The World of Towing in Hawaii

Tow This: It’s a necessary part of city life, but it’s also one of the most hated. A look into the rough-and-tumble world of towing.

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Living by the Hook

So why get into towing, if everyone hates you? For Koki, it was the idea of being out and about while working. After getting a taste of the industry watching the lot at his uncle’s tow company in high school, Koki trained as an auto mechanic before realizing he didn’t like being cooped up in a garage all day. He would go on to drive for most of Oahu’s large tow companies, including Ace Towing, Kuni’s Auto Service, Tow Masters Hawaii, All Island Towing and Islandwide Towing, before starting up his own company, Mauka Towing and Recovery Services. In the 15 years he’s been in the business, Koki has done everything from roadside assistance to repossession towing, and has experienced the highs and lows of the business, including being shot at twice.

“I picked up a car at Kam IV Housing on Likelike Highway,” he recalls. “I started driving down the street, and I see this guy running with a long towel. I thought, oh, that’s no towel, I know what’s under that.” It turned out to be a gun. “He’s gaining on me, and I hear the thing go off. With my controls, I lifted the car real high, so now it’s blocking me. He’s running down the Likelike by this point, and he’s shooting at his own car, because it’s in the way of me. He finally got tired and stopped. The worst part was that the car was only worth $500. It was a Toyota Celica or something.”

Tips for Making the Best of It.

1. If you’re not the registered owner of the car you’re driving, keep in mind that towing companies will generally deal only with the actual owner.

2. If the tow-truck operator refuses to drop your car, call the police as soon as possible. The police dispatcher will record the time of your call, which establishes a timeline of the incident, in case you end up contesting the tow later.

3. When dealing with towing personnel, be persistent, but remain calm. Tow-truck operators deal with confrontation all day long, and won’t respond well to pyrotechnics.

4. When picking up your vehicle, check carefully for new damage and missing personal property before leaving the lot. If there’s any problem, get a signed statement from the owner or manager of the lot that acknowledges the issue. Making a damage claim after the fact is exponentially harder.

Koki says he’s learned to defuse tense situations by speaking quietly—in a literal sense. “If you come off hard, he’s going to be hard back. He’s ready to go,” he says. “I’m a bigger guy, but if I talk soft, he has to calm down and lean in to be able to hear me.”

Towing will always be a confrontational business. But it’s also a potentially lucrative one, with relatively low startup costs. New tow trucks can cost $75,000 or more, but you can pick up a used truck for $10,000 to $15,000. Koki started his company with a tow truck he bought for $2,500. Add in a $1,200-a-year insurance policy, and he was in business. “In about two weeks, I made my money back,” he says.

He remembers making $10,000 in a single month, by himself, hustling long days and towing abandoned cars for $50 a piece. “I had enough to buy another truck, and hired a friend to work with me. We slowed the pace after that, but it was good money.”

For the large tow companies, the big money is in government contracts. Stoneridge Recoveries, for example, handles the police tows for the region spanning downtown Honolulu to Makapuu, and averages 10,000 tows a year in that area. Such a privilege doesn’t come cheap, though—Stoneridge pays $21,000 a month for that one contract, and the general rule of thumb is that 45 percent to 60 percent of the gross income goes straight to pay for the contract fee.

Smaller tow companies make their living on roadside assistance tows and by signing contracts with private entities such as businesses and condominium associations to handle their parking violations—known in the biz as “trespass towing.” These private contracts generally don’t cost a tow company anything, but it’s up to the tow-truck operators to make the commitment pay off. Think of the contracts like hunting licenses. When you see tow trucks lurking in the corners of a parking lot, or lining up half an hour before a no-parking deadline kicks in, they’re just making sure they bag as much game as possible.

If you’re a tow-truck driver, not an owner, you may also be additionally motivated if you’re getting paid by the tow. Koki says the average payout is $20 to $25 per car, and if an average tow job takes about an hour, the advantages of squeezing more tows into the workday are clear. As a result, many of the larger tow companies pay hourly, to keep drivers from cutting corners. “Drivers with incentive like that are gonna push,” Koki says. “They go like crazy. You see trucks going past and you’re like, ho, brah, where you going? Slow down!”

When it comes to tows on private property, the level of aggressiveness is often set by the property manager and by the security guards. Spots such as the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor are an example of the upper extreme, but many other properties are content with mellower parking policies.

Lillian McCarthy, a property manager with Hawaiiana Management Co., whose projects include Royal Kunia, Five Regents, Royal Court and Manai Hale, says she’s been using her towing contractor, Sniffens Auto Express, for years, because its towing style offers a minimum of headache, for her, both in guest parking violations, and in complaints from tenants. “We want someone responsive, but not someone who is aggressive and hunting,” McCarthy says. “If the tow company is overcharging and all that, they’re not going to have our business. The people who reside on our properties are our customers and our clients. We have to be fair with them.”

McCarthy has experienced the opposite approach, too. She recalls managing a Kaneohe property in which the residents’ board deliberately contracted with the farthest towing company they could find, in Kapolei, on the theory that huge towing bills would discourage parking abuses.

Koki, for his part, has slimmed back his business to one tow truck, and does mostly roadside service calls these days. “The money’s not the same,” he says, “but there’s more peace of mind, knowing that someone wants you there, instead of them wanting to kill you.”

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,June

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