Fueling Our Passion, Living Our Dream

Nan Mortensen, co-owner of Dutch’s Auto Service, reflects back over a lifetime of building a livelihood and how she and her partner and co-owner, Crystal Rossman, are living their dreams.

My partner Crystal and I run Dutch’s Auto Service with these values at heart: honesty, transparency of the repair process, and a passion for excellent service. We opened Dutch’s because we saw a need for more personalized service in the auto repair industry as people are keeping their cars longer and longer. We are passionate about our customers gaining an understanding of what is being done to repair their car and why we need to do the repair. Knowing a repair that cost several hundred dollars will not have to be done again for tens of thousands of miles helps the customer feel at ease. It may not take the sting out of the wallet right away, but in the end we provide reliable repairs and stand behind our work. We have combined our individual dreams and we have started to see some come true. We each love automobiles, good repair, and service. We enjoy being business owners in Madison; I think our passion and belief in and love of what we are doing helps quiet the stress and fear that comes with owning a business.

Nan’s Story

I think my love of picture puzzles, crosswords, and word and number games is what lead me into automotive repair. As a tactile learner, auto repair offers me a way to be a part of the puzzle. I believe that to touch is to know. I love to figure out how things work. The ultimate puzzle for me is alternative fuels and power sources.

Growing up just south of Madison, I was around people in my neighborhood who fixed cars, bicycles, boats, mini bikes, motorcycles—anything. Many garage doors were open late into the evening; maybe somebody was getting their car ready for the weekend races or a dad was doing maintenance on the family car. My father acquired the land my parents built their house on from a farmer for one dollar, five years of mechanical services on the farm equipment, and a handshake.

My neighborhood was small and blue-collar. At night, the bright lights glowing out of garage doors around the neighborhood created a TV-set effect I could watch as I approached my house or a friend’s. I noticed that fixing the car could be a welcome, solitary event. I also noticed that fixing cars could be a community event. There was a tiny repair shop/corner gas station where you could fill up your boat and pick up some beer and smokes before hitting the lake. You could also find gearheads who could fix almost anything presented to them or knew of the right person to see.

Once I could see over the fender, I was allowed to come closer to a project or bring a wrench or a jug of something to the scene. Sometimes the project was fixing the car after a deer hit. Other times it was figuring out how to make the lawnmower or snowmobile faster than the other guy’s toys from down the block. My brother is a mechanic. Jim has 39 years of experience as a professional mechanic and is now a valuable employee at Dutch’s Auto Service. I got to watch his skills develop from the beginning. He has had to expand his education, knowledge, skills, and toolbox through four decades of automotive evolution. By the way, we had a very fast lawnmower back in the day.

I finally got to a point when I was tired of watching, and I just started taking things apart to see how they worked. The trick was always getting things back together and working again. Once I had ten-speed bicycles figured out, there was no stopping me. I don’t recall ever really being stopped by any adult when I was doing one of my puzzles until I became curious about the garbage disposal when I was nine. It was probably for the best that I wasn’t allowed to take it down and figure it out. I was never really openly encouraged to peruse a trade such as automotive repair as I was growing up, but once I turned 12, I was on my own without parents. I knew what I saw and experienced around me and made it my foundation to build on. The mechanics who were honest were always busy in the neighborhood. The ones who were known to be sloppy or shady were never very busy.

I never aspired to make the lawnmower go faster or to make my truck be lower. I like things how they were put together from the beginning. I enjoy taking care of cars, tools, and equipment to make them last longer and perform better. I like to outsmart auto engineers, some of whom seem to have no concept of where a human hand can fit.

When I was 16 and my first car broke down, I coasted it down a hill to a corner garage in Madison (when there was still such a thing as corner garages). The mechanic looked at my car, showed me what was wrong, and let me watch while he fixed it. It looked simple to me. I understood the system he was repairing. I appreciated him talking to me as if I were anybody other than any 16-year-old girl stereotype imaginable. He was honest and provided a reasonable repair for a reasonable price. On my way home, I stopped at the parts store and bought a repair manual for my car. I began to tend to my ride and found the work to be more enjoyable than working in a restaurant. My confidence grew, and I branched out to the cars of my high-school classmates. I would do the repairs my limited knowledge and toolbox would allow. “First, do no harm” are good words to live by. I started to buy cheap little cars, fix them up, and drive them into the ground. Next it was pick-up trucks. Now, I suppose it could be anything.

For 26 years I had dreams of my own shop. I used my dreamtime to learn and expand my skills. I stitched together a network of peers in the industry and established my own rank among them. I developed working relationships with parts vendors, dealerships, and salvage yards. I worked in shops where being a woman was a daily exercise of survival. I always kept my eye to the horizon.

Crystal’s Story

Crystal was not encouraged to consider this type of profession as she was planning her education and career path. It wasn’t until after college and working in the so-called “real world” for years that she decided to grasp the reins of her life and take control. Crystal believes that if you work hard and prove your skills, you will be successful. She found that not to be true in the corporate office. There, she felt like a number and someone who was disposable unless she conformed to that office’s social circuit. Not willing to change her beliefs in honesty and hard work in order to get ahead, she wanted to quit. However, she was scared to leave her well-paid position with benefits to start something that she didn’t have any experience in.

The most Crystal knew about her car was how to drive it and how to put the spare tire on. She was tired of the feeling that she was paying too much at the repair shop and wanted to understand why. She also liked the idea of learning a skill she had always been curious about. The two-year automotive technician program at Madison College was interesting and affordable for Crystal. Having already obtained a four-year degree from the University of Minnesota, she chose the diploma program, which focuses on repair more than business management. She made the dean’s list and graduated Phi Theta Kappa.

Crystal has a drive to do her best, and that is how she gets satisfaction out of her work. Like me, she likes to take the puzzle apart, put it back together, and see it work.

Realizing Our Dream

Four years ago when Crystal and I met, it was easy to see we could make our own shop work. Being unemployed for 18 months allowed me to pull together all the little quilt pieces I had created over the years, call in some favors, and begin the work of starting a business. Crystal manages the money and taxes, pays the bills, and repairs the cars. Once all the hoods are closed for the day, she does the bookwork.

Balancing a relationship and owning a business together can be risky to say the least. We had to come to terms about who has the final say on what in the business, and we have to leave it at the door when we get home. We feel very supported by our friends and family. We have a great network of peers and are blessed by the Madison community.

One of the greatest rewards I get from what I do is seeing the relief come over a person when they realize their car is in good hands. Some days may not be the most profitable, but on those days we remind ourselves that we made a lot of people happy and that is our reward.