When the call came in last July, Steve Travis was on vacation. So Todd Hilleboe, the general manager and dealer principal of Larry H. Miller Liberty Toyota in Colorado Springs, Colo., had to wait several days to tell him he had been named to the 2014 Toyota Assembly of Champions — and that, in a few short months, he and his wife, Judy, would be on a flight to Japan.
But on his first day back, before Hilleboe could get to him, Travis received a call from Toyota’s North American headquarters. The executive on the other end assumed he had already heard the news. He had not.
“I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Travis says. And once it sunk in? “‘Stunned’ would probably be the first word. But definitely happy and proud.”
The annual, international Assembly of Champions honors only one service tech, collision repair tech, assistant service manager, and parts professional in each country. For Travis, it represents the apex of a career that spans five decades. For Hilleboe, it’s proof that success in fixed operations depends largely on the talents and capabilities of that department’s best workers.
“It’s vital to have guys like him here every day,” Hilleboe says. “They’re the ones who mentor and train younger staff. They’re the ones who, when a problem vehicle shows up, and the last two shops can’t find the rattle, guys like Steve take that challenge, find it, fix it, and we’ve got a customer for life.”
Travis’ career in automotive service began when he was in high school. He took his 1967 Pontiac LeMans to a Firestone in Lansing, Mich., to take advantage of an alignment special. The service writer told him they couldn’t do the alignment until they replaced the ball joints. Unable to afford both jobs and somewhat suspicious, Travis asked his school’s auto shop instructor to take a look.
“He didn’t see anything wrong with the ball joints, so he referred me to a different shop in town. They agreed there was nothing wrong and they did the alignment. At that point, I was definitely convinced the first shop was just trying to cheat me.”
That summer, Travis enrolled in an introductory auto repair course and pursued the subject through a degree program at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. By then, he had purchased his first Toyota, a ’73 Hilux pickup. It wasn’t an ideal introduction to the brand — the advent of unleaded fuel played hell with the valves, Travis recalls — and by the time he entered the workforce, imports were the furthest thing from his mind.
He started off at a Pontiac dealership, where he worked for a flat rate, felt pressured to rush through jobs, and made his share of rookie mistakes. When that store got flooded and shuttered, he moved on to an Oldsmobile shop. There, he worked for a fellow Ferris alum who understood the value of apprenticeship.
“We’re getting better about putting people in transitional mode,” Travis says. “I can only speak for my dealership, but we don’t just hire people and put them right on the line. They apprentice for at least a few months. I was fortunate to get a full year.”
By 1978, the Travises were ready for a change of scenery. After two visits to Colorado, their course was set. They settled on the Front Range and, after comparing the housing and job markets, chose Colorado Springs over Boulder. On his first day pounding the pavement, Travis was hired by Liberty Toyota, which was purchased by the Miller family in 1988.
“I was fortunate enough to meet Larry H. Miller on a couple occasions,” he says. “I’ve had three owners, the Miller family being the third, and he was so different. He would come in in his polo shirt and be so relaxed. You could talk to him and be casual with him.” A major part of that ownership experience, Travis adds, is the company’s famed college tuition assistance program. “My oldest daughter went to the University of Wyoming. A scholarship paid for part, and Miller paid for the rest. That’s not something I’ve experienced before.”
As the decades rolled on and the vehicles that rolled into his bay became increasingly more complex and computerized, Travis advanced his education. In years past, new models and in-vehicle technology required training sessions at Toyota’s Denver office; today, most of that training is completed online. Another, more disturbing trend he has witnessed is a profound shortage of qualified techs.
“We get plenty of people interested in working on cars, but a lot of them are just not smart enough,” he says. “In the old days, everything was mechanical, so there was not as much diagnostic skill needed. Unfortunately, people who want to become mechanics today have a picture in their head that’s more like the old job.”
Travis earned Master Diagnostic Technician (MDT) status and, in 2005, Toyota’s National Technician of the Year award. Happy in his work and not long from retirement, he says the call from Japan came completely out of the blue. But things rolled quickly from there. He and Judy renewed their passports and started studying a booklet of Japanese phrases. In October, after an 11-hour, first-class flight, they arrived in Nagoya and headed straight for Toyota City, home of the company’s global headquarters. Over the next week, they toured Toyota’s museum, training center and a manufacturing plant, traveled by bullet train to tour Kyoto, Japan’s historical former capital, and, on the second to last day, participated in the Assembly of Champions award ceremony.
Back home in Colorado, Travis soon learned he had achieved a new level of notoriety around the dealership. As far as Hilleboe is concerned, he earned every pat on the back and kind word he has received.
“Steve shows up to work to work. And if you talk with the advisers who work with Steve, it’s a no-nonsense relationship. Do they joke around a bit? Sure, but they’re here to make a living, and that’s Steve’s personality.”
Asked to share his advice for new service techs, Travis reflects on his experience at that Firestone in Lansing and says he tells new hires to always put the customer first and abide by the Golden Rule. As for the job itself, he says, the industry will continue to evolve, and so must those who work in it.
“When you’re given any opportunity for further study, take it,” Travis says. “It’s easy. It’s online. This is a constantly changing business. You can’t rest on your laurels. That’s the most important thing.”