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Mike Maier keeps Shell gas station in the family

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Mike Maier stands in the garage bay of his Marsh Road location, the last of 11 stations on the corridor.

By Ken Mammarella
Special to Delaware Business Times

This Labor Day weekend marked the 65th anniversary of the Maier family running a gas station, first in South Wilmington and since 1958 on Marsh Road in the heart of Brandywine Hundred.

“I was born to do this,” said J. Michael “Mike” Maier, who owns the station with his wife, Bonnie, and has never lived more than a mile from it. The brand went from Atlantic to Arco to Shell, but all along it’s been
a Maier operation.

Mike is 63 but feels 50, 55. “I’ve still got some gas in the tank.” A good thing, since both of his children have other careers, Michael at the University of Delaware and Jaime at Bank of America.

Maier’s Shell is the last of 11 stations on the five miles of Marsh, having adapted to gas shortages, a switch to self-serve gas, computerization of autos and even “free” air that takes $1,800 in equipment.

The financial setup doomed many competitors. The Maiers own the business and inventory but pay rent to another company that owns the land, building and equipment. The three-year lease is being negotiated now, and Mike said his landlord wants to take over gas sales – and profits – leaving him with just repairs. “I’m a dinosaur, a dealer with all the headaches,” he said, noting that companies like Wawa and Royal Farms have cut out dealers – and also repair bays – in selling gas.

His father, Richard P., pumped gas part time while in school. After marrying in 1950, Richard and his wife, Trudy, decided to manage a business, and they chose an Atlantic station at South Heald Street and Christina Avenue. They only had one other employee, so workdays started at 6 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., including time for “two-man service”: washing the windshield and checking the air and fluids while the gas was pumping. “To set yourself apart from others, you had to work harder,” Mike Maier said.

When management of the Marsh Road station became available, they opted for a business much closer to their suburban home. In the early years, they also made ice, sold cases of soda and stacks of firewood and washed and waxed cars. But they later turned down an offer to add a mini-mart and car wash. “Let’s stick with what we know,” Maier said. “Our original skills.”

Sons Rick and Jay went into accounting, but Mike, who fondly recalls being behind the wheel at age 12, was interested in cars. After graduating from Mt. Pleasant High School, he moved to Pennsylvania to attend a school for mechanics. “I left a boy and came back a man,” he said of that time. This man was just 21 when his father died of a heart attack. Mike and Trudy had to figure out how to run it all.

They rationed gas in nationwide crises in 1973 and 1978-79, but an earlier, inexperienced business decision ““ to sell lots of gas at cost ““ paid off with a higher allotment during these shortages.

In the 1980s, “self-serve gasoline and computerized automobiles forced many of the station owners out of business. This was due to the huge investment for new tanks, pumps and shop technologies,” Maier said. “The computerization of automobiles ended the days of DIY auto repair. Fathers and sons were no longer working on the family car together in the driveway. This has led to a lack of interest in auto repair, causing a technician shortage.”

In the 1990s, he said, environmental rules forced many individually owned stations to close.

In the last 10 years, competitive pressure from big companies has worsened, noted Jimmy Ponte, co-owner of Ponte’s Auto Care on Concord Pike in North Wilmington. Ponte was a fellow Shell dealer for two decades until he chose to get out of the gas business and focus just on repair.

To address the tech shortage, Delaware Automotive Service Professionals recently created a training alliance with Delaware Technical Community College.

Mike Maier and Dave Thompson inside the station in 1989.

“We have to grow techs,” Maier said.

Maier’s staff of a dozen today is what he called “a more experienced but more expensive” crew. The experience includes Doug Leonard, cashier for 34 years, and all the certified mechanics, with their multiple credentials displayed in the station waiting room, sharing space with photos of teams sponsored over the last 30 years in the Talleyville girls softball league and Brandywine Little League.

The computerization makes multiple demands on the repair business: a need for renewing Automotive Service Excellence training every few years, a call for updating equipment and multiple monthly subscriptions, such as for diagnostic scanners and repair manuals. “It used to be that a Chevy was a Chevy for two or three years,” Mike said. “Now, there are three or four different Tauruses, and you have to look” at the vehicle identification number to plot the repair.

All the technology still doesn’t stop drivers from asking for directions, though, with confusion between Delaware routes 41 and 141 for a trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, being surprisingly common.

Over the years, some employees “left to run their own stations, and they too learned how hard it is to be your own boss,” Trudy Maier said. “It takes hard work and a lot of patience. You have to give a lot, and you don’t do it overnight.”

The Maiers’ business succeeded, she felt, because of their commitment and their friendliness. She recalls her father-in-law, John (whom everyone called “Pop”) chatting with customers. She also recalls giving out lollipops and chewing gum to build the base of future customers.

On the side, Maier said that one of his joys is “reviving cars.” He’ll occasionally buy cars from customers when they feel repairs aren’t worth it. The latest is a 2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser. “A beauty, and it’s my favorite now.” But he’s ready to sell it for $3,500 and move on to the next.

When asked what he was proudest of over the years, Maier responded with “the 65 years we’ve been here, a really good run of serving the community. We’ve been good neighbors. We really appreciate the support and patronage we receive from the neighborhood. We try to give the support back in sponsoring schools, teams and charities.”

“Who knows what the future will bring for the auto industry?” Trudy Maier said. “One thing’s for certain – it won’t be like the past.”

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