Haraldsen's Garage: Running Strong for 59 Years
Treating your car like their mom's car
By Deb Barrett
In 1934, a young Norwegian named Toven Haraldsen joined his country’s Merchant Marines, working in the engine rooms of ships. He didn’t know it then, but he’d taken the first step into his future.
Four years later, he moved to the U.S. and began working as a mechanic at his sponsor’s car dealership in Oak Park.
Several years later, PanAm Airlines hired Toven as an engine mechanic at Midway Airport. During World War II, they sent him to North Africa to work on planes there.
When Toven returned home in 1952, he was ready to strike out on his own. He opened a Standard Oil gas station in Clarendon Hills and worked as the mechanic. Business was good, and he bought a second station in Hinsdale. But Toven was more interested in the repair side of the business than in selling gas and oil, so he made a change.
In 1958, without his family’s knowledge, Toven sold both gas stations and his house to buy a building on Burlington Avenue in Westmont for his new auto and truck repair business. He moved his family into the little two-bedroom apartment above the garage. His teenage son, John, helped in the shop until he finished high school. Then John began working full-time for his father.
John Haraldsen bought out his father’s business in 1972. His own son, John, Jr., had also grown up in the business but didn’t plan on continuing there. He had earned his bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Iowa and wanted to work in advertising. As graduation approached, he realized that he didn’t want to work for a big company.
“I wanted to have my own business and realized that no one was going to lend me money to start my own business,” he said. “I knew my dad wanted out, and I knew this business, so I started working for my dad, thinking ‘I’ll see how this goes.’ And here I am.”
Haraldsen began working for his dad, and they became partners in 1992. He discovered that he enjoyed it, and when his dad wanted to retire in 2004, Haraldsen bought his share of the business. Around the same time, he also bought the building that now houses the Darien location of Haraldsen's Garage. Now his dad works for him.
Taking over from his dad had its challenges. “We had differences of opinion on a lot of things,” Haraldsen explained. “It was new ideas and old ideas clashing. It’s a credit to my dad that we got through it. He was very calm. He knew some mistakes I was going to make and let me make them, then moved on from there.”
Business ownership keeps Haraldsen very busy, but he enjoys the pace.
“I couldn’t do one thing all day long and be happy doing it,” he said. “I do everything. I work on cars. I diagnose problems. I take care of maintenance around the shop. I manage my employees. I do the payroll, I do all the accounts receivable and accounts payable. And I take care of advertising.”
Over the years, Haraldsen has seen many changes in the industry, most notably the complexity of automotive systems.
For a talk at Westmont High School 10 years ago, John did some research and discovered a telling fact.
“An everyday, run-of-the-mill car, say a 1995 Chevy Lumina, had way more computing power than the Apollo rockets that went to the moon,” he said. “That 1995 Lumina is a simple car compared to what’s on the road now.”
Haraldsen and his staff are well-prepared for that complexity.
His dad, John, said, “We take training pretty seriously. Everyone is ASE-certified and goes to class on a regular basis.” His eight mechanics also have a total of 210 years of experience between them.
Inventory has changed as well.
“It used to be that if you had 10 starters in stock, that would cover 95 percent of the cars on the road. Now, almost every car has its own part number for a starter,” he explained.
Haraldsen also works with organizations such as DuPage Veterans Assistance and other social service groups, repairing vehicles for people who otherwise might not be able to afford it.
“We do the diagnosis for free, and the agency picks up most of the bill,” he said.
Haraldsen points to the thank-you letters on the wall as the most rewarding part of the job.
“It comes from the hottest people, from people you didn’t think appreciated the work you did,” he said.
What sets Haraldsen’s Garage apart?
“I’m the third generation, and we’ve been doing this for 59 years,” he said. “In a small town like this, there’s no way you’d make it 59 years if you weren’t doing it right.
“I don’t sell,” he continued, “I advise. The first thing I tell my employees when they come work for me is, ‘Treat it like your mom’s car.’”
Haraldsen’s Garage in Darien is at 2525 W. 75th Street. The phone number in Darien is 630-985-5440. Information on both locations, Darien and Westmont, can be found at www.haraldsensgarage.com.