And then came what he calls a “defining moment.”
“As I sat there crunching numbers at this great internship, I realized that I simply didn’t want to do that,” Terstegge says. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not wired for this.’”
To hear Terstegge tell it, this wasn’t a moment of crisis. It was simply the magnetic pull to go back to what he’d grown up doing: working on cars at the family business and interacting every day with friends and customers he’s known for years at Masters European & Japanese Auto Repair, the automotive repair shop his dad Jim Terstegge opened at 111 Camino Alto in Mill Valley in 1972.
“It was a moment of clarity, and the transition was really smooth,” says Keith Terstegge, who grew up in San Rafael. ”My dad and I work together really easily. And I just love working on cars. When I’m not working cars, I’m off to places like Laguna Seca and car events and learning more about car technology.”
That car obsession is the thread that runs through every aspects of the business, from Keith Terstegge’s three brothers who have worked at the shop and its mechanics who’ve worked there for 15-plus years to Jim Terstegge himself, who handed over day-to-day operations to Keith in 2009 yet still shows up most every day for a morning shift.
And that car love continues in Terstegge’s 8-year-old twins, both of whom are “total car nuts. My son is dying to come down here and work for me already.”
Jim Terstegge discovered he he had a knack for fixing cars at a young age, so by the time he graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1970, he’d already worked at several auto repair shops in the Bay Area.
Keith Terstegge calls his dad “a naturally gifted mechanic” who “has a way of balancing the mechanic side and the operational side of running a business. Jim Terstegge is considerably more nonchalant about his talents.
“I didn’t have any real plans – I sort of just fell into this,” he says.
Jim Terstegge opened and ran his Small Wonder Car Company with some partners, operating a pair of locations in San Francisco before the partnership dissolved after five years. That’s when he decided to open his own shop, and given his knowledge of Japanese and European cars, he picked Mill Valley, “an independent-minded community filled with European car loyalists and early adopters of the first imports from Japan.”
His decision continued the building’s historic use as an auto repair shop. This year marks its 90th anniversary as a car repair shop, as the Filippi brothers opened their shop in the Elroy Garage there in 1928.
Before the Golden Gate bridge debuted, local traffic would back up on Camino Alto in front of 111 Camino Alto “as cars jockeyed for a spot on the local ferry boat into San Francisco,” Jim Terstegge says.
Keith Terstegge says that the customer service-driven, employee-centric culture his dad created – “we do what’s good car, what’s good for the customer and what’s good for the company” – remains its foundation.
As a result, turnover among employees “is virtually non-existent,” he says. “We have mechanics reach out all the time letting us know they’d love to come work for us if there’s ever an opening.”
Terstegge says he’s seen lots of significant changes in the auto repair business in the past 10 years, specifically the need for manufacturers to comply with fuel economy standards and for modern mechanics to constantly update their knowledge base on software-related car repairs.
“It was unheard of before to have software updates flash across multiple brands of cars we work on,” Terstegge says. “One out of every three repairs we do is a software patch or update. That’s been a really big paradigm shift in our world.”
“The ideal mechanic now is someone who can not only get their hands dirty but also be able to identify software-based solutions,” he adds, noting that mergers and acquisitions of car manufacturers also require translations to new operating systems.
Another shift has been the growing popularity in Mill Valley of British car makers like Land Rover and Jaguar, a surge that builds on the shop’s strong customer network of owners of German and Japanese cars.
But while service and expertise drives the business, Terstegge says that it all comes back to the relationships, many of which date back to his days as a pre-teen helping his dad in the shop.
“We have customers stop in all the time, even without a car repair need, to update us on college graduations and marriages and whatever is going on in their lives – and we want to know all those things,” Terstegge says. “Those relationships are the foundation of the business.”