This article was originally published on in 2019.

Recently, I made a visit to the northwoods of Wisconsin. If you’ve never been, I’d highly recommend making the trip, especially during the fall as it is absolutely gorgeous. I typically love my visits to northern Wisconsin as it provides some level of peacefulness and a decent cruising trail.

This visit was different though. I wasn’t going up to take a vacation or to see old friends. For this trip, I was taking the trek to Antigo, Wisconsin to talk with a group of technicians that had just lost their jobs and all of their tools to a fire that destroyed the place they went to work.

Everything was gone. Customer cars that had been up on hoists now laid burnt to a char on the ground after hoist cylinders had blown from heat. Office furniture and computers completely destroyed. Complete and utter destruction of everything. Pictures just don’t do it justice.

Pile of burnt tools and equipment from shop

While very few positives can be taken from something like this, no lives were lost and nobody was hurt. It goes without saying but material possessions can be replaced, but it takes some time to rebuild. The shop owner had pretty good insurance on the building and all of the shop tools, but the technicians weren’t as lucky.

With the exception of one tech (whose wife was an insurance agent), these highly skilled mechanics were left without the one thing they needed to make a living: tools.

A True Brotherhood of Technicians

When I was meeting with the techs in Antigo, my first reaction was that I couldn’t believe how positive this group was after losing so much. They genuinely cared about one another and you could tell. It was a mix of highly experienced, veteran techs and younger technicians just getting a feel for the business. The older techs were more interested in making sure the younger techs were taken care of. It’s hard to describe using words, but it felt like a true brotherhood.

As the techs started to realize that they probably weren’t going to be working together anymore, we started gameplanning for what was to come. J.J. Fay of Northwoods Tools, a Snap-On Tools Distributorship, set up the meeting and was really the catalyst to making it happen. He opened the discussion by asking, “How many of you want to remain technicians?” All of them shook their heads that they wanted to stay in the industry.

A couple of the seasoned guys had already talked about opening a shop of their own. One was closing in on retirement and another was going full time on a tow truck. Three of the younger techs wanted to wait to hear what the shop owner was going to do before pursuing anything outside. Luckily, the shop owner had another smaller building for them to get started in and, from what I’ve heard, they have started back up in.

After confirming that they were staying in the business, J.J. started up a GoFundMe page to help get these techs back up and running. The older techs deferred asking that all funds raised went to the younger techs. I couldn’t believe how willing they were to help out these younger guys.

On top of that, we reached out to people in the industry and, boy, did they step up. The wonderful folks at started reaching out to people in the industry, and were able to work with their partners to build an inventory of tools to donate. Josh Carton of Curien was able to add additional fundraising efforts as well. If nothing else, it shows how many truly good people we have in our industry that were able to step up to the plate.

THANK YOU to everybody that contributed!

WrenchWay helps technicians find the best shops

Where Do We Go From Here?

While we were hopefully able to give the guys at this shop a running start at rebuilding their lives, it’s impossible to do this every time there is a catastrophe. J.J Fay opened my eyes to this when he said that it was the third shop fire in his territory that month. There are a lot of other shops that are going through similar issues.

One thing I feel like we need to do a better job at is educating both shop owners and the mechanics that work for them on tool insurance. We cannot always prevent the unfortunate events that happen (i.e., shop fires, thefts, etc.), but we can protect our assets with insurance.

Tool Insurance Options For Shops and Technicians

The average technician has anywhere between $25,000 to $50,000 of tools in their toolbox. This isn’t some universal kit of tools that can be purchased. Technicians add to their toolbox throughout their entire career, creating a customized set of tools suited to help them personally do their best work.

Tools aren’t always covered under the shop’s insurance policy. “There is an employee tool coverage they [shop owners] can put in their policy to cover all employee tools while they are employed,” Chad Paquette, Owner/Agent of PWA Insurance Group, LLC explains.

The cost of insurance would vary greatly depending on a number of factors like gross sales, liability limits, etc., but to give an idea for an employer to cover $25k in tools for one employee it would more than likely cost less than $1,000/year.

Offering tool insurance can be a great employee benefit for the shops that can afford it, but this is realistically not always an option for the smaller independent shops. For technicians working at a shop that cannot offer coverage on employee tools, technicians should strongly consider insuring their own tools.

“Tools are not covered under home insurance if used for business. The employee would need to get their own insurance, if it’s not included on the business’ policy,” Paquette explains. “They [the employees] can purchase a small contractor/inland marine package to cover themselves for liability and tools.”

If a technician took out an individual policy for liability on $25k in tools, it would cost close to $1,000/year. However, the cost of insurance is trivial when thinking about the technicians from Antigo who lost their tools in the fire.

To conclude, I really hope that this shows that this can happen to anybody. We work in a dangerous environment. Sparks from a grinder can ignite a fuel source that can change people’s lives. There’s an inherent risk that comes when shop owners hang their open sign every day. I plead with you to use the lessons learned from this shop in small town Antigo to protect your technicians’ tools, or at the very least educate them on protecting their own tools.