To say Bill Sauer has led an interesting life is like saying the 1964 Ferrari 250 GTO is a nice car—the words somehow fail to describe the intricacies and nuances that take something from ho-hum to truly special.
Identifix’s founder officially retired in August, after 52 years in the automotive industry. He ended his career on a high note as the vehicle diagnostics leader announced it broke yet another record: 46,000 subscribers accessed information on over 400,000 different vehicles from the Direct-Hit online tool in July.
Sauer said he isn’t retiring for any particular reason. “I renewed my driver’s license recently and finally realized how old I had gotten,” joked the 77 year-old. “So I decided to move on – it’s time.”
Sauer started as a Mobil service station dealer in 1962, which eventually led to him launching an equipment sales company, selling oscilloscopes, dynos, infra-reds and other test equipment.
“I wanted my buyers to use the equipment properly, so with each sale I scheduled an on-site training session right in their shop with the techs,” he said.
Sauer discovered that few technicians had knowledge of electric ignition – a revolutionary new technology at the time – and that most were mystified about ignition theory in general, “even the good old ‘points and condenser’ variety.”
“I coined a saying back then,” said Sauer. “‘You can’t tell what is wrong, if you don’t know what is right.’”
It was this philosophy that led him to found Autotech in 1976, which provided advanced technical training over a three-day, 24-hour course, a format that decidedly went above and beyond the one-night beer and pizza clinics that had previously been the industry standard. Autotech was extremely successful and eventually went nationwide.
With the dawn of the 1980s and the computerized car, Sauer foresaw the increasing need for information and envisioned a technical hotline, complete with specialists and original factory service information accessible through a computerized database. Finding investors who believed in his business plan was tough, though, and it wasn’t until the fall of 1987 that Sauer partnered with Owatonna Tool Company (OTC) to create Autoline Telediagnosis.
“(It was the) best move I ever did and I owe them a lot,” said Sauer.
With Ford, GM, Chrysler and import specialists on hand, they ordered all factory manuals published since 1980 and set up phone and computer systems. On January 2, 1988, the phone lines were open for business.
Sauer admits growth was slow, since the industry expected information to be provided by parts suppliers at no cost. Sauer adjusted the payment format, eventually charging customer calls by the minute.
Management changed at OTC and the new regime wasn’t happy with the numbers. Sauer and his team rallied and he assumed majority ownership at the end of 1992 and renamed the company Identifix. The company struggled throughout 1993, and in 1994 Sauer knew he had to hire a strong CEO to lead the day-to-day operations. In came Jeff Sweet, who had previously been on the board of directors.
“With the last names of Sweet and Sauer, we knew we had to be together,” said Sauer.
Today Identifix, along with its sister company iATN, have become the largest source of diagnostic and repair information in North America. Identifix currently boasts 46 factory-trained ASE master carline specialists and receives up to 20,000 calls a month on its repair hotline. The hotline has taken over four million calls since its inception, and an average of 20,000 shops are accessing data through Direct-Hit at any given time.
“This hasn’t happened without help from a lot of believers,” said Sauer. “The key to our success (has been) the quality and knowledge of our dedicated and talented employees.
“I started this ‘dream’ partly because I felt it was financially feasible, but more importantly, to do a little to improve the working conditions and image of an auto repair technician,” he continued. “Jeff and I hope we have succeeded and thank everyone for all their years of support.”
Even though Sauer had been semi-retired for a number of years, his presence was keenly felt at Identifix’s headquarters in Roseville, Minn., where he would often come in, give tours and communicate regularly with employees, both in person and through email. His salt of the earth, down-home approach was appreciated by his employees.
“I remember back in the early 80s when I first met Bill,” said Carline Specialist Ralph Dahlen. “He was teaching a scope class for his company AutoTech and showing how a tech could use their shirt fabric in a pinch to clean oxidation from a set of ignition points. I thought to myself, ‘He must have grown up on a farm, too.’”
Sauer has no plans to slow down during his retirement. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a life of adventure along with being an entrepreneur,” he said.
His personal life and hobbies are marked with experiences akin to a Jack London novel, with visits to the Arctic, kayaking with whales in Alaska, riding mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and living with nomads in Mongolia and Siberia. Back at the home he shares with his wife of 55 years, Duffy, Sauer works in his extensive flower garden and enjoys sharing his woodworking creations with family and friends, dogsledding and animal rehabilitation. The Sauers win their city’s holiday lighting contest almost every year (they return the prize money) and regularly host international guests for dinner parties through the U.S. State Department.
Sauer also plans to spend his retirement finishing his autobiography, which will have a focus on entrepreneurship and adventure. In the meantime, his former employees expressed a sense of bittersweet nostalgia on his last day.
“Bill excels in getting things accomplished without a bunch of hollering and chest pounding. His calm direct approach to identifying a need and fulfilling it has been an inspiration to all of us who have gotten the chance to work with him,” said Kevin Caple, another veteran Carline Specialist on the hotline. “He is a true student of the world. He treats everyone with respect and therefore has earned respect. A more warm, caring, generous, intelligent and friendly person will never be found.”