In Memoriam: Robert M. Fett, NARSA President 1990-1992 Print
Thursday, December 08, 2016 10:04 AM

In Memoriam:

Robert M. Fett, NARSA President 1990-1992

SARASOTA, FL — A meticulous planner in all of his business endeavors, Robert Michael Fett said farewell to a rich and rewarding life on Thursday, October 27. At age 75, he succumbed to cancer after fighting the disease since March of this year, dying at home in the presence of his loving wife Kathleen and his immediate family. 

A soft-spoken, introspective individual, there was always a depth of understanding and connection to people.  His attentiveness to the needs of others stood Bob Fett in good stead for more than a 55-year business life which encompassed several different service fields. A Jamaica, NY native, Fett learned early on in life that he had a penchant for turning wrenches as a student at the Thomas Edison Vocational High School in his native town. Fett graduated in 1959 and after a brief stint as a mechanic for a local Oldsmobile dealer, he joined the U.S. Navy.

The U.S.S. Saratoga was home for Fett during his military service where he spent two years on the carrier deck as a landing signal officer (LSO).  Fett left the Navy in 1962 and went to work for a Ford car dealership in Hempstead, New York.  During a seven-year affiliation, Fett progressed from his initial role as a general mechanic to the position of service manager. It was during this period that Fett became a family man. Following a five-year courtship, he married the former Kathleen Kaylor—also a NY native—in 1964. In 1966, Kimberly—eldest of the Fett children—was born. Two years later, Robert, Jr. (Bobby) joined the family. 

Besides growing a family, it was also during this period of his life that another of Fett’s interest, boating combined with a new set of circumstances afforded him another direction in life. The car dealership where he had been working got into recreational vehicle sales, Fett explains, including Johnson boats and motors. But the business was far from the water and boat sales soon proved not in the best interest of the dealership.

However, in the course of his work in that facet of the business, Fett made contacts among marina owners, especially one in the Sarasota area. Those contacts led to a job offer from Siesta Key Marina in Florida and when the NY dealership got out of the boat business entirely, Fett purchased all of its marine equipment. Soon after, he and his family were off to Florida. 

Fett went to work as a mechanic with the Siesta Key Marina hoping to eventually open his own marina.  He repaired and restored engines at Siesta Key for a year.  Bob was out testing a boat when Lisa was born, Kathy relates. She adds, “They had to send another boat out to find him.” Working along the waterfront, Fett witnessed a boom in Florida’s population.  He also saw that the cost of warehouse property was nearly doubling in a short span of time.  He also realized that with the intense competition among existing marinas, it all made his initial plans unrealistic. But, he was a pragmatist and he turned his attention back to the automotive service field. Soon he was in business for himself.  He rented the building of an existing business which was already in general automotive repair. After about a year writing his own paycheck, Bob read about the Inland school for cooling system repair and decided to learn that aspect of the trade. 

At first, he looked at radiator work as a sideline, but from the very first day in which he was offering cooling system repair to a growing customer base, it became a thriving business. Eventually, he had to give up the general automotive work to concentrate on cooling system service and repair. Business was good but could be better, Fett decided, and he started looking for the right piece of commercial property where he could really grow the operation.He came across three lots in a light industrial zone located on the fringe of a high density population area. The property on 12th Street fit the bill nicely so the Fett’s remortgaged their house to buy the property where Auto Radiator Repair was located for more than three decades.

The shop facility was large, clean and distinctively attractive.  Part of the reason for that was Fett’s painstaking assimilation of the image elements of the I.C.E. program, a coordinated marketing effort fully endorsed and supported by NARSA. Becoming part of the International Cooling Experts (ICE) proved a master stroke for Fett as he was able to heighten his image with an intense clean-up, fix-up and paint-up program. It was the nexus of the ICE membership of which he was one of the original members.

And, speaking of heights, Fett also found another interest and that centered on flying.  Not one to be satisfied with fantasies about flight, Fett would eventually receive instructions from his brother Harold, one-year Bob’s senior, and a pilot with an instructor rating. Bob eventually gained his license as a private pilot.  He shared that love of aviation with his daughter Lisa and taught her to fly.

Meanwhile back on the business side, Bob was convinced that his affiliation with the International Cooling Experts program was the right way to go.  Said Bob in an ACJ article published more than 30 years ago, “No one who has been in this business any length of time can have a great deal of faith in the wholesale end of our trade.  There’s just no loyalty there.  I’d rather take my chance with the motoring public.”

Even prior to joining ICE, Fett in 1981, adopted the original tenets of the NARSA paint up, fix up program for his facility and that proved beneficial in helping to attract the motoring public to his front door.  But these efforts to develop as a retail service center were not limited to the cosmetics. The employees hired and trained were certified through the NARSA/CIMAT program.

Said Fett, “I’ve always felt that mechanic certification was particularly important in a retail-oriented business.  The customer can feel more confident about the service he or she is getting and I can be confident that I am giving my customer value for the dollars spent.”  He added, “That confidence is a basis for my marketing efforts and it’s crucial when I am dealing directly with my customers.”  Fett valued his employees highly and knew that a part of the company’s success was directly related to the people who worked with him and who also interfaced with the customers.

To that end, the shop also has a nice waiting room as well as a restroom which did not scare women away.  Said Kathy,” With women buying so much of automotive aftermarket service at the time, this was an important and growing aspect of our business.” To grow that business, Bob’s efforts extended to aggressively advertising his operation including, in conjunction with other ICE members in the central Florida area, a campaign of both television and radio commercials.

“We all thought it was important to build customer recognition of the fact that there were retail-oriented radiator shops which dealt directly with the public. We were no longer in the back alley,” said Fett. This type of advertising was the first of its kind in Central Florida.  In fact, ICE’s television commercials started building traffic at Fett’s place of business long before they were aired by Tampa broadcasting stations. That is because Auto Radiator was selected as the ICE center to be featured in the commercials and during two days of shooting, the sight of the actors, film crew and equipment turned a lot of heads.

At times, traffic slowed down as people were rubber-necking the scene as they drove by on this major east-west artery.  Having decided to enter the ICE program, Fett was quick to adopt all of the required image elements and to comply with all of the other aspects of the program.The leadership he demonstrated was quickly recognized by his fellow members who voted him onto the ICE board almost immediately in 1982.  And Fett’s enthusiasm was not restricted to his business. He coached, managed and sponsored a team in the Miss Sarasota softball league for many years. Bob’s daughters Kim and Lisa played on two Sarasota teams that won national titles and participated in many invitational tournaments.

Go-Cart racing on a local circuit is another activity that the Fett’s enjoyed as a family with son Bobby and daughter Kim, often building their own racing motors.  Much of the family’s leisure time was spent on the water.  The most abundant resources of the Central Florida Gulf Coast—the sun, the sky, the water—were not overlooked by the family.  Boating, water skiing and fishing are all favorite pursuits of the Fett family.  Both Fett and his son Bobby became U.S. Coast Guard licensed captains.  

When asked what he fishes for, Fett, responded, “Whatever bites.” More to the point, he is asked, where do you find the time to run a successful business, to plan for future expansion, to participate in the community and to find time for your family and for yourself?   His reply is characteristic. You got to find the time for the things which are most important to you.  His implication is that he knows what is important to him; it’s both natural and instinctive.

It’s as if he were an amateur philosopher when he says,” No one should waste their time lamenting that there are only 24 hours in a day or apologizing for those things which give us meaning in life even if others might dismiss them as being unessential.”

Instead, Bob Fett found the time for the things that were important to him and especially for the people to whom he was closest.  Fett’s eyes were always open when it came to the evolution of the cooling system service marketplace. “There are economic realities,” says Fett,” and no amount of griping about the breakdown of traditional distribution channels or any other similar complaint is likely to do much good in the conduct of my business.” “What I have to do is make this business work is to be aware of the various elements and dynamics of the business and the industry—the nature of the products involved, distribution, repair techniques and process—plus countless other factors and use that knowledge to help me make a profit.

“Obviously I have go to keep an eye on my competition, my suppliers, pressures impacting on my customers and anything else I can think of,” Fett remarked in that ACJ article written more than 30 years ago. He added, “But ultimately what matters is how I run my business, not how others run theirs.” 

He accepted the reality that in business and in his life there are no blanket guarantees, so he wasted no time looking for a sure thing. Instead, he embraced challenges, used competition to motivate himself and sought satisfaction in his ability to respond, and respond again. This one time NARSA president (1990-1992) will be well missed but his operating philosophy will live on for others as well it should.

Active in his community, Bob was also President of EAA (Experimental Aircraft Assn.) Chapter 180, and a member of the Knights of Columbus and ‘Cars and Rods’ of Sarasota. He was also a long time member of St. Patrick Catholic Church.

Bob Fett is survived by his wife of 52 years, Kathleen Fett, as well as his children—Kimberly Ann (John) Rosploch, Robert Fett Jr. (fiancé Jennifer Lynch), and Lisa Ann (Lance) Roundy; his grandchildren, Megan, John, Abby, Emma, Matthew, Sara, Katelyn, Kayleigh, Kyle, and Kathryn; his brothers, Ronald (Deanne) Fett, and Harold Fett; sister, Susan Arnold; and many extended family members and friends.

Funeral Mass was held on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Sarasota, FL. Interment took place at Sarasota National Cemetery.