Growing up I can remember watching all these old shows my parents loved like Leave it to Beaver and The Waldens. But those were just TV shows where people looked out for each other and their neighbors. Where people actually cared. They weren’t real life. People like that couldn’t really exist right? I was wrong. They exist at Clarke Automotive. Amazingly enough generations of them do.
Clarke Automotive has been around since 1978, but where did they start and who was the heart behind such a family friendly, customer-oriented establishment? Where do all those beliefs about customers needing honest, understandable information for their repair needs come from? After graduating from Florida State with a degree in finance, Bob Clarke wanted a place where he could settle down, raise a family with morals and values, and be part of a community he could contribute to and believe in. He chose Brandon Florida because in his opinion it was the best location to do all those things. He fell in love with the Brandon community and its people. At 28 he established Clarke Gulf Station with a highly talented mechanic named Richbourg. A place where they could do a common service, uncommonly well.
To understand how he did this you need to know what a full-service gas station normally consisted of back then. A filling station attendant would come out to your car, put the gas in your tank, wash your windshield and check your oil levels. You would pay for your gas and maybe give the attendant a tip then drive away. Simple, quick, and only base level.
An article in the Tampa Tribune by Mike Mahan, 10 years after Clarke Gulf Station was established, during the rise of self-service filling stations due to escalating gas prices, shows that Bob was still going above and beyond those common services. He had self-service pumps and full-service pumps. The image at the top of the of the article depicts a Golf gas station, the station manager cleaning a windshield and a sign that states “Welcome to real full service.” Without asking you were to expect a prompt courteous greeting, free car wash including a vacuum as well as emptying your ash tray and litter bag.
Wait though, full service doesn’t end there! You’ll have under your hood checked including your transmission fluid. They’ll check your tires including your spare. As a customer you receive a nice thank you for your business. When gasoline was $.88 cents it cost a mere $.06 cents more to receive this outstanding service.
Before there was any such thing as Google Reviews customers are quoted stating “Clarke is a fine, honest young man.” In the local newspapers. Bob Clarke himself is quoted stating he gets a great deal of satisfaction by” doing right for my customers for the right reasons.” Even back then he gained joy and peace by taking care of people. He played to his skills to ensure he gave the best service possible.
Bob hosted charity car washes for the local church and Brandon High School. He received The February Pride in Brandon award as well as the chamber of commerce Community Pride award. He sold tickets for the local church’s Christmas program right at the store. He became an agent for the greyhound station and Became AAA Approved to help his customers even further. Sounds like he truly dug himself into the community and helped where he could right. A man who cares deeply about his fellow man or woman.
As full-service filling stations turned more and more to self-service, Richbourg moved on to a very nice position with Chevrolet and Bob’s family grew, he made the decision to move more towards automotive repair, rather than his filling station. He wanted to help people on a larger scale than simply selling gas and candy bars. By the mid 90’s he had relocated to a larger location with more bay doors to allow him to repair more cars at once. Bob’s business grew, his family grew being raised working for the business but being pushed to find their own dreams. While other kids were going to the beach or vacations over the summer, Bob’s kids fondly remember working at the shop doing little things like answering phones, running errands, and changing spark plugs. They reminisce about waiting for their dad to be done for the day to go fishing or just spend some quality family time together. They eventually move away from home, go to college, and seek their own dreams, while staying closely connected to this day.
In 2003 Bob launched My Car My Choice. In an attempt to force out smaller repair shops and corner the market for dealerships, large manufacturers came to an agreement to charge astronomical prices to allow the small shops to access the knowledge to fix their vehicles. To fight back against this Bob went to legislature where no one would help. How can he fully help his customers if the cost of obtaining the information was too high to sustain? Another sticking point, how to do that and not have to charge his customers incredibly high prices? One of the ways he assists his customers is by being on top of the most up to date technology and ability to repair all cars, old and new. The My Car My Choice movement took Bob across Florida and at times to Detroit and Washington to fight against this injustice. While the battleground has dimmed down over the years, the hope is still alive that this fight can be won.
Eventually Bob’s son Matt graduated from college, decided to work with his dad at the shop and never looked back. He states that he loves helping his customers and has his dad’s ideas and values. Him coming back to work at Clarke Automotive has helped not only him but his dad, his mom, the business, and the customers. Together they take leadership courses to be better bosses and look to the future where people of the same values become loyal customers, where eventually they expand even further.
Now I know what you’re thinking. This type of family and business existed in the 70’s and 80’s but it’s rare that it continued to be that way, or the same values stick with the next generation. Those old world values where honesty, caring and general goodness just aren’t around anymore. I’m here to tell you this shop is a little oasis of all of that and then some.
I personally had my vehicle serviced there on the recommendation of a friend. It was about 45 minutes away from where I was, but I needed help and I needed someone who wouldn’t take advantage of my lack of knowledge or treat me like an idiot. Upon entering I received a smile and questions. Typical so far right? Being female with no car knowledge I used terms like the thingy, and I have no clue while making funny noises to try to describe my issues. No one laughed. No one batted an eye. They took my car assuring me they would look it over and let me know. A little while later Bob took me behind the desk and started to explain the issues and what needed to be done. With my budget there was no way I was going to afford all that at once. He then explained other options stating lets do the most important things first and you can schedule an appointment for more.
I understood everything he was saying was wrong with my car. For once I didn’t feel like someone was telling me all this stuff was wrong just to get money out of me. He connected the issues to things I told him and told me what the fixes were. I wasn’t a stupid woman who knew nothing about cars. I was a person who had a problem and him, his son and his team wanted to help me stay on the road so I could continue to work. It was like I was taking my car to an old family doctor who was more concerned with the cars health than the prescriptions available and the possible money that could be squeezed out of me. I’ve been to mechanics before, ones I walked out on, ones I swore to never use again or simply never made it in the door because of previous experiences with like type places. To me finding this family run business that really are in business for their customers was amazing and awe inspiring.
In a world where most people in big city’s have learned the only one looking out for them is well them we find Clarke Automotive. In cutthroat businesses around Brandon, Seffner, Valrico, Riverview, Fishwak, Tampa and further we find honesty rather than greed. Where religion has taken a back seat to every day lives we find a devout Christian family who still believes that respecting others and treating everyone like family is the way life should be lived. Old world values upheld by even the younger generation. Bob goes so far as to know not only the names of his employees but the history of all of them. In the late 70’s he’s quoted saying this makes him a better manager. He truly is here for the people.
Businesses in my opinion are there to squeeze every penny from their customer. That’s how they appear weather you’re working for them or just doing business with them. Their main thought seems to be how much can I get out of this person. Yet Bob is a proud Christian who knows the name and story of every employee in his establishment. He concerns himself with their happiness the same as he does with his customers. His son isn’t any different. A little more modern but his core fundamentals and beliefs are the same. They aren’t focused on only money. Of course, it’s a business and they need to bring in money to stay open and pay their employees, but they keep people coming back because their main focus is taking care of the people and their cars. Doing something common, uncommonly well. Offering services like free shuttles and helping them get loaner cars when needed. Explaining situations in understandable terms no matter how little or much you originally know about cars and repairs.
In 43 years, the technology has advanced, and the mechanics have as well. The business has grown astronomically and moved when needed to accomplish this growth within the Brandon area. They now service not only Brandon but Fishhawk, Riverview, Tampa, Wesley Chapel, and anyone else who needs their services. They work on everything from old Mustangs and car show Chevy’s to the new Prius and Tesla vehicles. But the value, the craftsmanship of their work and dedication comes straight out of 1978. Their Family is still very close, with Bob and his lovely wife traveling several times a year to visit their children while their son Matt handles things at the shop. As is the modern way, his customers are reviewing online letting everyone know just how exceptional they are. Not only receiving exceptional quality service for their vehicles but amazing customer service as well.
They do everything from changing a brake light or headlight to battery replacement, oil changes, tune-ups, vehicle inspections, electrical system repairs to so much more. As incredible as it seems, this family is downright honest, loving and caring towards each other, their community, their employees, and their customers. They take pride in their work and treatment of others.
Matt will someday take over the business making the same advancements his father strives to make while continuing to treat those around him with care and respect. We can trust that when Bob does retire to spend more time with his wife, Matt will continue to take care of his employees and customer, making advancements in technological knowledge and all around moving those old world values into todays world. The heart of this company will continue on for generations to come!