For more than 30 years, Romie Thompson of Ron Tonkin Toyota has kept us on the road
With our profile on Ron Tonkin Service Advisor Romie Thompson this month, we continue our occasional series profiling Mid-county Community Builders who give our area its character by lending us some of theirs. Their decades-long sedulous work at hundreds of businesses in east Portland builds our area’s identity. Their competent, professional and reliable presence radiates confidence in not only the business, but also our community.
Who are they?
They are key employees who for years have performed their jobs efficiently and remarkably well. They enjoy and take pride in their work, care about the people they serve and are loyal to the people who employ them. These community builders usually live in Mid-county, or near their place of work and are mostly native Portlanders.
What do they do?
They prepare and serve us food in restaurants; they deliver our mail; check our groceries; do our banking; minister to our spirits; schedule our appointments; do our taxes; repair and maintain our homes, streets and cars; build our homes; protect us; haul our garbage; grow our food; sell us myriad necessities and teach our children.
If you know someone who fits this description, share his or her story with us at email@example.com or call 503-287-8904.
Anyone who has taken a vehicle in for maintenance knows that stellar and honest customer service is necessary at any repair shop, and at Ron Tonkin Toyota, this important quality is personified in Service Advisor Romie Thompson.
Thompson, 64, has been with the Ron Tonkin Company since 1983, when he was hired as a service tech at Tonkin Chevrolet. In 1986, he transferred to Tonkin Toyota, where he has worked for the last 28 years.
What’s in and not in a name?
Although it may sound like a nickname, Romie is his Christian name. Thompson says he was named for Romeo Jones, a full-blooded Sioux Indian who worked with his grandfather fighting derrick fires and saved his life pulling him from a fire on an oilrig. But Romie? He’s not sure why Romie and not Romeo, but speculated, “I think my mom decided Romeo was a bit dated.”
For a long time, he didn’t like the name and went by Ron, but when he started working at the Chevrolet store with Ron Tonkin, he went back to using his given name to avoid confusion.
“Think about it,” he says with a laugh. “I was working at the Chevy store at the time and there was Ron Thompson and Ron Tonkin. Who do you think was getting all my calls?”
Romie isn’t a native Portlander, but he has lived in Oregon most of his life and considers it home. Born in Napa, Idaho in 1950, he spent a portion of his childhood in Phoenix, Arizona.
His father was in construction, and the family moved a lot. Over the years, he also resided in Nevada and California, before ending up in Oregon in 1966 at David Douglas High School.
A Long Journey to Find a Career
Romie shows an aptitude for the automotive business and certainly has a love for the work that he does, however, it took him a long time to settle on a career in the industry. In 1968, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he was trained as a United States Army combat medic.
As with many Vietnam veterans, Romie’s return to the states after his time in the service was less than easy, and he found that getting a steady job was more difficult than he had imagined it would be. “When I came back, I ended up getting a job at a service station in Ashland,” he explains. “I had gone in to ask for an address, and I was in uniform. The man that ran the station offered me a job.” Moreover, he left a mark on Thompson. “He was one of the few people that were nice to me back then. There were a lot who weren’t.”
After working at the service station, Romie and a close friend went into building houses, but it didn’t take him long to realize that contracting was not his calling. “I just didn’t like it much,” he says. “I wanted to learn enough to build a place of my own some day, but I definitely didn’t want to make a career of it.”
He moved on to work at a tool manufacturing company, a job he says he wouldn’t have taken if he had known then what was in store. After five years working at the manufacturing plant, Romie was involved in an accident, which severely injured his back. Even though he admits the injury and struggles with Worker’s Compensation would not have been his first choice, in many ways the situation brought him to his true calling. “If I had one career do-over it would be that,” he explains. “If I hadn’t been working there, I wouldn’t have gotten hurt. If there had been a way, I would have just tried to get a foot in the door to try to start doing what I’m doing now, just sooner. I don’t want to say the injury was a blessing, because I don’t like being hurt, but it did lead me here.”
A True People Person
From clients to coworkers, everyone who meets Romie with can see how passionate he is about what he does. He says that he has been involved with just about everything to do with cars for his entire life, and he loves that his job allows him to work with them every day for a living.
Romie has helped thousands of customers over the years, but his sparkle has never faded. He approaches every single interaction with the same gusto, and desire to help. He says that the only times he doesn’t enjoy the job are when he has to deliver bad news to customers.
“I get frustrated when I have to pick up the phone and tell people their cars won’t be ready when I thought they’d be. I don’t like disappointing them,” He says. “I guess I just like what I do and where I’m at, because I very seldom have issues with customers. I don’t even really like taking vacations anymore. I just like being here.”
Longtime customer, Mike Tracy can attest to Romie’s desire to make sure people are properly taken care of at his shop. He recalls a time that his vehicle was running late and Romie gave him a few free oil changes to make up for him having to wait.
Overall, he says, Romie is a delight and a great representation of the Tonkin company.
“I always look forward to talking to Romie. He’s always got a great story to tell, and he’s always happy,” Mike says. “I live out in Camas, and Romie is really the reason I bring my car into Portland for service.”
Romie’s favorite interactions at work happen when he’s able to immediately connect with someone new. He says this usually happens when younger people bring their cars in, and he recognizes them as relatives of other customers.
“I like seeing people I haven’t met and being able to ask if they’re related to someone I used to know,” he says. “A lot of times, it makes for some really great conversation.”
Romie says that he’s been working there for so long, that this situation comes up more than one might think. He recalls a time not long ago that a client of his brought her mother’s car in for service and he realized he had been working on both of their vehicles for years and had no idea they were related.
“One of my customers had her daughter bring her car into the shop for an oil change and she was surprised to see that I was her mom’s service guy too,” he explains. “I couldn’t figure out why she was driving this Camry in, since it wasn’t the car I was used to seeing her in. Neither of us had any idea I had been servicing both their cars all these years.”
Unfortunately, though becoming close with customers is usually a source of delight for Romie, he says that it can be hard too, especially when it comes to losing them. One man, a fellow Vietnam veteran who Romie had befriended over the years just recently passed away, and his family made sure to call to let Romie know.
“They always call,” He says. “Someone I knew passes away and the family calls to let me know they’re gone and tell me how much the customer cared for me. That’s unfortunately been happening a lot lately, since I’ve been here so long.”
Even though Romie says it isn’t common to see people his age still working in the industry, his passion for helping people and connecting with them keeps him going. “Most people burn out in this industry and move on,” he says. “But, I love people. I really do. If I have the capability to do something for someone, I will do it.”
His response when asked whether he can be persuaded in certain situations speaks volumes to this fact as well. “Can I be persuaded,” he asks. “Sure, to a point. I can’t be persuaded to have a drink anymore, or go hold up a bank. But, I could definitely be persuaded if you called me at midnight and said your truck broke down, I’d get up and come bail you out.”
Part of the Tonkin Family
In his more than 30 years with the Ron Tonkin Company, Romie has definitely made his mark on the organization. According to boss and longtime friend Ed Tonkin, Romie has changed the entire company for the better.
“Romie’s personality is infectious. He’s really helped change the culture of the company,” Ed explains. “He’s a real legend around here. He’s become the prototype for customer service, and we hold him up as a template for what to aspire to.”
By now, Ed says that Romie really represents Tonkin Toyota as a whole. Clients know him by name, and they know that he will take care of whatever they need. People do not say they are taking their vehicle to Ron Tonkin Toyota; they say they are taking their car to Romie.
“Research has shown that consumers are what establish brand loyalty, and a big part of that is their relationship with the service advisor,” Ed says. “Romie really embodies that. He’s been helping generations of people with their cars, and they wouldn’t consider going anywhere else.”
“At this point, he’s become more than a service advisor,” he adds. “A lot of his clients have become die-hard friends that rely on him.”
In his years with the company, Romie has not only become an integral part of the business, but also a part of the Tonkin family. Ed says he was drawn to Romie’s personality when they met, and during the time they have known one another, Romie has become a dear friend.
“I immediately liked him. He’s down to earth and always smiling,” Ed says. “He’s got this twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice that people just gravitate toward. He’s great to be around, and it doesn’t take long to feel like he’s family.”
Romie also had a strong bond with Ed’s father Ron. He misses the Tonkin patriarch terribly since his passing in January. “One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in the last 31 years was go to Ron’s memorial service,” Romie said. “He was a good boss. When he hired me on, I was disabled, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do this for a living… Mr. Tonkin was honest. He said that if I was going to hesitate to tell a customer what their vehicle needed, then he didn’t want me to work for him. All he asked was that we were up front and told clients what they needed, whether they bought it or not. I appreciated that.”
Romie’s father knew Ron as well, having worked for him in the ‘60s, and though he moved on professionally, the two kept in contact, having lunch together every once in a while over the years.
“Managers and owners don’t part company,” Romie remarks. “That’s just a natural in the auto industry.”
Though Romie did not work closely with Ron Tonkin on a day-to-day basis, he always liked and respected him and visited him a few times toward the end of his life. When the Tonkin family was compiling the guest list of close family and friends to invite to the ceremony dedicating Hops Field in Hillsboro to Ron Tonkin, Romie’s name was on top.
“He was first on the list for the Hops Field dedication,” Ed says. “My dad loved Romie, and Romie felt very much the same.”
Building a Life Despite Obstacles
Though clients and coworkers of Romie’s may not know it now, he has not always been the always smiling, happy-go-lucky person that he is today. However, despite the trials life has thrown his way, Romie now feels that his life is on track, and he is the happiest he has been in a long time.
Romie moved to Oregon with his father in 1966 and attended David Douglas High School for his senior year. In 1967, he met his wife, Kathy, which began a whirlwind love story that most romance novels aspire to emulate.
Even now, nearly 50 years later, Romie remembers the details of their meeting perfectly.
“I fell in love with her on 6th Avenue in a beige and white 1957 Ford Retractable,” he recalls, with fondness and nostalgia in his voice. “I remember that day really well. We were out with some friends. I was with Kathy’s friend, and she was with my friend Danny. We were heading over to cruise Broadway.”
Romie says that he saw Kathy the following day, and while they drove around town in a cramped Volkswagen with four or five others, he looked back from the front seat and asked her to marry him.
“We were laughing and joking around and I asked if she would marry me. She laughed and said yes, and that’s where it began. I started taking her to the races and other things like that. When I was drafted into the service, I got a little apartment for her off base.”
The two eloped briefly before Romie was shipped out to Vietnam, and Kathy went to live with her parents in Milwaukee. Soon after, the couple’s son, Shawn, was born. When he returned from his tour in Vietnam, they had another child, a daughter named Sandra.
The family lived happily for a while, but soon, Romie’s residual issues from the war created a rift in his marriage. The two ended up separating and eventually divorcing, but Romie never stopped caring for his wife.
“Coming back from Vietnam was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do,” He recalls. “I had some substance abuse issues when I returned, and that broke up my marriage. We were separated for a long time.”
Looking back now, Romie says that getting the job at Tonkin was a big part of him getting on the right path.
“I think I finally started to feel like an adult when I went to work for Ron. I hadn’t before that,” he says. “I did a lot of things that I’m not proud of, and I work so hard to make up for that. I tell Kathy every day that I’m sorry before I head to work.”
The two were separated for 15 years all together, but neither remarried, and they always kept in contact. Romie says that during the time they were apart, he worked through his issues, and now he doesn’t smoke, drink, or chew. He also abstains from prescription pain medication, even though his back injury causes daily discomfort.
One day, he said he called Kathy and told her he wanted to come home, and she said okay. Romie and Kathy have been living together again now for a number of years and were remarried three years ago on Thanksgiving Day. “If there was any point in my life that I looked around and thought, ‘yeah… I’ve made it’, it was the day Kathy and I tied the knot again. We had the ceremony at home. My son and his wife were our witnesses, and our daughter, who is a minister, performed the ceremony. As our granddaughters Brianna and Shelby walked us down the hall, I just looked around and thought that I had finally got my head on.”
A Big Boy and his Toys
Romie works hard, and spends a lot of time at the shop, but if there is anything he has learned in life, it is how to enjoy the time you have. Over the years, he has tried a multitude of recreational activities, a few of which he still enjoys today.
Romie says he has always been interested in automobiles, a passion that definitely shines through in his work. He was involved in drag racing and boat racing for a long time when he was younger and even had a brief foray into adult go-cart racing.
When his son Shawn took a liking to the go-carts as well, Romie put all his energy into his son’s racing career, touring around the country with him for tournaments. His daughter Sandra tried racing for two years also, but soon decided that she wanted to trade in the steering wheel for a saddle and got involved in horseback riding.
Even throughout his and his wife’s separation, Romie stayed active in his children’s lives and supported their interests. In many ways, he says that these passions also helped keep them all close.
“Going out and supporting the kids really kept the family together,” Romie says. “It also stopped me from getting involved with any other relationships because I always knew the kids’ mom would be there.”
In addition to go-carts and horseback riding, Shawn and Sandra were also involved in sports when they were children, and Romie was always very hands on. At one point, he even coached the kids’ soccer team, which Shawn now does for his daughters.
For a few years, Romie got into bass fishing and even won a bass fishing championship in California. After a while though, he said that entering in the competitions became too expensive, and he hung up his fishing pole.
Romie enjoys traveling immensely, and he and Kathy take trips together when they get the chance. He says this tradition began when they got back together and decided to start getting out and doing fun things before they got older. The couple has a toy hauler and a boat and still takes fishing trips sometimes. They have also done quite a bit of traveling to the places Romie spent his childhood.
“We’ve been to the Grand Canyon, and I’ve taken her home to Arizona,” he said. “We’ve taken trips to Reno and Tahoe and parts of Utah, and on one trip, we went to Disneyland.” He added, “Disneyland is one of my favorite places,” he adds. “It’s my haunt. I love it.”
However, he can feel his age and his back injury catching up with him. Romie says that he does not currently have any plans to retire.
“I’m 64 now, and I have some medical issues, but as long as I can keep my health, and manage not to fall off the stool when I’m at work, I’m going to stay working,” he says.
Though still very active at the shop, he has opted to do more deskwork than physical labor because he wanted to be able to get away from the stress of being on the maintenance side of things, but he says that his customers still come and see him just as they always have.
He admits he gets discouraged sometimes because his health has declined and that he can’t do some of the things he used to be able to do, but overall, he says he knows that it’s all just a part of aging, and just focuses on waking up each day with a smile. The twinkle in his eyes is a bonus.