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Sweat Equity

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Jake Henes walks to work. This may not seem unusual, but it is, considering that Henes spends all day fixing cars. Henes, owner of Riverwest Automotive Service (801 E. Keefe Ave.), which opened in July, lives a few blocks from his shop. He does brakes, tune-ups, exhaust, electrical and engine repair, as well as custom work. Henes is the sole owner and employee of Riverwest Automotive. “I’m the landscaper, the maintenance guy, I do the books, I work on cars and pick up the phone with oily hands,” he says with a laugh. “It’s rewarding.” Henes and his wife have lived in Riverwest for seven years after moving to Milwaukee from Waukesha. “It’s nice to establish a business in the neighborhood,” Henes says. “We’re investing ourselves.” He has never owned a business before, although he did study business for a while at Carthage College. Until recently, Henes did fleet maintenance. One day, while lying under a car and changing an engine, he decided he wanted his own business. He had walked past the Keefe Avenue building many times. (Its previous owner used the building, a former gas and a service station, for storage.) Henes quit his job and bought the building, which holds a small waiting room, the garage and a small office. His wife and parents helped him get it into shape. It was a lot of work, especially the landscaping, he says. “It’s all sweat. I’m trying to personally finance as much as I can.” Henes is taking classes from SCORE, an organization of volunteer and retiree executives who give courses on running a small business. Riverwest Automotive’s customers are mostly Riverwest residents. The best advertising in this neighborhood, Henes adds, is word of mouth. That is one of the plusses of doing business in Riverwest, he explains: his customers are his neighbors. It is also easy to network with business owners, he says, pointing to local business cards on the waiting room’s bulletin board. He once got a call from a neighborhood woman who wanted to have her sidewalk fixed. Henes told the woman that she had the wrong number and referred her to a local business that does sidewalk repair. The downside of being in Riverwest is the “petty stuff,” he says. Some customers are worried about vandalism and stolen cars. “It’s a little frustrating,” Henes says, but “there’s nowhere else I can think of where you know your neighbors.” What is business networking in Riverwest like? Henes says some nearby residents were concerned about the auto shop’s pollution potential. “Mechanics have a reputation of not being the best environmentally,” he admits. He counters this by making Riverwest Automotive green-friendly. He filters, treats and reuses coolant from radiators, runs furnaces with old oil, and donates old parts for scrap metal, he explains while handing over a flier that states his recycling policy. Henes does not plan to expand or hire employees, but he would like to have an intern or an apprentice. While he was getting certified in auto repair at Milwaukee Area Technical College and Waukesha County Technical College, he worked as an intern. “That’s the only way to learn,” he says. “You’re teaching [interns] what you know; they’re showing you what they know.” Since Riverwest Automotive Service opened, business has been steady, Henes says. Starting a small business has been difficult, expensive and very rewarding, he adds with a smile. One August evening, the radio in the garage is tuned to NPR. “That’s one thing about having your own shop,” Henes reflects. “When you’re working with ten guys, you can’t listen to NPR whenever you want.” Riverwest Auto Service, 801 E. Keefe Ave. Phone: 332-3844 and 534-0080
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