By S.R. Williams

The Paces Ferry Exxon station is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, notably under the same ownership. How has this small business succeeded when so many of its kind have failed? Why are their customers so loyal and full of praise for a small gas station and car repair shop, even though its prices are not the cheapest in the area?

Talking to owner Mike Graham about how he has run his business, the familiar code of the United States Military Academy at West Point came to mind: “Honor, Duty, and Country.”  In Graham’s case the motto is “Honor, Duty, and People.”

These have been Graham’s guiding principles since he struck out on his own in 1983 from his father’s business in Tucker – an Amoco station where he had started working when he was 14.

When the spot on West Paces Ferry became available as an Exxon outlet in 1982, Mike, with one technician from his father’s station, one high school friend, who now has his own shop in Alpharetta, and two other friends, Ronnie Freeman and John Buckner, opened the gas station and service shop.

Freeman, who possesses a rare Automotive Service Excellence certificate, has now worked 27 years as the master technician. Buckner left to work for Eastern Airlines, but returned when Eastern went bankrupt. Freeman’s nephew, Paul, who also is certified as an Automotive Service Excellence technician, has worked with them for 20 years.

The depth of knowledge and experience of these technicians is hard to find today and difficult for car agencies to match.  “It is tough to hire a technician now,” Graham said.  “There are so many different kinds of sophisticated cars with complicated computer systems. The equipment you need to diagnose problems is very expensive and has to be updated with new software about every two years. It is time consuming to train new people and requires a serious commitment from them to learn.”

Because of its Buckhead location, Graham said they service a lot of high-end cars. “When the warranty is up, we can do 95 percent of the service for German, European and Asian cars.”

When asked about the rest of his staff, Graham was eloquent on the subject of his manager, Andre Allen. “Without him, I would be unable to take any time off,” he said.  “He is the best there is for satisfying customers and getting the right information to the mechanics.”

Graham has a policy of hiring family members of employees and keeping his people for as long as they want to stay. Working under Andre is his son, Andre, Jr., who is also a student at Oglethorpe University. During the summer and holidays other teenagers are hired and most return whenever they can.

This inclusive and happy environment is in great measure due to the personality and efforts of Mario Shropshire, another valuable family employee. Shropshire’s aunt, Shawn, “holds the fort” in the office with a ready smile for everyone.  Her toughest job may be that she is surrounded by a lavish supply of candy, cake and ice cream treats. If they are made in the South, as are Moon Pies and Goo Goo Clusters, you can probably find them here.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.