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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

BMWs drive this technician's existence

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Voytek Szymanski says he hopes to expand Bavarian Motor Experts, his BMW service business, into a $1.5 million site in Kaka'ako by the end of the year.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Marty Parisien carried the broken odometer from his BMW in his hand as he walked into Bavarian Motor Experts for the first time — and was abruptly greeted by the screaming voice of Voytek Szymanski.

Parisien got stuck while trying to rebuild the odometer on his 1980 BMW 633 and the service technicians at BMW Honolulu sent him to Szymanski to get it fixed.

As he carried the broken odometer into the ordered Kaka'ako world of Bavarian Motor Experts four years ago, Parisien said, "This Polish guy came running out yelling, 'Don't touch it like that!' I first thought, 'This guy's psycho.' Then I quickly realized that Voytek's a guy who thinks BMWs are works of art. And I thought, 'He's going to get all of my business from now on.' "

Szymanski left BMW of Honolulu nine years ago to start a BMW service business. By the end of the year, Szymanski said he hopes to spread out into a $1.5 million site in Kaka'ako that he'll build from the ground up.

The expanded Bavarian Motor Experts will be the realization of Szymanski's dream to run a European-style, nearly hospital-like service center devoted to BMWs. If it wasn't for Hawai'i's warm and humid weather, Szymanski said, he and the other technicians would probably wear freshly pressed, white lab coats.

Szymanski started out on his own in 1994 specializing in electronic troubleshooting. His office was a 1993 BMW 325 loaded with $25,000 worth of electronic diagnostic equipment and a sign on the door advertising the business he then called Bavarian Motor Electronics.

Charles Fasi, son of former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, was driving through town with a malfunctioning computer system when he saw Szymanski working on a BMW by the side of the road.

Within minutes, Szymanski swapped out the computer on Fasi's 1988 635 and has kept it running for 150,000 miles through valve jobs, a broken radiator, malfunctioning air conditioning system and other repairs.

"It's practically a new car mechanically," Fasi said. "And he's actually saved me money. I'll walk in and say, 'Do I need this?' And he'll say, 'No. That can wait.' "

How Szymanski, 52, came to develop a following of BMW owners in Honolulu is a journey that began in Krakow, Poland. Szymanski was a 16-year-old growing up in a land of shoddily built automobiles when he fell in love with the first BMW he saw.

Whether in the Russian, German, Polish or English that Szymanski speaks, he still can't put into words the feelings that first BMW 2002 unleashed in him.

Szymanski leaned back in his office chair at the memory of the white BMW with blue interior that belonged to a friend of the family.

"It was everything," he said. "Every single piece of it was fantastic. I fell in love with BMW. I was on the hook."

He went on to race BMWs in rally races, studied mechanical engineering, got the equivalent of a master's degree in electrical engineering and taught at a Polish university. But Szymanski wanted a life without Communist rule for him, his then-wife and their two young boys.

It was 1985, a time when Soviet tanks patrolled city streets, and Szymanski knew he would be detained and questioned if he tried to take his family out all at once. So he and his wife split up into separate cars and made their way uncontested across the border and into Switzerland.

Szymanski worked on cars for three years, then found an American sponsor to host his family in Lincoln, Neb. He studied English at a community college and applied for a job at a BMW dealership where he showed up in a suit and tie.

"The boss greeted me in pure Polish," Szymanski said. "I don't know how he knew. I was shocked. I got hired like that. They know I'm BMW crazy guy."

After 10 months, Szymanski took a job with a BMW dealership in Portland, Ore.

That led to an offer in New Jersey as an instructor for BMW North America. Instead, Szymanski transferred in 1991 to warmer weather in Honolulu for a job as a BMW electrical specialist.

In August 1994, Szymanski invested $25,000 to start his own operation. He transformed his BMW 325 into a portable office outfitted with a laptop computer, cell phone and credit card machine.

Eventually he invested another $25,000 in more equipment that he drove to 31 different BMW repair shops.

Szymanski doesn't believe in loans and mortgages and got his start-up money from savings.

He made $110,000 in the first year, nearly all of it labor costs that went directly to Szymanski. His income kept rising and by 1998 Szymanski had a steady stream of customers calling him directly for repairs beyond electronics.

"My customers were asking why I do favor for other guys (repair shops) when I could own my own shop and keep much more money for myself," Szymanski said.

He took summer session courses in business and accounting at the University of Hawai'i and in 1998 opened his first, 5,000-square-foot shop in Kaka'ako. Last year he took out a one-year lease and moved to another 5,000-square-foot shop nearby as he prepares to build his dream operation.

Bavarian Motor Experts has 1,100 regular BMW customers. They're serviced by only four employees — Szymanski, his son Tytus who works part time, and two veteran BMW technicians from Germany each named Adolf (although one goes by the nickname "Alf.")

"E-ffic-ien-cy. E-ffic-ien-cy," Szymanski said, drawing out the syllables to emphasize his point. "To hire more people, you lose control. More people in the office, lose money. Too many technicians, you lose quality."

During a typical day recently, Szymanski couldn't sit in his chair for longer than five minutes without jumping up to troubleshoot a problem, answer the phone, scribble notes to himself or put his head in his hands trying to figure out how to accommodate customers who wanted their BMWs washed or called to pick up their cars earlier than expected.

"It's always like this," Tytus, 25, said as his father answered a call on his cell phone only to cut it short to pick up the office phone. "Every day. It never stops."

Although he only planned to be in his Queen Street shop for a year, Szymanski painted the interior walls in the blue-and-white motif of the BMW logo.

The permanent home of Bavarian Motor Experts will be even nicer, Tytus said.

Szymanski doesn't yet know how big to build the new shop. But there will definitely be more room inside, he said. Outside he plans to sell used BMWs he buys from customers.

Szymanski figures he'll pay a little bit more for the cars and sell them a little above market price. But he'll also intimately know each car's mechanical history.

Parisien has been a regular visitor to Szymanski's shop during the years, including an impromptu stop at pau hana time when Szymanski and the two Adolfs ended the work day by standing around a grill drinking beer and cooking Polish sausages.

"I tell everybody about Voytek and say, 'This guy's great, but don't let him scare you,' " Parisien said. " 'He's just real passionate about what he does.' "