Decades of Cars & Camaraderie: A Conversation with Mike Hiemenz

by Alana Quartuccio

There likely aren’t many automotive shops in Minnesota that have not had some type of interaction with Mike Hiemenz.

The owner of Straight & Square Distributing has spent a tremendous part of his career traveling around to meet with customers old and new. He’s spent decades working with shops to make sure they had all the right solutions to help repair cars correctly. Recently, he announced his intention to step into retirement, handing the reins of the business to his wife, Kim and his stepson, Randy Peterson. AASP-MN News chatted with him about his career and his plans for the future. 

AASP-MN News: You’ve been in this industry for 45 years. What first got you interested in automotive repair? 

Mike Hiemenz: As a teenager, I had to get a car running in order to have a car. I liked working on small engines and cars. When I got out of the Navy, I started converting vans for paraplegics, and that’s when I got into body work, cutting into a vehicle and re-welding in some different structures, raised roofs and raised doors. From there, it took me to the body shop. I worked in a frame and body shop near Black Hills and Sturgis for a couple years. Back then, there weren’t too many shops that had frame racks. You would take your vehicle to a frame shop that had frame racks. In the mid-80s, I was out of work for a while because I hurt my back pretty badly. I decided to go to business college to study business management, thinking I would manage a body shop. After I completed business college, I started selling repairables – wrecked vehicles for people to repair. At that time, I came across an ad for a company – which would turn out to be Chief Automotive – looking for someone to sell frame racks, something I had experience with. All throughout the ’90s, it became a big thing; everybody was getting frame racks and keeping the work in-house. In the late 90s, we started introducing electronic measuring to the industry. That was kind of a trip because so many shops laughed at me when I walked in and talked about it. They didn’t think there would ever be computers in the back of a dirty body shop. But we laughed at it and pushed ahead with the vision of where we saw things going. You have to look at where things are going all the time, as this industry is continually changing. 

AASP: Tell us about your business. How did you get it all started? 

MH: In 2006, Chief Automotive decided to move away from direct sales and go with a distributorship. We had a great sales force team, too. In fact, I think we had the best one this country has ever seen. I really miss getting together with all of them. I applied for the distributorship and started Straight & Square Distributing in 2006. One of the first things I began to see was a change in repairs. We started the business trying to find a model with the frame racks and measuring systems, and then we hooked up with Pro Spot out of California. I really wanted a U.S.-made welder. Hooking up with them covered the next 18 years. It started with just a spot welder and maybe a dent repair with that, and now it’s just such a big line of equipment that has taken over our business. We still offer frame racks, tools and clamps. What you don’t see is shops working on straightening on frame racks like we did in the ’90s. The design and structures of the vehicles have all changed so much due to the types of metals they use; it’s become more about taking out the bad and replacing it with new, rather than repairing it. 

AASP: What are some of the biggest changes to the automotive industry you’ve witnessed over the years? 

MH: If you look at any of the panels on vehicles from back in the late ’70s or ’80s compared to now, you see that the metals have become a lot lighter. They are not as repairable. They get wrecked; you put on a new one. That’s really what the car manufacturers are after. And back in the ’90s, the body shops really had some hard times. They weren’t thriving businesses like they are now. Some thrived, but many faced hard times with the economy during those years. When Ford came out with the aluminum F-150, something just kind of happened. Vehicle prices got so high that more people kept their vehicles and chose to repair them. Shops got busier, and there were new opportunities with aluminum. 

Now, EVs, ADAS systems and new technologies offer other opportunities for body shops. So when you look at all these things, it’s not surprising to see that a lot of shops are thriving. And that has opened the door for MSOs, which you would have never seen in the ’90s. There’d be some of that around the country, but not up here in Minnesota. It’s been quite an event the last couple of years. We didn’t even have to train technicians as much way back when, and now you’d better be training techs all the time. There is just no end to training. That’s one of the concerning things we see – a lack of training with some of the new techs coming in. 

AASP: Can you share some highlights from your time in the industry?

MH: I just love getting together with everyone at the different conventions and meetings with people all across the country and working with the customers. Training and working with the guys. That’s my high point. A lot of guys see me and say ‘Hi Mike,’ and I may not know who they are or what their names are, but I remember them being in training. I don’t see much of that anymore, as many shops are drawing the line with the training, so a lot of technicians have to take it on their own to stay up-to-date. That was my highlight: to get out every day and talk with people. Back in the day, we did a lot of cold calls. For me, it was fun to just go out and shake someone’s hand, and ask, ‘How are things? If I can help you in any way, let me know.’ We don’t do that much anymore, as we’re well-known enough that they just call us. That’s probably one of the things I miss most is being with the people, working with the customers face-to-face. 

AASP: How did you get involved with AASP-Minnesota? 

MH: Back in 1989, right around the time I got started with Chief Automotive, we’d take part in the regional trade show AASP-MN was part of at the time. We’d cover the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. That’s how we got involved with AASP-MN as they were involved with setting up that show. I remember (AASP-MN Office Manager) Jodi Pillsbury from way back then. Over time, things changed, and a lot of shops stopped showing up at these shows to look at equipment. Training would continue, but the need to look at equipment wasn’t the reason shops went to shows anymore. When we started with Straight & Square in 2006, we put an ad in AASP-MN News right away, as it’s our local trade magazine and we knew that it went to so many members, and we’ve continued to put ads in there since. When other publications approached us about being digital, we declined taking part, as we only wanted to stay with AASP-MN News. We see the magazine on tables in break rooms and entryways of shops’ waiting areas. We see a lot more exposure with that, and that’s why we continue to run two different ads in this magazine and have for many years. 

AASP: When did you decide to retire and why?

MH: A couple of years ago, my mom passed away. We spent a lot of time taking care of my dad over the next year, so I started slowing down a little bit, and my stepson Randy began taking on more jobs. My father passed the day after Christmas last year. I had already decided the previous summer to talk to a finance guy and started going over everything because my full retirement age is 66 and 10 months, and although I just turned 65, I decided that I’ve had enough. I’ve spent a lot of years working, being in hotel rooms during the week, and I’m just getting tired. I’ve spent about 36 years offering equipment, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s really a bittersweet thing, but there’s just something inside telling me it’s time to let this go and let the younger generation take over. It’s time for some new light and to start enjoying doing some other things. How many more years can you do things before you can’t? I had to open up the spot for some of the younger guys. 

AASP: What are the next steps for your business?

MH: My wife Kim is a couple years younger and isn’t ready to retire yet, so she and my stepson Randy Peterson, who has been with Straight & Square for 16 years, will continue on. Our service and support won’t change and customers should not notice a difference at all. We have a new service technician named Mark Hilde. Randy has been introducing him to customers, and he’s doing really well and likes what he is doing. That’s half of it. You’ve really got to give a sh#t. If one doesn’t give a sh#t, we don’t need you. That’s always been our thing. The customers are what is important to us. And having good vendors to work with. If I’ve got a vendor who stands behind us, I can stand behind them. If not, then we don’t need that vendor anymore. That’s always been our philosophy. 

AASP: What do you plan to do in your retirement years? 

MH: My wife and I bought a little cabin on a lake to enjoy summers. It’s close to home, only an hour away, but it needs a lot of work. So I’ve already been out there this spring doing some of the work. I’ll spend most of the summer, or whatever time I feel like, renovating that. I also plan on doing a little more fishing than I’ve been able to do in the past. 

AASP: Anything else you’d like to share with your former colleagues and friends? 

MH: I would like to thank everyone. There are some customers that I’ve worked with their fathers and even a couple of shops where I worked with their grandpas. I’ve watched some shops evolve through all of those generations and have met all their technicians, shop owners and managers. They’re all good people. A lot of the businesses were family-owned. I don’t know if it has anything to do with it, but they always seem to be tighter knit. It was enjoyable to walk in and they’d say, ‘Hey Mike, how are you doing?’ and I’d be like ‘Hey, customer! How are you doing?’ I was always welcome to just stop in and say hi and see if they needed anything. That was always the highlight of my day. If I didn’t get to do that for a while and I had to just sit – as I got closer to retirement, I spent more time in the office – I wasn’t as happy. Maybe that’s what drove me to retirement. It’s more fun being with the people. 

Want more? Check out the July 2024 issue of AASP-MN News!