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Mechanic promotes auto TLC in Kotzebue, where 'life for cars is hard'

Tommy WellsThe Arctic Sounder

Han Lee, in a way, is similar to a doctor. Instead of curing the ails and ills of people, he finds himself nursing and healing automobiles. And, like a doctor, he believes in the age-old adage of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.”

Especially when ‘cure’ usually means ‘a lot of money out of one’s pocket’ to get an automobile back on the road.

For Lee, the founding of his latest business venture, Kotzebue Automotive Services, is about making life in rural Alaska a little better for everyone. Better auto care and maintenance will mean a more dependable, longer-lasting vehicle for residents, and less money out of their pockets.

“We saw that there was a need for high-quality automotive care, especially using the industry standards used in the Lower 48.” Said Lee, who has spent more than three decades operating businesses in the Kotzebue area. “Life for cars out here is hard. There isn’t a lot of maintenance, so we’re trying to work with our customers to learn about their cars, and the options they have.”

One thing Lee is serious about is educating Kotzebue residents on the need for preventative maintenance. A little prevention can eliminate costly cures later on.

“A lot of them (car owners) could save an arm and a leg if they would do a little preventative maintenance,” he said. Repairing a minor problem when it is first discovered can prevent a more costly procedure later.

In an effort to provide high-quality care, Lee established KAS in March, creating a 2-bay garage behind the NIHA building that encompasses almost 3,000 square feet with two car lifts and electronic diagnostic systems. He installed a high-tech CompuStar service – making KAS the northern-most dealer utilizing the system, hired master mechanics and established working partnerships with automotive dealers in Anchorage to extend the businesses’ services and resources.

“We want to create a place where people can come and get high-quality automotive care,” said Lee. “We’re trying to offer better options for the customers. Many of the people who live here don’t have a lot of disposable extra income, so we’re trying to create a way for them to take better care of their cars and still survive.”

In addition to bringing in mechanics and systems to diagnose and repair automobiles, Lee has also spent countless hours educating his customers on the value of purchasing extended warranties.

“We’ve been trying to encourage them to do some preventative maintenance, and how to take advantage of their warranties and insurance,” he said. “We’ve found that a lot of people don’t really understand how to use the warranties and what their insurance offers. I think a lot of people are surprised when they find out about them. That has been one thing we have tried hard to work on.”

Lee also said his staff has created an on-site financing program to help local residents with automotive repair/maintenance costs. Customers approved for the program will be able to make repairs and pay for them in small payments over a period of time.

Lee said some repairs may still have to be outsourced to Anchorage specialists, but that in many cases, local residents may find that working agreements his team has created may save them money.

Lee also said Kotzebue Automotive Service is also one of the first businesses in the northwest Arctic to promote environmental safety. The business is a collection site for used automotive engine oil, and also a collection site for used deep-fryer oil generated by local restaurants.

“It is a good thing,” said Lee. “We have set up to take the used motor and deep-fried oil. Instead of having to bury that stuff, which isn’t really good for the land, or have the ravens come in, we collect it.”

Lee said his staff has actually taken the “green” approach a step further, utilizing the used deep fried waste oil to heat their shop during the winter months.

“We purchased a waste oil boiler that can burn waste oil and deep fryer oil,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy process to set up, but after a few months of tweaking it, we managed to get it to working pretty efficiently.”

Lee said Kotzebue Automotive Services could expand in the future to offer other services that could promote better automotive health.

“It has been a challenge to get it started,” said Lee. “But I think it will be great.”

This article was originally published by The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.