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Harley Sitner changed careers overnight when he decided to buy an ailing van repair shop. 

Image: Joshua Huston

Harley Sitner moved to Seattle for the same reason many others do: to work in tech. After two decades in the industry and a handful of years at Microsoft, he left that career for the brave new world of small businesses.

“I really wanted something a little more connected,” he says. “I didn’t want to be so abstracted away from the results and the people and the impact.”

In 2012, he was struggling to find a good repair shop for his classic Volkswagen camper when he finally stumbled upon a great shop in SoDo called Peace Vans. The only problem? They were about to close operations. Sitner thought the business was solid and wondered if he could apply his past experience to an entirely new-to-him, blue-collar industry.

“When I came home and told my wife I was going to take over Peace Vans, she looked at me like I was crazy,” Sitner says. “And I said, ‘At least our van will always be running.’”

But the silver lining has been much bigger than that. Sitner has taken the shop from three employees to 16 and increased revenue tenfold, and in 2016, he added a rental component. Now, road-trippers can have that classic VW camper experience that’s been romanticized through the hashtag #vanlife, which celebrates freedom and adventure — and which The New Yorker termed a “bohemian social-media movement.” (Peep the hashtag on Instagram for more than 2.5 million images of pretty people in pretty places with pretty vans.) Best of all, the experience comes in a reliable van stocked full of amenities like French press coffeemakers, mixing bowls, and wineglasses.

Last year, Sitner’s vans carried more than 700 passengers from 12 countries to locations as far as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and as close as the Olympic Peninsula, the most popular destination. Seven vans bore witness to the total solar eclipse.

For Sitner, it’s been a dream to connect with others over a product that invariably puts a smile on people’s faces, even though working on rusty old vehicles has its challenges.

“I really believe we are our community,” Sitner says. “I try to bring that to my team, to my customers, to my partners — that sense of we’re all in this together, we’re all connected in some way.”

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