From left: Matt Atherton Sr. and sons, Nick and Matt Jr., continue the family tradition at Atherton Automotive Center. Family patriarch Erwin Atherton Sr. opened the business in 1928, now a NAPA AutoCare Center.Lead technician Nick Atherton, grandson of founder Earl Atherton Sr., pressed the shop to expand beyond domestic makes.Technician Joe Stevens works on an alignment using a Hoffman Geoliner 680 wheel aligner.

As technology advances, so does Atherton

Iowa’s Atherton Automotive shows resilience and adaptability through reinvestment and world class-recognized tech

Council Bluffs, Iowa—You have to keep moving with technology — and sometimes past catastrophe — to stick around.

That’s the story at Atherton Automotive Service Center, a Council Bluffs gas station and full-service preventative maintenance and repair shop since 1928.

“You can’t stand still. You have to reinvest in the business,” said Matt Atherton Sr., president and grandson of founder Erwin “Erv” Atherton Sr.

The shop has a long family history and is one of the oldest family-owned Phillips 66 stations in the country. Throughout the years, the family tradition has remained the same: “We’re honest with people and we do our best,” Matt Atherton Sr. said.

They also learned to persevere.

In 1984, sewer work led to an underground petroleum leak and an explosion leveled the building. Both Matt Atherton Sr. and brother, Butch, were outside at the time and unhurt, though Atherton remembers watching attic insulation fall from the sky.

By 1985, Tony and his two sons were building a new facility on the same location.

“We wanted to go bigger and better, which is the only way to go,” Matt Atherton Sr. said, which resulted in a 5,000-square-foot facility incorporating five lift-equipped bays, one flat bay and two storage bays. A canopy was added to cover its eight gas pumps in 1990.

Today, Atherton Automotive has three full-time techs, including Matt Atherton Sr.’s son, Nick, as lead tech. The business’ service writer is son, Matt Atherton Jr.

The shop became a NAPA AutoCare Center in 1985 after the rebuild. “We went with them for the quick delivery, quick response and the inventory,” Matt Atherton Sr. said. “They stand behind their product.”

Atherton Automotive participates in NAPA’s 24-month, 24,000-mile warranty. If customers use their NAPA EasyPay card, they get the 36-months, 36,000-mile warranty.

The shop is also an ACDelco Professional Service Center and has been an AAA Auto Club-approved repair facility for more than 15 years.

“They have very strict quality standards,” Matt Atherton Sr. said. “We’re the only AAA-approved shop in Council Bluffs. Over time, they have proven themselves a good investment [due to referrals].”

In 2014, Nick Atherton was named a World Class Tech – one of 22 in the world -- by the Auto Care Association and ASE. In 2015, he was named NAPA ASE Tech of the Year for the local NAPA district.

It was Nick Atherton who pushed to expand the shop’s repertoire into more extensive diagnostics for domestic and foreign makes around 2007.

“With 70 percent of our potential business domestic, and 30 percent Asian and European, how do I turn away 30 percent of the business?” he said.

The shop has been Amsoil dealer for seven years, so techs can use spec oil for European and domestic cars. Diagnostics for the various makes means a cornucopia of scanners.

“It’s hard to prove you need it, but it’s harder to prove what business you’re losing,” Nick Atherton said. “Your competitor has a chance to steal a customer away.”

Atherton’s arsenal of scan tools include GM Tech2, GM MDI, wiTech, Ford IDS, Bosch KTS650, Mastertech VCI, Mastertech 3100, Autel MaxiSys, a PICO four-channel scope and more.

The shop charges for diagnostics on an hourly basis. “We do get push back from customers, but we stick by our guns,” he said. 

Tool purchases also require an eye on return on investment. A recent example was a Mercedes-Benz that came in with an oil leak at the timing cover.

“After researching the repair, I discovered we needed a flywheel holding tool before starting the job,” Nick Atherton said. Once he got into the job, he found that it also required balancer tool that was not mentioned in the service information prior to attempting the repair. “We had $130 wrapped up in the flywheel holding tool and the balancer puller would have been over $600 and come out of Germany — I couldn’t find one anywhere in the U.S.”

The cost-versus-profit ratio came out in the red, and he turned away the job.

Today’s techs have to be researchers as well as mechanics.

“It’s so much more sophisticated,” Matt Atherton Sr. said. “That changed how you hired technicians.”

Resources used at Atherton Automotive include Mitchell 1, Identifix, iATN and the PicoScope Waveform library.

The Internet is also an important promotional tool for the shop. 

It used several website services in the past, including MechanicNet, Yellowbook and Demandforce, and at one time had three websites going simultaneously. The shop now uses an outside company to maintain a single site.

Nick Atherton said search results are most important, followed by expandability and appearance. 

The Athertons have experienced their fair share of business challenges while keeping up with the rise of technology and watching competition come and go. “You just have to hold on,” Matt Atherton Sr. said.

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.

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