For 56 years, the business has always been a family affair.

Although it’s seen its ups and downs, the mechanics at D&M Motors in Ellensburg have always been on the clock to help people in emergencies. The business has humble roots dating to 1963 when husband and wife team Don and Millie Johnson opened up shop in a building on the corner of First Avenue and Main Street.

The family moved to the Kittitas Valley approximately 10 years earlier, when Don took work at the local Studebaker dealership. Over the years Don worked his way up to service manager, and when the dealership changed hands, he didn’t see eye to eye with the new owner. As a result of the disagreement, Millie suggested they open their own business. Their son Kevin Johnson said the two sat down to ponder what to name the enterprise.

“Everything was windy or evergreen or Kittitas or Ellensburg,” he said. “Other things that were in regard to the Kittitas Valley. They decided to go with the initials, because at that time there was no businesses with initials in their names. There sure wasn’t anything that had a female’s name involved, especially in the auto repair business. My mom knew more about cars and trucks than most guys.”

Word soon spread throughout the valley that Don had left the Studebaker dealership. Back then, Kevin said cars typically had a six-month warranty, after which they were free to take their vehicle elsewhere from the dealership for repairs.

“If it wasn’t under warranty and they had to pay for it, they did not stay there,” he said. “They followed my dad.”

About six months after opening D&M, the new owner of the Studebaker dealership decided to sell the business but did not own the building and property. Kevin said his father went to the property owner and started a new lease, and he moved the business back into the old dealership where he got his beginnings in the valley.

“We’ve been there ever since,” he said.

Kevin said his parents were a formidable team, with Millie handling the office and bookkeeping duties. Having four children, he said she worked hard to balance both jobs.

“She would stay at home and do all of her house stuff,” he said. “Get us off to school, make sure we made it home, and at 3 o’clock she would head back down to the shop.”

Kevin said Don would answer the phones, greet customers, diagnose vehicles, write work orders and then commence to fix the problem.

“He had many hats that he wore,” he said.

EXTENDED FAMILY

The family effort was not always limited to the parents, however. When Don shattered both of his legs in a shop accident, Kevin said his grandparents came up to help handle the business.

“My grandfather took over what my dad was doing while my dad was in the hospital and out of the business for six months,” he said. “My mom continued doing her stuff. She actually went down there the entire time during the day and my grandmother stayed home with us boys during the summertime and then made sure we made it off to school in the fall.”

Although Don eventually recovered from his injuries, Kevin said it was far from an easy path.

“It was quite traumatic,” he said. “They didn’t think he was going to walk again, but he was truly stubborn and wouldn’t give up.”

Don didn’t give up, and went back to running the business as usual, with Millie helping take the reins. Tragedy struck again, however in 1986 when Don had a brain aneurism, causing a massive stroke. Kevin said the business structure changed again, in that his father was not able to work at the business. Despite that, he was simply thankful his father was still alive.

“He survived that,” he said. “Most people that have an aneurism at the base of the brain don’t survive.”

Although Don survived the incident and lived another 12 years before dying in 1998, his time at the shop was over. All four sons had hung around the shop growing up, and two of them eventually embarked on other career paths. It was at that point that sons Kevin and Craig stepped up to assume responsibilities. When word got out that Don was no longer running the business, Kevin said many customers thought the business wouldn’t be the same.

“Technically we weren’t,” he said. “My dad wasn’t there, but the quality of work we were putting out, the dedication to being fair and honest with our customers never changed.”

Despite working hard to maintain the reputation Don created in the valley, Kevin said rumors began to swirl around the community and it resulted in every employee quitting the business.

“They started believing the rumors we were going to go out of business,” he said. “It got down to my mom, myself and my younger brother, and that was it.”

The family buckled down and hired a couple of hardworking mechanics to keep the business afloat. They survived yet another disaster and have continued to grow the business ever since. Looking back on his decision to take over the business, Kevin said it was not his original intention. He originally went to college for construction management, but the timing was off.

“In the early 80s, the housing market was extremely poor,” he said. “I took a year off from college and went to work for my parents. Went back for a quarter and realized I was wasting my time and money, so I went back to work for my parents and have stayed with it since.”

When it came to mechanics, the skills were already rooted within Kevin and his brother Craig. Kevin recalled his father taking them down to the shop as children and having them sort out countless boxes of nuts and bolts. From there, they progressed to learn the ins and outs of auto repair. Kevin said the classroom even extended to the outdoor trips his father would take the family on.

“He liked playing Jeep with a car and tank with a Jeep,” he said. “Our parents both had a passion for adventure and our dad was the leader of our group. Sometimes things would get broken and fail. Our dad would figure out how to make it work and get us back home. It taught us kind of a Rube Goldberg thinking outside the box method. Figure out what you need to do with what you have to work with to do it.”

Looking back on his decision to jump into the family business, Kevin said he has no regrets. Although unsure at this point, he has hopes that someone in the family will step up to take over the business as he and Craig did back in 1986. Regardless of what happens in the future, he said if it wasn’t for the dedication from not only his direct family, but extended family of employees put into keeping the business going over the years, thinking about the future would not be possible.

“It’s true for any business,” he said. “It’s absolutely key in ours. As we have progressed over the years with all of the different things that occur in a family business and the major events that have occurred in ours, we worked hard to be able to survive.”

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