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A letter from Stew


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The Foreign Service Newsletter:
January 2003


Happy New Year! As we say goodbye to 2002, I want to be positive about the upcoming year. It has been an especially rough year for some of you, and you have my sympathies. I would like to believe that things are going to turn around soon, but I am not counting on it. We1ll see. When times get tough, we rely more upon what I call personal resources. Resources may be friends, family, advisors, information sources, luck, personality, faith, education, health, hard work, finances, and many more things. I have worked very hard to make the Foreign Service a resource for you, our customers. (Too bad this is not a common business model anymore.) We achieve this by putting an emphasis on communication and getting to know our clients (to better anticipate your needs), giving as many choices as possible, and being available for questions and advice. We operate a lean business to bring our product to the public very efficiently. We have not bought into the cheaper is better labor theory, so we have only fully qualified people working on your cars. We invest in human and technical resources thoughtfully, not lavishly. I hope we can continue to grow and adapt and continue being a resource for you.


Thanks to all of you who inquired about the electric car I wrote about in the most recent newsletter. I am happy to report that EV is getting through the winter quite well. The heater works instantly (unlike a gas-powered car) and the motor always starts. (Pardon the joke the motor only runs when the car is moving unlike internal combustion engines). I am planning only one improvement to the original design. I discovered that the batteries become reluctant as they become very cold. So, a heating system much like the common block heater is being added to warm the batteries while charging.


As many of you already know, the Foreign Service is primarily a word-of-mouth business. This newsletter is the only consistent form of marketing that we do, and I think of the newsletter as much more than that. We would really appreciate it if you would continue to help us by bringing in new customers (and thanks to those of you who already are aware of our referral reward program). Our business, now more than ever, depends on it. For every new customer you send us, you are eligible for a $20.00 discount on your next repair.

Also, for those of you who like to spend time on the internet, we'd appreciate recommendations on web sites such as,, and As always, our motto is if you like our repair shop, tell others; and if you don't, please tell us.


I know I've railed about this before, but we have had a recent spate of expensive repair jobs, all caused by the car1s oil not being changed frequently enough. What happens to regular oil as it cycles through your engine? As it ages, it begins to break down chemically. It becomes contaminated, and particles begin to accumulate in it (and cycle through your engine). The oil starts to lose its lubricating power. If it gets really old, the particles can harden into large pieces of abrasive crud. What are the consequences?

Here are some examples:
Example 1. We had to replace a late model Audi's oil pump (an $800 repair). The very old oil was running large particles of hard crud through the oil pump, clogging it up.
Example 2. A Toyota needed a ring job at 50,000 miles. The broken-down oil was turning into a tar-like substance, sticking on the rings. The car's owner couldn't take the potential repair costs, so he had to scrap a five-year-old car.
Example 3: A Saab needed a $3,000 balance shaft/timing chain replacement. Saab timing chains rarely need to be replaced, and this one failed because the oil that lubricated it was old and full of metal particles.

I still adamantly recommend that you change the oil every 3,000 miles or 4 months (whichever comes first); if you are running synthetic oil, then the oil should be changed every 3,000 miles regardless of whether 3 months or a year go by. You may think that we are just trying to drum up extra business by recommending this, but you may be surprised to know that most shops lose money on oil changes. Oil change franchise places can1t make much money just by doing oil changes, which is why they try real hard to sell you extra things you may or may not need at the time.


I read an interesting article in the November issue of Mother Jones magazine, talking about leaders who see no benefit in an active citizenry, who have no notion of citizenship at all, since in the worldview of business we're all investors and consumers. This quote references our current president, and the administration's failure in the aftermath of 9-11 to seize upon the feeling many of us had; horribly appalled and wanting to do something in our own community, in our own way, to help out.

What I'd like to do is talk a little bit about that in the context of what it means to me as a small business owner; or, a small business citizen. My business concept is and always has been focused on three things: providing exceptional customer service by thoroughly explaining the repair process to you and helping you make educated decisions about your repair. Secondly, I have always believed that I owe my employees a very good standard of living. No one can ever become rich by working here, but everyone makes a good salary and has free health insurance. Thirdly, we have to keep the business profitable. Otherwise, we'd have no choice but to shut the doors. Maybe it's an obsolete concept, but I still believe it's possible to genuinely help people while running a viable business. And, as we all know, there is profit and there is profit. It seems like there is always some new corporate accounting scandal filtering through the news. I find it all shocking, and I really don't know how those CEO's can face themselves in the mirror each morning. I am all for the free market and business growth, but it all sours when a business loses its sense of service and citizenship and becomes a means for a few immoral executives to obscenely enrich themselves.


One night in December, I was listening to the CBC show As It Happens (airing here at 10 pm on MPR). A segment of the show was devoted to an interview with the coroner of British Columbia. Legislation is currently under consideration there, which would prohibit, in winter, using mismatched tires (winter and all season) on vehicles. The legislation was prompted by a recent large number of winter traffic fatalities. Most of the vehicles involved were front wheel drive cars with winter tires on the front wheels only, on icy (not snowy) roads. If you mix your tires, remember that the road grip of each tire will be different, and each tire will lose traction at a different time, causing the car to become extremely unstable. Traction is an issue not only on acceleration, but also on deceleration, braking, and going around curves. If you are going too fast for conditions, it can be quite easy to lose control of the car. With a front wheel drive car, it is extremely easy to have a false sense of security on icy roads, and it is very easy to lose control of the car even if you have four matching tires. As many of you know, we have been strong advocates of winter tires for years. For about $600 - $800, you can purchase a set of steel wheels and winter tires. Think it's too much of an investment? Well, you're going to be doubling the life of your all season tires, and think of the cost of replacing just one of those fancy alloy summer wheels. We recently completed $2,000 worth of suspension repair to a car that slid into a curb on a slippery morning, moving at a very slow speed. Having four-wheel drive or an SUV with all season tires is no solution. I won't drive my 191 VW 4WD Van in winter without the winter tires. It makes that much of a difference.


We are a repair shop, but we also sell certain items you may be interested in (sorry, the espresso bar and antique shop will have to wait). These car-related items include wiper blades, cans of Seafoam, batteries for keyless entry remotes, and Battery Tenders. Battery Tenders are mini-chargers which work very well for cars not used often, or kept in winter storage. They keep the battery charged and prevent freeze damage. They work very well, even in a repair shop scenario. We had a two year old Saab in here late last year with a badly sulfated battery that wouldn1t take a charge on our normal charger. We put it on a Battery Tender for two nights in a row; the battery successfully charged up and passed a load test. We are also happy to order parts for do-it-yourselfers. Call us; advice is always free. (And often priceless...)


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