Customer service done the “Harder” way

Harder 2When I recently pulled into the Harder Auto Parts store on Groesbeck in Clinton Township, I was reminiscing back to when my father would take me there in his 1970 aqua blue F250, which I could barely see over the dash. I’m going back to the days when the gas tank for the truck was behind your seat, and you had just a lap belt restraint.

Richard Harder owns and runs the store with his son Ryan, and it is the type of place where they greet you as soon as you walk in. They ask you what you need and walk you right to it. They know where every single item is in the store because they put it there. It is a friendly family store where they know what type of oil you prefer and the color of the vehicle you drive. It is the Cheers bar of auto parts, for those who remember that show, where everybody knows your name. What I was not aware of is just how far back the history goes of his family owning local businesses. I had a chance to talk to Richard one day between him helping customers to really get a feel for how important this business is to him and his family.

Harder 1Russell Harder, Richard’s father, back in 1940 owned and operated the Sinclair gas station on Jones and North Avenue in Mount Clemens. I mentioned that little fun fact to my mother, and she responded without hesitation, “They sure did, and they have always been the nicest people.” Nineteen years later, Russell opened up the Harder Oil Company right across the street from today’s Harder Auto Parts on Groesbeck just south of Hall Road (M-59). He ran that store until 1987 and then helped with his son’s store until he was into his 90s.

Richard always wanted a business and knew he was going to own one from age 10 working for his father. His mom wanted him to go to college, so he ended up going to Western Michigan University and took some automotive classes for a year. He liked it so much that he continued on to graduate with an automotive engineering degree. While in college, he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and was in the reserves for a total of eight years. He opened up the business in 1977 with financial help from his father.

“Personal service is what has kept us around,” said Richard.

Harder 3When they first opened, there was not a lot of competition in the area, and now they are dealing with the big box stores and many other auto parts stores in the area. They used to order all the parts from a book over the phone, and then through the years, they had to learn how to use the computer, which took a little time. He told me there were more than 30 distributors out of Detroit buying from local manufacturers, and many of the parts at that time were made in the USA. Now with the global economy, the distributors have dwindled down to just a couple that buy the parts from other countries, so they had to change with the times.

Richard says that if they don’t have it in the store, they can get pretty much any auto part for foreign or domestic vehicles. They also have a great rapport with Hanks Auto Service next door that works on vehicles, and they will send customers to each other.

Harder Auto Parts is also a FFL dealer of firearms and carries a few products in the store. The son, Ryan, picks up extra business during the warmer Michigan months doing auto detailing in the back of the shop. I asked Richard if he is going to retire, and his response was he will hand the business over to his son one day, and he will be like his father before him, helping around the shop.

Richard says they have known customers their entire lives, and now their kids are having kids. They have a solid group of customers that come in year after year. In my case, like my father before me doing business with Russell and Richard Harder, now I see Richard and his son Ryan when I go there. Maybe someday I will see another Harder family member stepping in to help Ryan. Then hopefully for small business’ sake and good customer service, that lifecycle of proud business ownership will continue on this little slice of land in Macomb County under the Harder name.

Harder Auto Parts
44000 Groesbeck Hwy.
Clinton Township, MI 48036
(586) 468-1511

Jack Johns is a senior economic development specialist with the Macomb County Department of Planning & Economic Development. He specializes in assisting food and agriculture, automotive, energy and retail companies.

 

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