At the age of 17, Joe Dalen decided he wanted to be a mechanic. His grandparents lived between Cyrus and Starbuck and always brought their vehicles to Scott Estenson for repair and maintenance work, so that’s where Joe went to get his start. He worked summers through high school and the end of college in Estenson’s shop while learning the tricks of the trade.
Once he was finished with college, he went to work for various car dealerships in the area where he gained more experience working in various roles. Starting as a mechanic, he worked in various roles from service writer to the parts department, but after working for different dealerships for many years he decided he needed something different, so he went back to Scott Estenson, where he got his start, to get advice and learn about starting a business from scratch. To start out, Dalen wanted to work out of different shops under his own name, and found that doing this at Estenson’s shop worked well. He was building a reputation, and whenever Estenson wasn’t available he would send clients to Dalen.
Soon, Dalen learned the building on the corner of Pacific Ave and W 5th St was empty. He saw Jim Riley and his crew cleaning up the lot, and his friends began pushing him to speak with Riley about the building. “I was thinking I was really comfortable with working under my own name at Scott’s, but ended up going and talking to Jim, anyway,” Dalen says. Dalen made a deal with Riley and immediately began putting sweat equity into the property.
Equipment needed to be moved out, and the entire building needed to be deeply cleaned. At this point, Dalen needed to start figuring out what equipment he’d need. By January of 2022, he began renting and continued to put work into the property. He was getting questioned often about when he would be opening up for business, and by March he knew he had to make a choice.
Up until that point, he had been splitting his time between working on cars at Estenson’s and working on the new property in Morris, and he had to choose which he was going to focus on. He decided to begin taking work in Morris at the new shop while continuing to work on the property as he got the business up and running.
Riley had put new flooring in, and Dalen painted the ceiling and added new lights. He also added a refrigerator, buffet table, chairs and a desk for the front office of the building.
He purchased a new two-post hoist for the shop and got a lot of great help from the Air Tool Clinic in Cyrus.
Dalen says he tried to keep as much of his projects local as he could. Even though he could order most of what he needed online, he knew he could get better service by working with people in the area. “I can just call [the Air Tool Clinic] and say I have a problem, and they can come out and take a look at it,” Dalen says, a service not often received from different online stores.
Dalen is mostly a one-man operation but gets help from his sister when needed. “She gave herself the title of ‘Director of Operations and Communications’,” he says. She helps with social media marketing, and can also serve as a translator for Spanish-speaking customers.
“People need to understand what’s going on with their cars,” Dalen says. The language barrier causes much confusion, and being able to have a translator to help communicate has been a big help.
Even native English speakers might not be well-versed in auto mechanics. Dalen feels that it is crucial to “make it make sense” to all of his customers so they feel comfortable with the work he’s doing on their vehicles, and confident that when they get it back the work has been done right.
After high school, Dalen attended two years of mechanic school, and then two and half years of autobody school at Ridgewater College in Willmar. “The longstanding joke with the teachers there is that I have a doctorate in automotive,” says Dalen. Now, Dalen occasionally substitute teaches classes at Ridgewater.
The first year that he began operating under his own name, Dalen says it was a slow spring for business. At the same time, one of the instructors at Ridgewater was going to be on leave for an extended period, and Dalen was approached about teaching a four-credit course in the interim. “I enjoy teaching,” he says, “I think it’s important to go to school.”
When asked by one of his students if he felt he learned more in school or working in the shop, Dalen says it was a combination of both. “ I learned a lot of the mechanical stuff, and actual turning of the nuts and bolts working in the shop,” he says, “but I learned the diagnostic procedures and more in-depth how systems work in school.” He adds that diagnostics have gotten so in-depth with newer vehicles and that schooling has been beneficial for him in that aspect.
Dalen also enjoys working with emergency services. Having served as a first responder, firefighter, and on the ambulance, he has a deep passion for helping others. He is still a first responder and works for the Stevens County Ambulance currently, and due to this, the shop may be closed at a moment’s notice.
He is also a single dad of five kids and says that they come first no matter what. Sometimes he may have to close the shop on a weekday to tend to family needs, or he may even be substitute teaching in Willmar. He adds that it’s not strange for him to come back to the shop late at night or on weekends to get caught up with work.
“I’ve got a really great support system through family and friends,” Dalen says, “Back when I was working for Scott I asked him how to get to a spot where I have my own shop and can be my own boss, and to be here now is pretty cool.”