Q&A with Fred Mills, owner of Willing Way Machine Repair

FRED MILLS: “At about 12 years old, I knew I wanted to be a mechanic. And I’ve been a mechanic since 1968.”

When he was about 12, Fred Mills recalled telling his dad on their way to Edmonton while looking out of their vehicle and seeing all the equipment on a road construction about how he’d like to one day be able to work all those machines and fix them when they break down. “I knew I wanted to be a mechanic,” he said. At 17, he responded to a hiring announcement from the now-defunct R. Angus Alberta Ltd, a dealership for Caterpillar Inc. equipment for Alberta and part of the Northwest Territories.

Mills wrote the test and scored a 100%, the first one to do so, he was told. He snagged the job as an apprentice. However, before he could start working, he received a letter from the company, telling him that he needed to be at least 18 years old to be able to work. He spent the next year at a vocational school in Edmonton taking courses such as Automotive Mechanics, Machining, Welding as well as Tinsmith training.

In 1968, he started apprenticing for R. Angus. “I’ve been a mechanic ever since,” Mills said. “And even before I started apprenticing, I had already rebuilt two tractor engines.”

(In September 1989, Edmonton-based R. Angus was acquired by Finning Ltd, a heavy equipment dealer.)

FRED MILLS: “I don’t see myself retiring. I would pick and choose my jobs, but I won’t totally get out of it.”

The job at R. Angus took Mills to the Peace River, where he ran a mechanic service truck. After 11 years, he gave up his R. Angus job. “I got burned out. During the last few years of working for R. Angus I bought a farm too. So, I was farming and a mechanic at the same time. I was working too many hours farming and as a mechanic,” he said.

In 1993, he moved from Grimshaw to Stettler, where he started his own business, Willing Way Machine Repair, as a mobile heavy-duty mechanic. In 1997, he moved to Spirit River.

Question: What do you think is your biggest business advantage?
Answer: My advantage is that I don’t have to worry about this month’s rent. And I don’t have to worry about mortgage payments. To the customers, I can do a lot of the jobs cheaper than if they hire a truck to haul their equipment into town to get it fixed. I can drive to where my customers are and fix their equipment. I don’t have a lot of overhead expenses, so I can afford to charge less. I’m also flexible. Let’s suppose that you’ve called me because your truck is not running right. So, I came and fixed it. And while I’m there you said to me that your, say, lawn mower was not working right. So, I fix that, too, while I’m there instead of putting it off for another day. I’ll stay with you as a customer until I’m done with what needs fixing before I move on to the next customer.

What is your biggest challenge as a business?
Sometimes, it’s difficult to convince customers that we need to fix things right. Sometimes it’s difficult to convince customers that their money-saving idea would actually cost them more money in the long term. My dilemma is that I carry a liability insurance. I guarantee my work, and if I don’t fix things right, then my insurance company won’t back me up in the event of an insurance claim. So, I fix things right, or I don’t fix them at all.

How are you keeping with the ever-changing technological landscape?
I’ve been lucky enough to get job contracts with dealerships. As you know, technology comes into the dealership from the manufacturers. They don’t share it with anybody else. I’ve been lucky enough to have work contracts with dealerships, and it’s allowing me to keep up with new technology.

Is retirement anywhere in the horizon?
I don’t see myself retiring. I would pick and choose my jobs, but I won’t totally get out of it. I’m really busy this year. I have more work this year than I can do. I have a list of customers by my phone, and I would go on a first-call, first-served basis. Sometimes I have to cross some names off because I’m so busy, and customers could not wait until my next available schedule; they needed to get their equipment running. I’d like to call myself blessed.