Entrepreneur: Blaze Ragusa

Photography by Don Kadair

POSITION Owner and operator

COMPANY Ragusa’s Automotive

ADDRESS 2714 Government St.

WHAT THEY DO Auto repair

NEXT GOALS Build on 27 years of success and improve efficiency


AT THE CROSSROADS

Blaze Ragusa says he was born with oil in his veins. “My family has been in the mechanic business most of our lives.” So when Ragusa ended a stint in the military in 1983, he took a job as a mechanic engineer at a Ford dealership in California. He returned to his native Baton Rouge in 1987 and worked at a few local repair shops. Soon, so many friends were asking him to repair their vehicles in his free time that he began to consider opening his own business. He put down all of his savings to lease a small gas station at the corner of Government and Eugene streets. At the time, the Mid City corridor was languishing and there wasn’t any indication Ragusa’s Automotive would become an institution in a neighborhood that has seen signs of new life in recent years. “I didn’t have any money, just a lot of courage.”

EARNING A REPUTATION

Nearly eight years after opening his gas station and repair shop, Ragusa had hired two more mechanics and was rapidly outgrowing his space. In 1996, he once again put down all the money he had to buy the building next door, which today is the main repair shop. Many 18-hour days followed, during which Ragusa would fix cars by day and work on his building by night. “I knew if I could get my business there I could expand and do better work because I’d have the room to do it.” From the very beginning, his strategy for attracting customers and earning repeat business has been to be transparent about pricing and guarantee all of his work. “I have to sell me before I sell any kind of a job. They have to trust me.” That’s why, even today, Ragusa is usually the first person to greet customers and hand write their estimates. “I love mechanic work, and I take a lot of pride in it. I want to do it right every time.”

NAVIGATING NEW TERRAIN

As the auto industry has evolved and quickly incorporated new technologies, Ragusa has had to adapt by investing in the training and equipment necessary to get any job done. “We spend a lot of time and a lot of money keeping everything updated so that we have the latest information we need to do the repair.” The answers that were once in repair manuals are now online, so Ragusa uses a paid subscription service to a data portal to keep track of system updates. And as cars become more computerized, they also require the latest diagnostic equipment. “You have to have that information, no matter how good of a mechanic you are. Keeping up with it is like going to school everyday.” Having the right tools at his fingertips not only makes the learning curve a little less steep, but also helps Ragusa’s five-employee operation remain competitive with larger repair shops. “We do some Teslas now, and we are seeing more and more hybrids.”

STAYING THE COURSE

In addition to witnessing the evolution of his trade, Ragusa has had a front row seat to the recent revitalization of Government Street. When he looked to open his shop 27 years ago, his only strategy for selecting a location was finding one he could afford. “In 1990, it wasn’t so friendly around this area. One thing I did have going for me is the people around me—all the people in the Garden District.” This past year, Ragusa added a fresh coat of paint to his building and a new green awning, but he doesn’t have any plans for major upgrades or expansions. Nor does he have any desire to change his business model to capitalize on the slow but steady growth of Mid City. Instead, Ragusa remains focused on what got him here in the first place: Doing good, honest work while always looking for ways to improve efficiency. “Everyone wants to be here, which is kind of funny to me because I can remember when nobody wanted to be here—but I’m enjoying watching it grow.”

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