Buckeye Complete Auto Care, Columbus, OH -

Buckeye Complete Auto Care, Columbus, OH

Todd Baldridge has turned around a struggling shop twice. He'll admit that the second time was his fault.

How do you model success in the automotive industry? For Todd Baldridge, owner of Buckeye Complete Auto Care, a TechNet repair facility with two locations in Westerville and Columbus, OH, it all comes down to mastering your abilities.

For Baldridge, that has meant a complete overhaul of his capabilities, his accountability, his responsibilities and – perhaps most importantly – his vulnerability.

“We were doing well,” he says. “I was successful as a shop owner and then the next thing I knew I was using my personal credit card to get cash to make payroll.”

Stephanie and Todd Baldridge, owners of Buckeye Complete Auto Care, Columbus, OH

Baldridge’s father had a plumbing company but whether it was working with pipes or working with Pops, he says he never had an interest in joining the family business. At age 14, however, he found his future under the hood of a buddy’s drag car.

“We weren’t allowed to drive them – neither of us had a license,” Baldridge recalls. “We could start them and move them around his yard, and his dad would let us tinker on them. That’s where I got the bug.”

Still, the bug wasn’t strong enough for Baldridge to make it a career – yet. For the next few years, he worked at several restaurant and white collar corporate gigs until the same friend told him the local tire store needed an oil change technician.

Small, efficient and successful.

“I took a $2 pay cut to go work on cars, which, still to this day baffles me,” he laughs. “I was white collar a hundred percent at age 16 and by the time I was 18, I probably could have been going through the management ranks of this corporation. But the idea of putting on dress clothes and walking into work every day just did not entice me.”

The challenges of the automotive industry were the enticement Baldridge says he needed.

“Every one of these challenges became a rung on the all the things that I envisioned for what I wanted. I needed to work and go take the spot of the guy ahead of me. I started taking the positions that moved along, going from a general service to a C tech, to a B Tech, to an A tech, to a master tech. I started finding better mentors, better people to chase,” he says.

A series of positions in independent and chain facilities coupled with carpal tunnel surgery before he was 21, disillusioned Baldridge to the wrenching side of the business.

“The shop I was at following my surgery recognized that though I couldn’t work in the garage, I could write service. So I tried it and I really liked doing it. Working on cars wasn’t my favorite thing anymore – I just got too good at it to go do something else and exchange the money. I had a house and a wife and plans for a family, and that meant that I couldn’t take a step back monetarily to go do anything else.”

The front of the shop became the next ladder to climb. “From service writer to assistant manager to store manager, I started chasing people who represented the best general manager. And then realized I didn’t enjoy being a manager, especially when I wasn’t being set up for success. I loved the customer service aspect of the business, but having to walk back and tell technicians that they weren’t performing hurt because I was still a technician on the inside.”

Baldridge says he started wrenching again, but felt he was just getting by. An opportunity at another local shop with a mission statement that emphasized family finally made him see that he could be part of something different, so he expanded his reach within the family plumbing business with his father.

“I already was the fleet technician for him, working on his vehicles on Saturday mornings, so I had a whole bunch of tools and a bay,” he says. “I started getting other customers to meet me there on the weekends or in the afternoons. It wasn’t long before I started thinking that it wouldn’t take very many more customers for me to just be out on my own.”

In 2007, Baldridge’s father-in-law bought the Columbus location. “He called my wife and me over to dinner and he said, ‘I bought this muffler shop for you to run, and one day it be yours.’ My only thought was, ‘I wish you had asked first.’”

A few years later, he asked again and this time, Baldridge says, he was in a different place to make a life-changing decision.

“This time, he said ‘This place is in a bad way. I had to put $50,000 into it to bring it to zero. The guy who’s running it is fired, I need you to come run it,’” Baldridge says. “I said yes, with certain stipulations.”

To agree to run the operation, Baldridge insisted on the autonomy to run the business as he saw fit. That included installing business software and separating the technicians from the customers. “We’re putting computers in to manage the business and we’re writing service.”

While his concerns were business-related and tangible, Baldridge says his wife’s initial misgivings were harder to define.

“When we first considered taking over the shop, Stephanie was worried because she knew how driven I can be,” Baldridge says. “But I told her that no matter how much it grew, I would burn it to the ground before I allowed it to affect me being there for our children and I meant it.”

Baldridge says he took on the task of trying to fix a failing company, which began to happen, but he admits he still had no idea what he was doing. As an ultimatum, he told his father-in-law that he would not open the shop the next morning if he wouldn’t authorize training through ATI.

“They were really good at taking a technician and turning him into somebody who could read a P&L, and for about five years I learned everything I could,” Baldridge says. “Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough.It was just about that time when I thought I knew a whole bunch of stuff and then just turned this place into a dumpster fire. That was when we got to the point where I was putting my credit card in the machine, hitting $8,000 and hoping that was going to be enough to pay for this month’s payroll and business costs. I did that far more often than I wanted to. Honestly, I’m not even sure I could count the number of times – I didn’t know another way to deal with it. I couldn’t go back to my father-in-law – and I didn’t think I could tell my wife.”

The salvation, he says, came when he attended his first ShopFix conference. Founder Aaron Stokes spoke directly to him in a room packed with other shop owners.

Whiteboards on every available wall make planning and monitoring easy for all to understand.

“I mean, I know there’s another 150 people in the room, but I felt like he was talking to me about everything we were doing wrong. I wanted to fire everybody and just start over. But he recommended the book “Leadership and Self-Deception” by the Arbinger Institute – and the last thing he said was, ‘Do not go home and break your shop,’” Baldridge says.

Realizing he needed a better plan, he says he went back to talk to his father. “He just listened to me and helped me realize that I was the reason why everything was going wrong. Talk about accepting responsibility.”

The first step was to eliminate appointments and become a “yes shop.” Almost immediately, he says, car count began increasing with no appreciable challenges to the shop’s workflow. Within weeks, car counts and repair orders had increased. And Baldrige accepted his accountability by revealing his vulnerability.

“Then it was time for me to go on my apology tour. I literally brought every person who worked in the shop into the office and told them ‘I’m sorry, I have failed you and I will not fail you anymore. I have failed you by allowing our car count to diminish, our sales to diminish and I haven’t taken ownership of those problems to fix them. But today, you don’t have that problem anymore.’”

Techs utilize the latest training and techniques.

Admitting his business failings to his team was one thing – admitting them to his wife was another. “Once I started taking responsibility, I finally confessed what I had done to meet payroll. As a ‘strong man,’ I didn’t want to put that pressure on her. I had been hiding things so well, but it made me a pretty sour person. Trying to keep that public persona visible and my private challenges hidden was terrible. I can’t imagine that during that time I was a great husband or a great father because I wanted to hide from that,” Baldridge says.

“He told me, ‘I don’t think you knew how bad it was,’ and I was just shocked,” says Stephanie. “Why couldn’t you trust me with this? We’re in this together. We’ve got each other’s backs. Since then, it’s allowed for a lot more open and honest conversations. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, just share it with me. I’ll walk right next to you with it.”

It wasn’t easy or quick to turn things around, but Baldridge says it had a lasting effect. When the team knew that he was being accountable to them they became more accountable to him and each other. Team meetings became fruitful and actionable.

“The shop flowed in a different way because people started interacting now,” he says. “There’s a lot of being willing to open yourself up and admit that you don’t know it all. And that was very difficult, especially since I had been that egotistical technician; the service writer who could write the best; the store manager who could run the best. I had given myself all of these titles about how good I was. Once I started realizing that I could accept personal responsibility for being in the situation we were in and make changes based on that type of leadership, other people started recognizing that they would need to do the same thing.”

Baldridge became active with coaches, mentors and accountability partners across the country through ShopFix but says he initially overlooked his strongest asset right next to him.

“In our coaching groups, I had started to drift to the back of the conversation, just focusing on myself. When Stephanie found that out, she said, ‘This isn’t going to work. You’re going to start being more present with this thing. This is where you made all of this growth; you are going to invest your time back into this.’

“She started getting on my calls and I started having to be accountable to her because she had been so out of the loop for so long,” he acknowledges.

So after what he and his family had survived with one shop, why would Baldridge take the risk on a second shop? He admits that it was simple ego.

“I had started to get bored with having one shop, thinking that it was on autopilot. Of course, it really never is on autopilot, but the original shop was doing well without me. I felt in the way. I know a lot people who have multiple shops – how hard could it be?” Baldridge laughs ironically.

The Baldridges took over a struggling shop with a great deal of potential in December 2022 in the nearby Columbus suburb of Westerville. Though only 5 miles apart, Baldridge says demographics and history mean the challenges of revitalizing this operation have been distinctly different from the original location’s.

Buckeye’s Westerville, OH location.

Both locations are full-service shops offering full-service undercar and underhood repairs for domestic and import cars and light trucks. “We’ve been a TechNet shop for 12 or 13 years, actually before I owned it. The nationwide warranty has been great assurance for our customers,” Baldridge says.

The original location has two service advisors with a third hybrid position, who is parts manager/front counter assistant as well as a store manager. Buckeye owns a shuttle, has a shuttle driver and does have some loaner cars. Baldridge says there are five techs in the Columbus location. The Westerville shop has one service writer and two technicians.

“We have a very wide knowledge range among our technicians,” Baldridge says. “With seven techs across the two locations, we’re able to solve most problems. We’ll work on almost anything, but we’re willing to turn away cars that are 25 years and older. Nowadays, of course, that’s just getting to be so much harder.”

Learning to say no to older vehicles has been a bit of a challenge for a shop that prides itself on saying yes, but it has allowed the team to offer more professional service.

“Customer service is a big deal for us,” Baldridge says, “and part of that means that you’ve got to be just a little bit faster than other people. People like fast speed of service and it’s really hard to have speed of service when you’re doing an engine on a 1994 Ford Mustang. We started looking at the types of jobs that we were going to have to say no to. There are other shops out there that are better suited to cater to that situation.”

Again, getting overwhelmed by trying to do too much was a real fear for the Baldridges.

“It’s the nature of the beast in this business that you stay open on Saturdays. But I wasn’t willing to miss any of my sons’ soccer games so we started working just five days a week. That way my employees don’t have to worry about missing things either.

“Family is such a key part in our culture and they are the whole reason for every single thing that we do. The only reason why I run the store and want the store to be profitable and want everybody else to have a better life is because I realize the type of life that I’ve been able to provide my children and the type of dad that I’ve been able to be. So over the last year and a half, we’ve gone to an Associates-First idea, where we put associates before profit.”

Baldridge says this has meant creating a culture with high-performing team members who don’t have to stress about money.

“I know too many people in this business who don’t take vacations or are constantly working and never at home or working side hustles to make ends meet. I’d rather pay a little more and push people to be better, provide a better vacation policy and show them that there’s a better life out there. To be able to make your bills and not constantly struggle paycheck to paycheck. I remember doing that as a technician – and I remember not a single person caring about that. The incentive to work was just to make my mortgage payment.”

The attitude that customers come second at Buckeye may seem callous, but Baldridge says there’s a reason. “We put our associates first so that they have the kind of life that puts them in the mood to take care of our customer. But I remind them that cars equal freedom, especially in the city of Columbus where there isn’t an awesome transit system. I remind that we may take for granted how easy it is for us to deal with car problems. The rest of the world does not have that luxury.”

“We do a lot of training, through our partnership with TechNet and other resources,” Baldridge says. “If it gets offered by any of the parts houses, my guys are free to go. We just pay for it. Many of the things they learn are all about how to be a proficient flat rate technician, how to get along with your service writer, how to write a good estimate that your service writer can sell.”

The relationship between technician and service advisor is key, Baldridge explains, but so is the relationship between service advisor and customer.

“I remind my advisors that when somebody calls and asks how much a repair will cost, it’s not simply because they’re a price shopper: it’s because they don’t have a repair shop home and they don’t know the right questions to ask. They don’t understand that the important questions are what our warranty is, how long our technicians have been working on cars, how they can use our shuttle and loaner service to get around while the car is being fixed correctly. The first thing they’re worried about is whether or not they have enough money in the bank. And that, to me, is an opportunity to provide real customer service.”

Baldridge explains, “When people call asking how much a repair will be, I explain that ‘shooting from the hip’ will just do one of two things. I’m either going to scare you off to another shop that’s going to take advantage of you. Or, I’m going to give you a number that makes you come in here. Then I’m going to find out it’s worse than we think it is, and it’s going to cost more than you expected. Either way, we lose.”

As with his techs, Baldridge insists that his service advisors be adequately and professionally trained. “We have a policy in place that if you haven’t gone through Sales Fix or you’re not enrolled in Sales Fix, you’re not on our counter. They learn how to be humble with customers.

“One of the other things that I tell prospective associates is that when we bring you on, I shoulder the responsibility of you and your family. I’m bringing you on, which means that I’ve accepted you as the way you are. Obviously, you’re going to need training and learn to do things our way, but we aren’t going to get rid of you just because of a mistake. But because we do that, we’re very, very critical about the type of people we’re willing to let in. Luckily, I’m not the one policing them – their coworkers will let them know how to act appropriately.”

Simply put, he says, Buckeye Complete Auto Care operates under a “No As***le” rule.

“If you’re a prima donna or (a jerk) here, you won’t make it,” Baldridge says. “It doesn’t matter how good you are. We had to learn that the hard way. Now we have a policy that says you are not allowed to do that. If you don’t figure out a way to fix it, you don’t get to come in tomorrow.”

And speaking of tomorrow, Baldridge says the future is exciting for the Buckeye family. Continued growth is on the horizon.

“I told my wife, ‘I’m good at five or seven stores. I want to get to $2.5 million a year in net profit. At that point in time, I’m going to be very boat bound, but I have a feeling that the culture that we’re creating today will get stronger and carry forward, and that when we get there, I will not be able to stop because my team will be driving me.”

To get there, Baldridge says he plans to enlist the next generation, who happens to be represented by his 16-year-old son, John.

The Baldridge Family: from left, Todd, Jackson, Stephanie and John.

“He has big ideas. He doesn’t want to work on cars, he wants to be at the counter, and the local automotive program doesn’t teach service advisors. My next big project will be to create an apprenticeship program in order to recruit and train personnel to feed those five to seven shops.

“The one good thing that came out of Covid is that young kids started hearing about automotive technicians who are now making $100,000, $115,000, $150,000, which brought new interest in our field that there wasn’t before,” Baldridge says. “That was a really big step in the right direction to renew interest in this, what I feel is a very noble profession.”

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