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July of 2015. As amazing as it seems, the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction is celebrating 30 years of rich tradition and history.

The trials and tribulations that we have faced, the hills we have climbed and the victories that we’ve won have been many. In addition we have also experienced amazing changes over the years as any organization has that has survived this test of time. And with those changes often comes transformation… because as with any living thing (and our organization is certainly that) you are either growing or you’re dying.

The Beginning
For us the venture began to unfold in late 1984 when our founder, JD Smith, became interested in the possible purchase of the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction. JD was a local independent wholesaler of used cars at the time and felt that the purchase made sense for him personally. The name of the auction at the time was actually the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction, and the owners, Ken and Martha Jacobs entertained the idea of selling their business to JD. Months went by as due diligence was done and finally Ken and Martha came to a deal with JD.

New Ownership
It was 1985 and the doors would open with a new owner. JD purchased the auction with the vision of making it bigger and better; and he did just that as he changed staff and improved systems. Eventually he even changed the name to the South Bend/Mishawaka Auto Auction.

The facility was on McKinley at the time and located about a block from today’s new state-of-the-art facility. The auction building was old and dilapidated. It housed a 2 lane with one door on each end but in the back of JD’s mind he had visions of what the company might someday become.

During the negotiations and due diligence stage prior to the purchase Karen Bonnell worked for the real estate firm that handled the transaction between JD and the Jacobs’. JD came to know Karen (a single mother at the time). He quickly recognized her work ethic, common sense and intuitiveness. He soon felt that there might be a position for Karen within his new venture. As a single mother Karen needed additional income so it was a perfect scenario for both, although the position would only be for one day a week. In the fall of that year JD offered Karen the position and she latched on needing the money as she says “baby needs new shoes”. However it wasn’t long before the professional relationship blossomed into a personal one as well.

Another Venture & A New Life
In 1989, with Karen at his side JD bought Bill’s City Wide Towing. JD believed that the auto auction and towing company had a lot of synergy. Before long Karen found herself running the towing company. Two years later JD and Karen were married and the two continued to work side-by-side to make the businesses grow.

The Search For A New Facility
Over the next several years the organizations would continue to grow and improve as the couple worked hard to build the businesses. JD began talking about breathing some new life into the auction and started researching plots of land where an exciting new facility might be built. JD liked the area so focused on land nearby. He and Karen started acquiring several lots that they could string together and develop as “the perfect property” for the new facility. The process took several months to negotiate and acquire because there were several parcels owned by different people. The land for the new facility was finalized and purchased in 2000. By early 2001 ground was broken and the new building was being constructed. In July of 2002, the state- of-the-art new facility opened for business.

Unexpected Tragedy
Everything seemed to be falling into place when suddenly tragedy struck their lives. It was December of 2002; Karen was working at the towing company that evening dispatching trucks. Police called and informed her that a tow truck needed to be dispatched to the scene of a serious accident. What Karen did not know at the time of the call was that her son Joshua was involved in the tragic accident and died at the scene. It was an unimaginable catastrophe and obviously a life-changing moment for not only Karen but for JD as well. The couple did their best to support each other and somehow, over time they managed to keep the business intact and move forward.

Name Change And Plans Continue
As the years progressed so did the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction. IN 2008, GMAA would change its name to the South Bend Mishawaka Auto Auction. Many system improvements aided the progression of the company and it continued the path that it was on. The new facility served the company well as dealers raved over the design and functionality as well as how much more enjoyable the auction was to attend. Things were progressing very well indeed, until misfortune struck again.

More Tragic News
It was early 2010; JD was not feeling well and visited his doctor for testing. A few days later JD, SBMAA’s president and visionary, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. JD, was at one time a heavy smoker, he had also worked with asbestos and had heavy scaring on his lungs. The doctors gave him approximately eight months to live if he forwent surgery and treatment. They gave him 15 months if he had the surgery and took the treatments. JD chose to have the surgery. Fifteen months later, Karen was in the midst of planning a 70th birthday party for JD. Invitations went out and a tent was ordered (Karen knew that JD couldn’t be in the sun). Unfortunately JD passed away just days before his party.

Karen vividly remembers the moment and what her decisions to stay or fold were based on. “I just went back to work.” Karen said, “Businesses are like trains, if someone doesn’t direct them they’ll go off the track.” Karen knows that there was more behind her decision to keep the businesses going “What it really did was kept my mind preoccupied.”

When The Going Gets Tough...
It’s certainly fair to say that most of us would have folded under the circumstances. Karen admits that these were by far her darkest days; and she wasn’t sure whether she could continue. Fortunately, she made the toughest decision of her career and of her life, to move forward and carry on what her husband had started. Soon, the auto auction and the towing company would once again be facing many changes.

The next big challenge for Karen would be personnel changes. Karen felt that, in the best interest of the company, (and possibly its survival) she needed to release the auction’s general manager of his duties. This was to be one of the company’s biggest changes. “It was scary as hell getting rid of the guy that possessed more information about our company (and the auction industry) than anyone else left behind, including me.” Karen recalled. However she was confident that she needed to make that move for the company to survive. She reflected on the outcome. “After that decision was made everything changed. It was kinda like we put the fun back in the business. The staff, all of the staff, right down to the last driver, was happy. Things immediately ran smoother and more efficient.”

Going Back To Your Roots
Over the next several years the South Bend Mishawaka Auto Auction would continue to grow and thrive once again. Of course, most recently the SBMAA changed its name back to the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction as a reminder that if we don’t change with the times, the times will leave us behind. Name change is certainly not the only change that GMAA has experienced recently. In fact, to commemorate our new name change GMAA has had an entire face lift. We’ve commissioned a well-known, award-winning advertising and marketing company to recreate our site and as well to create an entire new logo and corporate identity. As you look at our website the transformation is immediately obvious. We have totally redesigned the site to make it more aesthetically appealing and more user-friendly for our dealers. We love our new look and hope you do as well.

Today, Tomorrow & Our Future
Today the GMAA runs well over 25,000 vehicles each and every year. In addition, hundreds of satisfied and loyal customers support GMAA and benefit from a relationship with our company. We thank each and every one of you for that!

Karen Smith’s mission combined with a very supportive staff and key people on her team have enabled the Greater Mishawaka Auto Auction to become one of the finest and best run auto auctions anywhere in the country. This is the attitude and fortitude that has helped our company persevere for 30 years. We certainly hope that you join us in our celebration and hope that we can all celebrate our next 30 year anniversary with you!