Losing a business battle can certainly be stressful, even life changing. But losing a son and then a spouse is virtually unimaginable for most of us. That’s exactly what happened to Karen Smith, president of both Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction and City Wide Towing. Today Karen greets you with a big smile and a welcoming voice. The old adage “a sparkle in her eye” had to have been coined by someone who knew Karen. She’s intuitive, witty and sharp; and certainly, she’s memorable. At all of 5 foot and 1 inch tall, Karen Smith is certainly no push over. She is a little bit of dynamite packed tight in a small package. She is quick in her step and wit, yet seems to be the poster girl for “never let em see you sweat!”
In 1984, Karen (Bonnell at the time) was a single mother who was working for a realtor in the Michiana area. She was doing her best to support herself and her son, Josh. That’s about the time she met JD Smith, a local independent wholesaler of used cars. At the time JD was considering purchasing the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction from Ken and Martha Jacobs. As part of her job, Karen assisted her company in putting together various aspects of the deal. As the months went by and as due diligence was done, Ken and Martha came to an agreement with JD. It was 1985 and the front door would be opened by a new owner.
The facility was located on McKinley Highway at the time (about a block from today’s new state-of-the-art facility). The auction building was old and dilapidated. It housed a two lane auction area with one door on each end. As JD looked around his newly acquired facility he had visions of what it might someday become.
During the time that JD worked with Karen he quickly recognized her work ethic, common sense and intuitiveness. Before long he came to the conclusion that Karen’s characteristics might be helpful somewhere in the folds of his new venture. Fall of that year JD offered Karen a part-time position. As a single parent, she needed additional income, so it was a perfect scenario for both (although the position would only be for one day a week). Needing the money, Karen latched onto the job, as she says, because “baby needs a new pair of shoes”.
It wasn’t long before the professional relationship blossomed into a personal one as well. Karen and JD seemed to be a very good match all the way around. As they worked together a lot of changes took place, many improvements in systems and personnel and even a name change (the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction’s would become the South Bend/Mishawaka Auto Auction.
In 1989, with Karen at his side, JD bought Bill’s City Wide Towing. JD believed that the auto auction and towing company shared a lot of synergies. Before long Karen found herself running the towing company. Two years later she would marry JD and the couple would continue their work/personal relationship, side-by-side to make the businesses grow.
Over the next several years the organizations would be nurtured and improved as JD and Karen worked diligently on their businesses. They began talking about breathing some new life into the auction and started researching plots of land where an exciting new facility might be built. The couple agreed that the geographic area was one they liked, so they focused on land nearby. Soon they started acquiring several lots which they would soon string together and develop as “the perfect property” for the new facility. The process took several months to negotiate and acquire because there were several parcels owned by different people. Finally, in 2000, all of the land for the new facility was finalized and purchased. By early 2001, ground was broken and the new building was being constructed. In July of 2002, the new state-of-the-art facility opened for business. Karen reflected back on that period of time: “It was exciting, it was fun… it was a lot of hard work and hours but things were really good.”
Things continued to fall into place, when suddenly, tragedy struck their lives. It was December of 2002; Karen was working at the towing company that evening dispatching trucks. Police called and requested a tow truck be dispatched to the scene of a serious accident. She dispatched one of her wreckers to the scene of the accident to take the tow. Karen dispatched her stepson Chad (who was on call that evening) to take the tow. What Karen did not know at the time of the call was that her son Joshua had been involved in the tragic accident. He and two of his friends died at the scene.
It was an unimaginable catastrophe and obviously a life-changing moment for not only Karen, but for Chad and JD as well. Chad quit the towing company after the accident. “It was the darkest time of my life,” Karen stated in an interview. “I didn’t believe I could go on… and that feeling lingered for a long, long, time.”
Karen and JD did their best to support each other. Somehow, over time, they managed to keep the business intact and move forward. As the years progressed, Karen muscled through this unimaginable tragic period of her life. She did everything she could to just get up in the morning, and somehow, mentally and emotionally collected the strength to journey forward.
As both Karen and JD dealt with the emptiness and sorrow that filled their lives, they pushed on. As for the businesses, system improvements and support of their best staff members aided the progression of both companies and that helped the couple to continue on an upward path. “We worked hard every day which helped me keep my mind off of negative thinking. Both JD and I were actually having a good time under the circumstances. “We were working hard but making the most of it.” Karen recalled, “We were in the healing process which takes a long, long time.”
The new facility served as a deterrent as well. Both Karen and JD were overwhelmed with everything that had to be accomplished with their exciting new building and all of the capabilities that came with it. They both knew they had made a good decision, as their customers (auto buyers and sellers) raved over the design and functionality of the new facility, as well as how much more enjoyable the auction was to attend. Things were starting to be rewarding once again” Karen remembered, “Our customers were happy, our staff was happy and of course that had an influence on JD and I as well.”
Things indeed seemed to be slowly progressing and gradually getting better, until misfortune struck again. It was early 2010; JD was not feeling well and visited his doctor for testing. A few days later, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The doctors gave him approximately 15 months if he had the surgery and took the treatments. Fifteen months later, Karen was in the midst of planning a 70th birthday party for JD. Invitations went out and a tent was ordered. Unfortunately JD passed away just days before his party.
Karen vividly recollects her decisions to stay or fold the business. “I just went back to work. I had to.” Karen emphatically stated, “Businesses are like trains, if someone doesn’t direct them they’ll go off the track.” However there was more than that obligation that drove her decision “I also knew that keeping the business open meant that I was keeping my mind preoccupied. For me, it was an emotional survival decision.”
It’s certainly fair to say that most of us would have folded under the circumstances. Karen admits that once again she found herself in a place where she didn’t know whether she could continue on. She made the toughest decision of her career and possibly of her life, to move forward and carry on what her husband had started. It took some time but eventually the auto auction and the towing company would once again be heading in the right direction.
However, with business comes challenge, and the next big test for Karen would be making a key personnel change. Karen instinctively knew that, in the best interest of the company, she needed to release the auction’s general manager of his duties. This was to be one of the company’s biggest changes. Karen recalled her feelings, “It was scary as hell getting rid of the guy that possessed more information about our company (and the auction industry) than anyone else left behind, including me.” However she was confident that she needed to make that move for the company to survive. She reflected on the outcome. “After that decision was made everything changed, for the good. It was kinda like we put the fun back in the business. The staff, all of the staff, right down to the last driver, was happy. Things immediately ran smoother and more efficiently. It proved to me one thing,: when it comes to business, every once in a while making the toughest decisions or toughest gambles can often have the biggest returns. In this case, it made all of the difference in the world for our survival and success.”
Over the next several years, the South Bend/Mishawaka Auto Auction would continue to grow and thrive once again. One of Karen’s decisions most recently was to go back to her roots and change the name (South Bend Mishawaka Auto Auction) back to the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction (GMAA). “I’m no longer afraid to change,” Karen confessed.” This serves as a reminder that if we don’t change with the times, the times will leave us behind.
Karen also felt that it was time to change the name of her towing company, Bill’s City-Wide Towing, to simply City Wide Towing. Karen explained the reasoning behind the changes. “Bill has not been a part of this company for many, many, years. My staff has worked very hard to earn a better reputation than what the company had many years ago and I want that hard work to be reflected through a better, new image. In fact, I am changing the entire image. We even used our marketing partners to develop a new logo, corporate identity and website for us. It’s simple and clean. It will serve us well. In fact, when we changed the name of the auction back to GMAA, I decided that this was the perfect time to change our corporate identity there, as well, since we had to change logo, stationary, signage and all of the other things that come with a name change. Plus we have a new website which really represents us for who we are and being honest to the public is important to me.
It’s that kind of honesty and attitude that make up the essence of Karen Smith. She can be the sweetest, little ball of fire you ever met. She is admired by her staff as well as her customers. As one of her many auto auction customers stated, “If we had more Karen Smiths in our industry I can assure you we would all have a better reputation than the one we have today. “ Rick Hamilton, of Hamilton Towing, another well-respected regional towing company, says it emphatically, “I can tell you this: if all of my competition were like Karen this would be a much, much better industry… it would be tougher to compete, but certainly a better industry.”
Today, City Wide Towing is one of the largest, most respected towing establishments in the region. The Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction has one of the finest state-of-the-art facilities in the country and is considered one of the best run auto auctions anywhere. In fact, this summer Karen leads her GMAA team in a 30 year birthday celebration. Her leadership skills, tenacity, intuitiveness, common sense and character make her a force to reckon with (JD obviously had a keen eye for character). She is unquestionably someone that the competition either admires or fears, but regardless, they have to respect what she has been through, as well as what she has achieved.
Butch Harrison, general manager for GMAA (and a long time friend of JD’s), had this to say of Karen: “I wasn’t real sure about Karen at first. I didn’t know what to expect, but as time went on I could see that she was doing a pretty amazing job.
She’s developed a reputation for being honest and fair with customers, and has earned a lot of respect from the dealers. For a long time this has been considered a man’s industry, but after JD passed, Karen jumped right in and has stood her own. And you better believe that even though she’s fair and honest, Karen can stand up to any of them.”
As we were concluding our interview with Karen, we asked why she still works so hard and invests so much time and energy minding the shops. Karen’s reply was simply: “Baby wants a new pair of shoes.” She smiled, her eyes squinted just enough that you could see that special sparkle, and then she excused herself as she continued on to her next project.