Towing the line for 35 years

The familiar red trucks have been towing student cars from campus for decades.

Gopher Towing tow operator Greg Chilton backs up to park the towed car in spot Tuesday at an auto shop in NE Minneapolis.

Anthony Kwan

Gopher Towing tow operator Greg Chilton backs up to park the towed car in spot Tuesday at an auto shop in NE Minneapolis.

Kyle Sando

Gene Buell has been towing cars in and around University of Minnesota campus for more than 35 years.

Gopher Towing has steadily built up its customer base since it opened for business, and today holds more than 1,200 customer accounts all over Minneapolis, Buell said.

Buell summarizes his business approach in a slogan. âÄúThe good guysâÄù represents the image he tries to uphold in an industry facing the stigma of shady, untrained or otherwise careless characters, he said.

âÄúI have one impediment to making money at this job,âÄù Buell said, âÄúand thatâÄôs that I have a conscience.âÄù

Buell started towing in 1972 under the name GB Tow and Start, and has expanded his business to include AAA roadside assistance, impounding and, most recently, an auto repair shop.

Gopher Towing operates with four tow trucks, two starter trucks and two flatbeds.

âÄúTheyâÄôre great people. IâÄôve been using them for 35 years,âÄù said Larry Liu, owner of ACS Auto Service in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Dave Johnson, president of Southeast Auto Service, who worked with Buell and Gopher Towing for 25 years, said Buell has had a big impact on the community.

âÄúHe was, like, mayor of Dinkytown for a long time,âÄù Johnson said.

Buell said good local businesses like JohnsonâÄôs helped make Gopher Towing what it is. âÄúItâÄôs people like that who help you stay in business when times are tough,âÄù he said.

And times are tough for Gopher Towing in this recession, Buell said. Normally, recessions have been good for his business, but not this time.

This summer he could only afford to take two days off.

Despite the difficulties, Gopher TowingâÄôs impound rates are competitive with the other towing companies in the area. BuellâÄôs impound rate is about $223, compared with Cedar TowingâÄôs $256.49  and Wrecker Services at $228 for the same service.

As a towing company, Buell said itâÄôs very common to receive complaints from the people his company impounds, including students.

Buell said there is a stigma associated with towing companies and impound lots, but he tries to treat every contact with respect, regardless of whether itâÄôs an impound or repair job. âÄúThe biggest thing is trying to be nice to people when theyâÄôre not nice to us,âÄù he said.

âÄúWe treat everybody nice no matter what they call us.âÄù

The biggest reason people are towed and impounded, Buell said, is because they simply donâÄôt pay enough attention to the signs or because they donâÄôt think the owners of the lots arenâÄôt watching.

âÄúRead the signs,âÄù he said, âÄúbecause itâÄôs a real issue.âÄù

Good car-ma

Gopher Towing is AAA-certified, and has been for 30 years, Buell said. He said AAA seldom certifies towing companies that do impounding, but Gopher TowingâÄôs large customer base and steady record have kept that certification going.

In addition, Buell has started an auto repair shop, in what he calls the âÄúgood karma sideâÄù of the business.

Urgent Care Automotive Repair is right next door to Gopher Towing. Buell said Urgent Care has been in operation for close to five years.

âÄúThe auto service is my passion right now,âÄù Buell said. He said a big reason for starting Urgent Care was seeing so many shops close down in the campus neighborhoods.

âÄúA lot of stations in the area that were good were closing,âÄù Buell said, âÄúand I felt kind of guilty about towing cars to some other stations. I mean, thereâÄôs good auto repair places, and thereâÄôs bad ones.âÄù

Buell said his employees genuinely care about people, which is one of his criteria for hiring, along with mechanical aptitude.

Students play a big role in his companyâÄôs history, Buell said. He said he has employed many students over the years.

âÄúYou have to find somebody that likes to help people,âÄù he said.