Forty-five years goes by quicker than you think.
Just ask Don Wagoner, the longtime owner of White Pass Garage in Yakima.
Wagoner wasn’t even 30 years old when he purchased the well-known automotive service company at North 16th Avenue and Fruitvale Boulevard.
He’s not around much these days, though he still stops in once in a while to say hi to his crew and spray some weeds around the property.
“I like to play golf and go snowmobiling and work around the house, so I’m not here much at all anymore,” said Wagoner, 72, who retired about 10 years ago. “But we’ve always been a family business, so I try to drop by every couple of weeks to check in.”
Many of Wagoner’s customers have been bringing their cars and trucks to White Pass Garage for generations, back when the shop was known as Ross Dolliver Garage. In those days, the business sat on the White Pass Highway, which was considered the outskirts of town.
Wagoner and his daughter, Deborah Scott — who now manages the business — have gotten to know hundreds, if not thousands, of Yakima Valley motorists over the years.
An appreciation for their customers is what has made the business successful for so many years.
“A lot of these folks aren’t just customers; they’re our friends,” said Scott, who came to work for her dad in 1996. Her 26-year-old son, D.J. Scott, is a mechanic at the garage. “Those relationships are a big reason why we’re still going strong after so many years.”
Customers aren’t the only ones who have developed a loyalty to White Pass Garage. Employees like Don Klang (38 years) and Mike McIntosh (17 years) tend to stay around just as long.
Another longtime family friend, Leigh Ann Wathen, joined the team last fall as an assistant manager. She and Deborah Scott have been friends since grade school. Wathen said she is proud to work for a company that treats its customers so well.
“We are an honest shop and people know they can trust us,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our business is on a referral basis, and that’s because everyone knows we take good care of our customers.”
If there is a secret to the success of White Pass Garage, Wagoner said it would be treating their customers with the utmost respect, without exception.
Scott, Wathen and their mechanics always shoot straight with the folks who trust them with their vehicles.
“It’s all about communication,” Scott said. “We try to tell people what services they need right away and what can wait until later. I think they appreciate us for that.”
In his younger years, Wagoner always wanted to own his own garage.
He grew up on a ranch in Toppenish and started out working on the family’s cars and farming equipment. He took three years of auto shop in high school, which allowed him to complete the auto technician course at Yakima Valley College in two years instead of three.
Wagoner credits Bill Palmer, his instructor at Toppenish High School and at YVC Grandview, for preparing him for a career in the industry.
“I worked on everything when I was younger, so when I got my first job, I was very well-trained,” said Wagoner, a 1964 Top-Hi graduate.
Wagoner started at Bangert Ford in Richland before joining the team at Valley Ford in 1967. He worked his way up to service manager, but his real ambition was to go out on his own.
That’s when the opportunity to buy White Pass Garage came along.
“I borrowed some money from my folks and sold my old ski boat,” he said. “I spent everything I had, but I knew I could be successful because the business was already well known in town. After only a couple of years, we started growing really fast and we had to expand.”
The business really took off in 1975 when Wagoner got involved with the Automotive Service Association (ASA). He said that training taught him how to be a better manager and a better business owner.
“I learned that you can’t run a business from underneath a car, so I started hiring more people so I could spend more time working with my customers,” he said.
Wagoner eventually added a new office space, and in 1993 he built the four-bay garage that is in use today.
He said the business grew steadily every year until 2007, when the economic downturn hit.
“We were basically cut in half for a few years,” Wagoner said. “We’re just now getting back to where we were, but it feels like we’re growing again.”
Training And Equipment
Aside from doing quality work and treating its customers well, White Pass Garage also has a reputation for training its employees on the latest equipment available.
Wagoner has served on the advisory board for the Yakima Valley Technical Skills Center (YV-Tech) for 40 years, and he has developed relationships with all of the instructors. He also gets to work with prospective employees and stay up to date on what’s new in the industry.
“Training is a big thing for us, and we are always trying to bring in the latest technology,” Wagoner said. “We go to all of the ASA meetings and we send the whole staff to a training course in Seattle every year. These days, you have to keep up with all of the new equipment.”
The newer equipment at White Pass Garage includes a diagnostic scanning tool, new air-conditioning service machines and state-of-the-art lifts that can handle any size vehicles.
While the staff can handle any automotive service, they also do a fair amount of lube, oil and filter work, Wagoner said. They work on nearly every make and model, and serve customers from as far away Seattle, Desert Aire and Packwood.
Over the past 45 years, Wagoner and his team have built a reputation around Central Washington as being one of the most friendly, honest and knowledgeable auto shops around.
Wagoner couldn’t be more proud of what he has helped build.
“Our goal is just to take care of our customers,” he said. “People keep coming here and telling their friends because they trust us. That means we must be doing something right.”