After 38 years, PJW Automotive closes up shop


Mike Munzenrider Pat Whalen, owner of the former PJW Automotive in New Brighton, which closed for good Oct. 31.

Mike Munzenrider PJW Automotive opened in New Brighton in 1980, and was in its second and final location off Old Highway 8 since 1985.

file photo Pat Whelan in 2009 working the front desk at PJW Automotive.

Though PJW Automotive had serviced its last car two weeks prior, the former New Brighton auto shop’s owner, Pat Whelan, was still there Nov. 14, breaking down the business he’d spent half his life building up.

The beloved independent shop, which for nearly 40 years could be found off Old Highway 8, closed its doors Oct. 31.

The fact that the furnace was out in the shop’s office area, he said, and had been out for some time — it was best to keep your jacket on in there — was symbolic of the reason why his business had closed.

Whelan, a 69-year-old Minneapolis resident, says he’d planned to sell the shop to his longtime manager, Mike London. He’d gotten close, having taken a step back in recent years to begin the transition to retirement, but then outside forces stepped in.

Little by little, Whelan says, it got more difficult to find reliable people to staff the auto shop, working on cars and doing other jobs. He blames a mix of low unemployment — everybody who wants a job has one, essentially — as well as a lack of people learning trades such as automotive repair.

“We weren’t finding the right people to do what we needed to do,” Whelan says, explaining that by the middle of this past summer, after he’d returned to running some of the day-to-day operations at the shop, that he began looking to get out.

As for the furnace, he says the repair company had blown off two scheduled appointments — they weren’t finding reliable people either.

 

 

‘I want to work on cars’

While he rues a lack of trained auto technicians and argues that four years of college aren’t for everyone, earlier in life Whelan himself was on a different course.

“I’m probably the poster child for that,” he says. “I went to college to be an English major.”

Whelan went to the University of Minnesota and admits that he “didn’t really graduate in four years,” though during that time he’d enjoyed work on the side, like getting his hands dirty dealing with race cars.

By the time he could have graduated, he’d decided to move on, thinking, “This is dumb, I want to work on cars.” He did so as a technician at auto shops in White Bear Lake and St. Paul, quickly moving through the ranks to management.

Striking out on his own and with help from his father and brother, Whelan opened PJW in 1980. 

He says his business’s name was a bit of a rush job, required when his brother called one day saying he was with a lawyer, paperwork ready. Whelan went with his initials — his full name is Patrick John Whelan.

The first shop was a couple blocks south of the second and final location, which Whelan says he constructed specifically for his business. It was built with the help/goading of a customer turned friend who was also a builder, who’d gotten sick of the first PJW’s lack of capacity.

Whelan remembers of the friend, “He said, ‘You guys are always busy and I can never get in here. I need to build you some new space.’”

PJW was at 2087 Old Highway 8 since 1985. 

Whelan, who found it impossible to continue as an automotive tech while also being a business owner, says he always tried to stay on the leading edge of auto shop technologies and trends. 

“We wanted to do more than tires and brakes,” he says. “We could solve those more difficult problems.”

 

 

What of two wheels?

Though an eventual lack of strong employees spelled the end of the business, Whelan remembers a number of young people he employed who went on to open their own shops, or made their way to the top of the corporate ranks.

“It was fun,” Whelan says. “I think, looking back, I tried to do well by all of them.”

Looking past the clean-out process and closing the sale of the building, likely in December — a construction company is taking over the space — Whelan says his post-work years should be fine.

“I’m not the owner of Microsoft,” he quips, “but I’ll be OK in retirement.”

Ending the shop will give Whelan a chance to focus more on another of his passions — cycling. An avid track racer on compact bicycles with no brakes, he regularly rides the pitched-walled velodrome at the National Sports Center in Blaine and holds a number of certifications from USA Cycling. He’s also long put on bike races at local events like New Brighton’s Stockyard Days and Mounds View’s Festival in the Park, through PJW Racing.

Whelan says his “stellar year” in the sport was 2014, when among other achievements, he took second overall at the World Masters Track Cycling Championships in Manchester, England. 

Beyond riding, Whelan says in the coming years he’ll be working to get a replacement for the Blaine velodrome, which is slated to come down after the 2019 season. 

Looking back to the auto shop, Whelan says one of the toughest final tasks was getting the word out that the business was coming to an end to all 5,000 of his customers. He says that some were angry he was closing up shop, others were “devastated,” but made sure they got all their cars in for one final tune-up.

Momentarily choking up, he says, “It’s been sad to not really have a good way to say goodbye to all the really great customers, who have become friends.”

 

–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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