley said. “That works the other way, too.”

And it’s not like Jeff Owens is going to let a little inflexibility cause decades of experience to work out the double doors at Max’s. He said the dedication is due to one of the extra ‘perks’ for the staff.

“Everybody here knows what they’re doing,” Jeff Owens said. “It just makes every day a treat. It’s a cool group of people.

“Everybody gets along really well. The free coffee helps.”

More than a store

Max’s specializes in the sales, service and repair of appliances. But the business will also field other questions, some of which have nothing to do with the industry. It’s some of that assistance that keeps the staff fresh.

“To me, I love the variety of it,” Costello said. “We’re selling, we’re repairing. We get to talk to people every day.

“People call Max’s to ask where is the best place to fix their car or how to fix their TV. They just call for information. It’s fun.”

That’s because Max’s is a downtown retail legacy, joining other businesses like Walter & Hemming and Votruba Leather Goods. Former Walters & Hemming owner Bill Hemming Jr. told the Record-Eagle for a July 24 article that he thought the three current businesses and the former Petertyl Drug were charter Chamber of Commerce members in 1935.

Max’s Service cemented its place in the business when it acquired Garthe’s in the mid-1990s.

“We inherited the best people when my dad bought Garthe’s,” Jeff Owens said. “That was great.”

Costello said Max’s saw business climb during the pandemic. She said Max’s currently has 44 employees, which includes three high school students for. the summer season.

And it seems to be a place where 80-year-old employees and those with 44 years of continuous service still want to show up and punch the time clock.

“It’s just a good place to work; an awesome place,” George Rokos said. “There’s been some hiccups, but we got through it.”

“We should both retire, but then what are we going to do?” Bill Hurley, age 77, to Ernie Rokos, 80

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