Niche repair, shop culture brings good Karma
San Francisco—Pat Cadam, 70, has been running the show at Pat’s Garage for 32 years and doesn’t have any plans to retire anytime soon. He says fixing primarily Asian, hybrid and EV vehicles is still a lot of fun and when you walk into his shop, one can see why. With funky posters, original art and photographs of Formula One racers all over the walls and smiling employees on the shop floor, this 6,500-square-foot shop in San Francisco’s thriving Third Street Corridor appears to be enjoying the ride.
“We’ve been in business for 28,000 years, and besides cultivating an obsession for the technical aspects of our work, we believe in the power of community, education and strong coffee,” Cadam states on his company unique and entertaining website.
As a hybrid/EV pioneer in the Bay Area, Cadam opened Pat’s Garage after owning several other businesses over the years. When he first started the business, he worked primarily on Hondas and Acuras, but quickly added Toyota, because he discovered that it was his customers’ No. 2 preferred brand. Six years later, he added Subarus and now he also works on the Fisker Karma, a premium plug-in range-extended luxury sports sedan that was first produced by Fisker Automotive in 2012.
Working on those high-end vehicles that rival the Tesla has given Cadam and his shop a niche specialty in which the company has thrived. “There are roughly 1,900 Karmas currently on the road, and we are the only shop from the middle of California all the way up to the Canadian border that can work on them,” Cadam said. “People bring their Karmas here from as far away as Seattle and Portland and we’re always working on at least a dozen of them all the time. It’s an amazing vehicle and a real head turner and we have definitely established a reputation here for knowing how to repair these cars right.”
To get customer feedback after every repair, Pat’s Garage calls to make sure that everything went seamlessly and without any glitches. “We call them ‘quality assurance’ calls and they’re a big part of what we do here.” Cadam said. “I’ve always believed that this is not a transaction-based business, it’s a relationship business. Our job here is to fix peoples’ cars with an emphasis on the people, while giving them the most information we can, so that they can make good decisions.”
When working with hybrids or EVs, Cadam makes certain that his crew is always 100 percent safe all the time through continual safety training and constant reinforcement. “You need to have the right equipment to work on any high-voltage system, including insulated gloves and eye protection, for instance. But, I often tell people that these systems aren’t any more dangerous than conventional gas vehicles to work on. It all comes down to common sense and follow-through and we keep it all very controlled and that’s why we’ve never had an accident here.”
Aside from batteries that need reconditioning, how does Pat’s Garage make money fixing cars that are engine-less? “They still need all of the same things any car needs, such as all of the scheduled maintenance they require,” Cadam said. “They need the brakes checked, they need filters, wipers and brake flushes and we scan the vehicles to make sure that the battery’s cells are balanced. Our average ticket on EVs is around $300, so it’s not huge, but it does add up.”
In 2008, Cadam formed a new company called Green Cars that converted second-generation Prius hybrids to plug-in hybrids. With the conversion, the Prius was able to achieve more than 100 miles per gallon. Many states eventually offered incentive programs for the conversion.
In 2010, Cadam started working with a shop in Denver when Colorado created an incentive program to promote new car technology. “A friend of mine Al Oramas, the owner of Pro Auto Care in Denver has two shops,” he said. “Back then, if a hybrid owner did a plug-in conversion, the state would give them a $3,000 rebate, so when I heard about it, I thought this is a market we can get involved in. We facilitated the training and showed all of Al’s employees how to do the installations; we held classes for hybrid owners about how to best use the technology and did a lot of radio promotions around Denver. It worked well until in 2011 when Toyota came out with their own plug-in and the market disappeared, but it was a good program while it lasted.”
Cadam has been successful by empowering his employees and is never unhappy when they go on to bigger and better things. “I want my technicians to grow and evolve as professionals and people,” he said. “Some of my former employees are currently working for Tesla and have great jobs elsewhere in the automotive industry. We had a guy here who started out as our cleanup person and now he is an auto tech teacher at the local community college. We never train people to be just tire changers or oil techs, so when they leave here they know every aspect of this business.”
One individual who Cadam has empowered and set up for success is his son, Forrest, age 34. “He recently started working full time here in the front office, and if he eventually wants to take over the shop, we can discuss it. I’m not ready to retire anytime soon, but when I do, I hope Forrest will be in a position to take over the helm.”