‘I’m buying a piece of Rockford’
by BETH ALTENA
When you see the Rockford football team on the big flatbed truck during this Saturday’s Start of Summer parade, the truck towing it won’t be River Valley Auto. Todd Pell has purchased the towing portion of the River Valley Auto business and has changed the company name to Rockford Towing. He couldn’t be more pleased about owning his own business in Rockford and, after nearly two decades in the tow business, to being his own boss.
The business was purchased from John Shattuck and Dan Williams, who between them own River Valley Auto and Car Star of Rockford. Williams said that for tow customers, there will be no change in service and the business will still be located in the “bull pen” on River Valley’s property.
“He wanted a tow business and we wanted to get out of that and concentrate on body shops and mechanical garage,” said Williams, a second-generation owner of Car Star. Williams said River Valley and Car Star will service and repair any make vehicle, but specialize in European makes. They have been very busy and Williams said the transaction comes at a good time. “It was a handful to juggle all those balls.”
The business is one of the “old timers” in Rockford, reaching back to its founding in 1985 by Roy Nielson when Roy opened a gas station/car wash with towing. Son Ryan Nielson, who is still with the business, going to work with Pell as lead tow driver. Along with Ryan go the titles to six wreckers, two flatbeds and one service car. Ryan remembers when his dad owned just one tow truck, when he was a tot. “A lot of people still call it Roy’s,” said Ryan.
Roy sold the business in February 2001 to Gordie LaFontaine, who operated it for the next seven years. The public has seen the bright red trucks with black lettering pull our athletic heroes on flatbeds through the annual Start of Summer Parade. Pell is excited that this year the trucks pulling the high school football team will be his and parade watchers will see his new logo as Rockford Towing. “Over time as we acquire new trucks we will change the fleet over from red to Ram black,” Pell said. “We plan to be very involved with the community.”
Business partners Willams and Shattock purchased River Valley Auto from LaFontaine in April of 2008. LaFontaine left the business to run a golf course up north. Ryan has been a constant factor in the company since he began working while his dad owned the business. Over the years he’s seen plenty—the 100-car pile-up on 131, a camper rollover that was a challenge to clean up last year. Once in a bad while law enforcement asks for expedited service to help stabilize vehicles for getting crash victims out. Ryan said those are never good.
Todd also has seen plenty of interesting situations. The Rockford graduate continued his education at Grand Valley State University studying criminal justice, but gave up on that dream because law enforcement jobs are increasingly harder to find as cities and municipalities as well as the state, face budget troubles. Over the past 18 years as a tow truck driver, he has seen many of the same accidents that the police are also dealing with. “No two days are ever the same, and you don’t know what each day will bring you. That’s why I love this job,” Pell stated.
He said some interesting situations he’s faced are cars and trucks underwater. That usually happens when people are putting a boat in or out of a lake or river and forget to put their vehicle in park or it slips out of gear. He’s also seen some through the ice. Those require a diver—come spring—and a long chain. “There are never two calls that are alike,” Pell said.
Pell said he’d been towing since he was 18 and kept with it when he couldn’t find a job in law enforcement. He’d grown to love the business and some of the unusual perks. “Every year we are the tow vehicles at Michigan Speedway for the NASCAR drivers,” Pell explained. This type of work requires special training and not many tow drivers can do it. He said its fun to rub elbows with the popular NASCAR drivers, and with his connections can get into any track in the country. He especially likes Taladaga.
Pell calls owning his own business the “ultimate dream” and includes his wife, Colleen, who is a full time nursing student and the company dispatcher out of the Pell home. Services—towing or other services, such as lock-out and changing tires—are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To congratulate Pell on his purchase, or to get your truck out of a lake, give him a call anytime at (616) 866-TOWS.