Passion for cars fuels 50-year Port business

Kaliber Collision Repair owner Bill Krzyzanek has parlayed an interest in cars that began when he was a boy into a company that is celebrating a half-century
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

 

Like many boys, Bill Krzyzanek had a passion for cars that began at a young age.

But unlike most youths, he parlayed his passion into a business — Kaliber Collision Repair in Port Washington — that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

To mark the landmark anniversary, the shop will host an open house and customer car show from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27.

“It’ll be like a family reunion in  a way,” Krzyzanek said, noting he’s invited past employees and customers and hopes to fill the car show with vehicles the shop has worked on through the decades as well as a 1949 Ford pickup that they’re restoring as a shop truck.

The roots of Krzyzanek’s business go back to his youth, when his grandfather operated Reno’s Car Polishing out of the garage of his Milwaukee home and taught his son Jon Reno basic painting and body work.

Reno, who had been studying television repair, liked the car business so much that he opened the auto body shop in Port in 1972.

Krzyzanek began helping his uncle out when he was 15, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although the family had its roots in Milwaukee, Krzyzanek said his uncle began his business in Port Washington after answering an advertisement for auto-body tools and equipment being sold by Heinen’s Radiators in Port and asked about the vacant shop next door.

He rented the vacant space at 107 S. Milwaukee St. from Wally Lutzen, who owned the tavern next door — today known as Rascal’s — and started Calibre Auto Body in September 1972.

“We drove up here for the first time and I thought we were going up north,” Krzyzanek said, adding that at the time it cost him $7 a week to fill the tank of his Mustang to travel from Milwaukee to Port.

The name of the business was suggested by the mother of a close friend of his uncle because Calibre implies quality, Krzyzanek said, adding she liked the Old English spelling.

It took a while for the business to build a customer base, Krzyzanek said.

“If people didn’t know you, they would go somewhere more established,” he said. “We played a lot of Frisbee in the shop.”

Gary Hiller of Bayside Standard kept the business going by sending vehicles up to them during those early days, Krzyzanek said.

“On that dead-end street, I don’t know how anyone found us,” Krzyzanek said. Reno purchased a flashing light for the business, he said, but the city wouldn’t allow them to turn it on.

Over the business’ first nine years, Reno established Calibre as the premier independent body shop in the area, he said.

Then the shop worked on a vehicle for a “higher up” at Harley Davidson, Krzyzanek said. In 1981, Harley had bought the business back from American Machine and Foundry and was looking for someone to paint replacement parts.

Reno jumped at the opportunity, and Harley dropped off a 40-foot trailer filled with parts.

“At 5 p.m. when we closed the shop, he would unload the trailer and he would paint motorcycle parts all night,” Krzyzanek said. “In the morning, we would load them back into the trailer.”

While lucrative, that kind of business wasn’t sustainable, he said, and after six months he told his uncle just that.

“He said he had already rented a place in Grafton (for the Harley business),” Krzyzanek said.

Reno ran the painting business and Krzyzanek took over managing the body shop.

“The business grew and grew and grew,” Krzyzanek said of the painting operation. In its heyday, it painted parts for Trek, Snap On Tools, John Deere and more “but the core of their business was with Harley,” he said.

In 1990, Reno decided to get out of the auto body business and offered Krzyzanek the opportunity to buy it or join him at the painting operation.

“I wanted to keep going with what we built and the reputation we had,” Krzyzanek said.

Reno’s attorney suggested a name change to differentiate between the business, so he changed it to Kaliber Collision Repair “to accent the work we were doing,” Krzyzanek said, adding the new name also took on the German spelling of caliber.

By 1997, when the business celebrated its 25th anniversary, it had outgrown the garage on Milwaukee Street. Eric van Schledorn suggested renting the former Columbia Garage building owned by the Schmit family, which had been vacant for a few years.

Krzyzanek rented the building from Randy Buser and Jeff Mayer on a land contract, using a $10,000 loan from a customer to make the move, and opened in mid-July.

When they moved, he noted, they were thinking of renting space to other businesses such as a car rental shop.

“We didn’t think we could fill the space,” he said. “But within the first year, we had to hire more bodymen. It hasn’t slowed down since. We’re constantly busy.”

One of the biggest challenges came in 2008, when Wisconsin Street was reconstructed and narrowed, Krzyzanek said, but loyal customers helped pull them through.

Through the years, Kaliber has specialized in doing collision repair and insurance work, something Krzyzanek said makes the most sense.

“You’re not in a person’s pocketbook all the time,” he said. “Car repairs are very expensive.”

The shop developed a reputation for repairing vehicles struck by deer, making appearances on local TV stations and erecting signs that are still known today — “Hit a deer, bring your car here,” “Hit a buck, we’ll fix your truck,” “Venison on your grille, call Bill” and others.

“We spent $200 on a couple banners and it paid off,” Krzyzanek said, noting that within a week a women called for a repair and said, “I know where you are. I see your deer sign.”

In general, Krzyzanek said, eight to 10 vehicles come through the shop each week.

Krzyzanek said that loyal customers and a workforce that is like family — many of his seven employees have been there for at least 16 years —  have helped the shop hit this milestone anniversary.

“It’s satisfying for me to see what we’ve built,” he said. “Everyone has added something to what we built.

“We didn’t get into this to be rich. This business has supported families, sent children to school.”

Krzyzanek said he’s got no plans to retire, noting that the business allows him to pursue his hobby and dabble in all aspects of the job.

“It’s my hobby. I fix cars,” he said. “I still am enthusiastic about it. Sometimes I’m sweeping floors and sometimes I’m putting a bumper on a car.”

And lately he’s been passing on his passion, teaching his 14-year-old grandson the basics of vehicle restoration — something made possible when the pandemic caused school sports to be canceled.

“It really gave me a chance to connect with him,” Krzyzanek said, noting that they, along with the 14-year-old son of his painter, restored a Trans Am and gave it to his son as a birthday gift.

“That was pretty special,” he said.

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