Successful business with 11 locations originated from a car trunk in Traverse City

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Photo by Patricia Davis

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Edwin G. Thirlby, founder of Thirlby Automotive in 1958, and a car trunk have evolved into 11 Thirlby Automotive locations in Northern Michigan that serve over 1,200 accounts and many additional daily walk-up customers.

Edwin W. Thirlby (the present owner and Edwin. G. Thirlby’s son) explains, “In the late 1950s my father was working at a marina and a guy came along selling wax. He told him he was retiring. So, my father took over and started going out to drive around and sell waxes, and then it kept getting bigger by selling more products.”

“When he was 51 or 52 and I was 27, I already had a store of my own in Mesick. Then I took over the company. We now have 11 locations and have merged with another business, Northern Auto Parts,” Edwin W. Thirlby, 53, says.

The 11 locations are featured in the map below.

The 11 locations of Thirlby Automotive.

Map by Patricia Davis using Google

The 11 locations of Thirlby Automotive.

Diane Kimmel, who taught general business at Northwestern Michigan College, says this extent of success requires a business to really know its’ audience: “If you want a company to be successful you have to do research on your client base. There’s many examples. The founder of Discovery Toys was a former pre-school teacher and started the company in her garage. Now they are a multibillion dollar company. And, Mary Kay Cosmetics was founded in a tiny store with only five products. You just have someone with a great idea and it’s successful, but that’s not saying it’s easy.”

She says when a company opens more locations (as Thirlby Automotive did), they have a larger client base and it’s important they know the demographics as they open each store. She also says while this success is what most entrepreneurs dream of, it is not common.

Edwin W. Thirlby admits there were some bumps in the road. “The hardest part was that it has changed so much. When my father was in it there were no box stores. He was a pretty small player of the time, so they were just competing against bigger companies. Now we’re competing against the internet and all those things,” he says.

Eighth Street Thirlby Auto Location

But, Edwin W. Thirlby also says he loves the loyalty of the employees and customers. General Manager Chad Jakee agrees. He has been working at Thirlby Automotive for 22 years and loves it. “The best part about working here is that it’s family owned and operated. It’s awesome. Ed is the second generation and it’s completely locally operated under him,” Jakee says.

US 131 Thirlby Auto Location

On June 22, 2017 Jakee served over 50 customers as just one of nine men at the counter. While the company serves over 1,200 accounts and many additional walk-up customers, it is evident that they have loyal customers.

Customer Mark Smith has been going to Thirlby Automotive for over 25 years. Smith says, “I like how convenient it is, they have the products I need. If they don’t have it they can get it.” Mark Smith and his wife, Patricia Smith, say the employees are friendly, enjoyable, and consistent. He visits both the US 131 location and the 8th Street location.

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