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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Interesting Profile of A Mom-n-Son Tow Biz in CA

Here's the column by John Bogert from the dailybreeze.com:

Charlene Gowers is a lot of things, daughter of an English stage actress, former spouse of Emmy Award-winning "American Idol" director Bruce Gowers, Westside soccer mom, provider of housing for the poor and - of late - tow truck driver.

Naturally, with a wonderfully detailed arm-covering angel tattoo and one of those khaki shirts highlighted with reflecting tape and a nicely embroidered "Charlene" over a breast pocket.

Which is why I didn't notice her when we met for lunch in Hermosa Beach a few weeks ago. Not that I was surprised, because Charlene is absolutely unique, a regular surprise package.

She's also warm, funny, big-hearted and one of those rare individuals who came into this world lacking that horrible little voice, you know, the one that's always telling us what we SHOULD be doing.

Which has made it so this single mother of a now-grown son could always go exactly where life leads her.

When I met Charlene 15 years ago, she had just left commercial real estate. But she was still, with the business suits and flowing blond locks, the very picture of the Westside mommy down to playing on a softball team and coaching Little League.

And here she was buying up crack houses in South Central, abandoned 1950s-era motels badly in need of a good bulldozing.

Only Charlene saw something far different.

Buying and selling properties in that neighborhood had put her in direct contact with the people who live

there, with the working families living in cars and the kids who spend nights in boxes and in terror.

Probably because she didn't know that people like her didn't help people that actually couldn't be helped, she set out to do just that. She quickly bought five of these pathetic wrecks - rehabbing, fencing and bringing in solid managers - and making it so several dozen needy families could have a decent and safe place to live for $200 a month.

Later she'd sell these places to like-

minded managers and buy the massive and massively rundown, 300-room Ford Hotel, a downtown L.A. flophouse that she likewise converted to a nonprofit second chance for the working poor.

This she ran for five years, dealing daily with the often messy lives of her tenants until she was more or less forced out by a city that had different plans for the old structure.

I met her down there once, the tall blonde with the big smile who can be absolutely hilarious one second and all business the next, even facing down the LAPD at one point when she thought that a women in her care was getting a raw deal.

Through all this she remained the devoted single mother watching as her son's promising Santa Monica High School baseball career ended in injury then taking him seriously when, at age 18 in 2002, he asked her to help him buy - of all things - a tow truck.

"The only reason I wanted to go to college was to play baseball. When that dream ended and I found out that my girlfriend was expecting, I got a job in a mechanic's shop, where I saw them getting $80 to tow a car. And I was doing the towing!" said now 25-year-old Sean, who has, with the help of his mother, been raising 6-year-old Sean Jr. at their El Segundo home.

Where many parents might insist on college, Charlene went along with the tow truck idea, telling her 6-foot-4-inch son, "I'll give you this opportunity and if you fail, you fail."

Only Sean didn't fail. What he did was hustle his old wreck of a truck all over town. He hit up garage owners, repo outfits and auto dealerships for work, regularly charging a local Audi franchise $700 for killer 18-hour, round-trip delivery trips to the Bay Area. Once enduring an eight-hour traffic jam to get a ridiculously expensive car to Barry Bonds, his boyhood hero, who opened the door with a truly Bondian, "What took you so damn long?"

As business grew, Charlene started coming in to do the books. Soon they were plowing money back into a thriving firm that Sean built with a one-line philosophy: "Never say no to a job and always be on time."

Their SouthSide Tow Service now has 13 bright new trucks (including flatbeds and big rigs used to tow other big rigs) and eight full-time drivers, with Charlene driving - actually preferring to drive - when things get hectic.

At their Culver City location (they have a second shop near downtown) on Thursday the phones never stopped ringing, a happy situation propelled along by calls from the California Highway Patrol, from a host of body shops and from inclusion in car manufacturer roadside service plans.

This as Sean's friends pay back student loans and (as he put it) wait for something to happen in their lives.

"I really feel like I'm doing exactly what I should be doing," he said, as his cell phone explodes in his shirt pocket. "There is no better feeling than getting a call and being on my way knowing that a freeway is shut down or somebody is trapped until I get there. Plus, I know that I am good at what I do and that I learned everything I know on my own and with the help of my mom."

Charlene, meanwhile, is pleased and a little bit surprised that her $10,000 investment has became a thriving business.

"Listen to the phones," she said, as the things blasted away. "There is always something happening. And it's exciting to know that the movement of an entire city sometimes depends on our being there. Plus, I'm proud of Sean for what he has accomplished."

There is, of course, a downside to running a company that runs around-the-

clock, seven days per week with mother and son juggling the child-rearing and school drop-offs.

"I've had guns pulled on me on impounds and that's scary. It's also part of the job," Sean said. "But the other side of the coin is when I pull up next to somebody who has broken down in the dead of night. The look on their faces, like I have come to the rescue, is such a thrill. It's worth absolutely everything."

I want to hear your comments. Connect with me at john.bogert@dailybreeze.com.

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