Used-car dealer had business dreams interrupted by military deployments
Brian Chilson dreamed of running his own used-car business for a long time, but things kept getting in the way.
In Chilson’s case, those “things” were calls of service to his country.
Chilson grew up in Kewaskum and is a sergeant with the U.S. Army Reserve. He completed a 16-month tour of duty in Iraq in
2006 and returned from a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan in January.
Now that he is back from the Persian Gulf, Chilson is a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, working on a bachelor of business administration degree in accounting with a second major in finance. He expects to graduate in December.
“I am not the kind of guy who can sit around. I have to keep busy,” Chilson said from the newly refurbished office of his used-car business, Big Bass Motorworks, 655 N. Riverside Dr., Saukville.
“My dad and I did a lot of the work on the building. It was a real hell hole.”
The business opened just last week, filling what Chilson sees as a niche market.
“We sell used cars for under $5,000, because not everyone can afford to pay $20,000 or $30,000 for a new car,” he said.
“Our target market is high-school kids looking to buy their first car, kids who need a second car after not being too safe with that first car, and students heading off to college. We go over the cars mechanically, fix major issues, disclose all known issues and treat people with integrity and respect.”
Giving cars a new paint job or replacing parts that do not affect the safe operation of the vehicle may make it look nicer, but that work also pushes up the price, he said.
Used cars almost invariably sport small scratches, dents, dings or signs of rust. Chilson said making such vehicles “showroom pretty” can easily transform a $2,000 car into a $2,700 car.
“Little issues like a driver-side rear power window not working, we may choose to not repair. We will disclose all of this to you, but we’d rather give you the option to fix it or save money rather than raising the price $150 so you have a working window you might not even use,” he said.
Chilson previously ran a used-car business at the same Saukville location, using the name Catfish Auto Sales after returning from Iraq.
During both of his deployments, Chilson managed ammunition warehouses that were crucial for the war effort. In Afghanistan, he calculated, he was responsible for keeping track of $160 million in munitions.
“We never felt we were in harm’s way. I am not the kind of person who looks for trouble, but it felt good to be part of such an important mission,” he said.
While deployed, Chilson said, he learned he has a good business mind and earned a promotion to sergeant within the first few months of his initial assignment.
That business aptitude readily translated to civilian applications.
“I like cars but was never what you would call a ‘gear head.’ I always liked the idea of running a business. If a customer comes in with brake pads that need to be replaced, I can do the work, but I prefer to have someone else do that part of the business. I enjoy the marketing and the face-to-face time with customers,” Chilson said.
“My family helps me out a lot. My father Leo goes with me to a lot of auctions and always reminds me, ‘You are looking to buy cars that you’re going to sell, so don’t look just at cars you like.’”
His stepmother Jan helps staff the office, and his brother assists with cleaning and maintenance. Two mechanics work at the shop on an as-needed basis.
Chilson hopes to keep 10 cars on the lot at any given time.
Although the business is only a few days old, Chilson said he already has plans to upgrade it. Later this summer, U-Haul truck and trailer rentals will be offered.
Speaking of visibility, people driving past the lot may give the Big Bass sign a double-take, although the riverside location seems fitting.
“I was looking for a name that people would remember. That’s how I came up with Catfish Auto and now Big Bass. It is something different, and people have always said I am a little different,” Chilson said.
BRIAN CHILSON HAD to defer his business dreams to serve two deployments with the U.S. Army Reserves in the Persian Gulf. Now he is back stateside and has opened Big Bass Motorworks on Riverside Drive in Saukville. Chilson previously operated Catfish Auto, another used car lot, at the same riverfront location. Photos by Mark Jaeger