Some team members at Garber say they never imagined themselves in the automotive industry.
Nate Pepple is not one of them.
“I always wanted to be in the automotive industry,” he said. “From an early age, I wanted to be in the body shop side of things.”
Nate – now the Service Manager at Garber Chevrolet Linwood in Linwood, Michigan – went on to achieve his career goal. But the journey wasn’t void of bumps in the road.
Still, he landed exactly where he needed to – right here at Garber – and his life completely changed because of it.
Sometimes, the journey is just as important as the destination…even if it’s difficult.
Especially when it’s difficult.
A Tough Start
It was Nate’s dislike for math class that made him discover what he DID like. And what he liked was working with cars.
“I hated math,” he laughed. “I learned auto body classes counted as math credits and I could work on cars for high school and didn’t have to take math class. I realized I really enjoyed auto body.”
From 1996 to 2000, Nate worked full-time at a local dealership’s body shop. He went on to work in their parts department from 2000 to 2004.
Nate was doing the work he always wanted to do. But soon, he learned that the “who” and “where” is as vital as the “what.”
“At this first dealership I worked at, management led by fear,” he explained. “It was, ‘It’s going to be this way or you aren’t going to work here.’ You were always afraid you were going to lose your job. You were always afraid you would make a mistake and it would be your first and last mistake.”
In 2004, another dealership pursued and recruited him to work in their parts department. Nathan was excited for a fresh start – and a healthier work culture.
His hopes were quickly dashed.
“This second dealership made me feel the same as the first one, but for different reasons,” he explained. “It was very cliquey. You were either in it or out of it. If you’re in the clique, it didn’t matter how actually good of an employee you were, you were considered good. With these two dealerships, there were two different scenarios but it still made me feel the same way: unimportant and not really part of the team.”
He pressed on.
Nate was noticing a trend of toxicity in the dealership world. In 2011, he decided to try the other side of the automotive coin.
Maybe it’d be different, he thought.
“I was not happy where I was because of the culture of that other dealership,” he explained. “I thought it would be fun to go on the other side of the business. I got a new job working on the technical assistant side. Dealers would call me for help. It was fun and it was nice, but again it was culturally volatile.”
He excelled in this new role. But he found a familiar hurdle: an unhealthy work culture.
“I moved up from an analyst all the way up to a lead in 12 months,” he said, “but I could not get over the treatment of the employees. I departed one year to the day of when I started.”
Disheartened and drained, Nate felt lost.
“I was looking at all types of jobs outside of automotive, just looking for something where I could fit where the culture was good,” he said. “At that point, I had worked for two dealerships. I thought, ‘The culture is bad. I don’t know if I want to be in this field anymore.’”
Still, the spark inside was not completely snuffed out. He decided to go back to the first dealership he worked for at the start of his career. Years had passed. Changes in personnel had taken place. He figured the culture had to have made a switch.
Much to his dismay, it hadn’t.
“I was at the end of my rope,” he said. “I was all but done. My attitude probably wasn’t the best, and I look back and I was so emotionally beat down that I really didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care if they fired me. I didn’t care what happened. I was done with it.”
He had tried everything – but not everyone.
The repetitive toxic work cultures had crushed Nathan’s spirits. He didn’t trust the automotive industry anymore.
“I worked for two different automotive companies and then I worked on the other side of the industry, and it was all the same,” he said. “I felt unimportant. I felt numbered instead of valued. I started to think, ‘This is the way the industry is and maybe I don’t want to be a part of it.’”
All it took was one day and one conversation at a basketball game to start getting wheels spinning towards a different type of work environment.
“I had some friends that were working at Garber,” he explained, “and Ken Jezowski [Service Manager at Garber Buick] was the service manager at Garber Chevrolet Linwood at the time. We were at a basketball game and he asked me how I was doing. I was honest and I said, ‘This dealership stinks. I don’t care what happens anymore.’ He approached me with a ‘Hey, we’re looking in Linwood.’ I shut him down. I said, ‘No, I need to find something else.’”
He said, ‘Why don’t you come in and talk to me and Wengo [Mike Wenglikowski, General Manager] and just talk to us? See what’s going on…see if we can change your mind. It’s different here.’ I didn’t believe him at all.”
Despite his reluctance, Nate figured it was worth a listen. With uncertainty swimming close to his surface, Nate met with Mike Wenglikowski.
Nate’s skepticism wasn’t erased after one meeting. Past wounds had become scars.
“I came in and sat down in Wengo’s office and he said all the right things, but when I left, I was still skeptical,” he said. “I really didn’t trust upper management at dealerships because all I’d known is empty promises. I didn’t trust they were telling me the truth.”
He wasn’t convinced. He didn’t want to go through another toxic situation.
“When I left, they told me to call them and I didn’t,” Nate said.
Wengo persisted. He reached back out to Nate.
“Wengo called and said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ and I opened up to him,” Nate said. “I don’t know what it was, but I told him the truth. I said, ‘Here’s what happened to me, here’s where I’ve been, I can’t do this again. I wasted 20 years of my life in an industry that doesn’t care about me. I’ve been scared my whole life that if I make a mistake, I’m going to get fired. I’ve been pushed on the outside and not let in. I have a lot of mistrust and a lot of questions about the industry.’’
Wengo informed Nate that if he joined the Garber team, he would be the parts manager: a promotion from what he had done previously. Nathan’s ears perked up.
“We talked a long time and he promised that Garber was not the way the other dealerships were,” Nate said. “He said, ‘What do you have to lose? You aren’t working right now. Let’s give it 30, 60, 90 days and if it’s not working out, we’ll part ways, no hard feelings.’
That was five years ago. Nathan has worked at Garber ever since.
After years of working in unhealthy work cultures, Nate quickly learned there were things he needed to unlearn at Garber.
“I was programmed to ask Wengo about every decision,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Wengo, can I do this, can I do that?’ One day, we needed to buy a machine, but I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. Wengo said, ‘Come in here to my office,’ and he said, ‘Do we need this thing?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘OK, then let’s do it. This is your department. I trust you. If it makes sense to you, it makes sense to me.’
“I said, ‘Wengo, this is how I’m programmed. I feel like I need to ask permission for everything.’ Wengo said, ‘Well, I’m going to de-program you. I trust you 100% and I know you’ll do this right.’”
That was a key moment for Nate.
“I almost cried,” he said. “No one had ever – even when I was in management – trusted me. I knew I could do it but I was always programmed that if you made the wrong choice, it was the end for you.”
At Garber, leadership didn’t just trust Nate. They appreciated him and what he brought to the table. That attitude is across the board, regardless of position.
“There’s no divide between departments here at Garber, no divide between employees and managers,” Nate said. “When my father-in-law died, Dick Garber came to the funeral. That meant so much.”
After going from toxic workplace to toxic workplace, Nate has found somewhere he wants to stay – so much so, that it’s become a family affair.
“My wife and I both work here now,” he said. “It says a lot about the company that we would put all the eggs all in one basket. It shows we think this company is a great company; we think it’s going to be here for a long, long time. We’re happy here.”
Nate said Garber has not only changed his life, it’s changed him, too.
“When I came in, I was a scared guy who needed approval for everything,” he said. “Now I’m managing two departments and making a whole bunch of decisions that I don’t even bat an eye at. I am more confident than I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve learned a lot over the last five years.”
First concert? Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper at Whiplash Bash, 1997
First car? ‘84 Volkswagen Jetta
Favorite food? I can’t get away from a good steak
Three words your friends and family would use to describe you? Funny, regimented/need a plan, serious
Bucket list item? I would love to get into the mountains of Montana and hunt.