Many shop owners get their start the old-fashioned way: Their dad or uncle owned a shop, and they grew up learning how to fix cars. Essentially, it was “in their blood” so to speak.
But Matt Weber, co-owner of Clark’s Car Care, has a very different back story, one that starts with a detour from an accounting degree to take a less traveled road to shop ownership.
“The road that led me to Clark’s Car Care began when I was an 18-year-old college student majoring in accounting,” Matt explains. “I got a job as a part-time porter washing cars and doing odd jobs at a car dealership. I enjoyed the automotive business and eventually went on to work in almost every department — detailing, parts, car sales, finance — and, ultimately, I left school and settled in the service department.”
For the next five years, Matt worked in the service department at several dealerships. Despite the long hours, Matt says he loved the work and looked forward to solving each day’s problems.
“There is a unique thrill to be had when you have an upset or angry customer and turn the situation around to make them happy,” Matt says.
While he enjoyed the work itself, Matt says the long hours began to take their toll, and he started to wonder if he needed a change. He changed jobs with the goal of one day going into business for himself.
“I started to think, ‘I could do this better,’ ” he says. “I could help people and honestly fix their cars and still make a decent living. I got a job at a dealership closer to home earning way less money, but with shorter hours so I could begin to focus on going into business for myself.
“While walking around that dealership one day, I noticed that a lot of the cars in for service had followed me from my previous job. That was when I first realized that my business would focus on customer service and the business of people, not just fixing cars. Those customers followed me because of my passion for helping people, my friendly service and my automotive expertise.”
While still working full-time at the dealership, Matt says he used his connections with quality technicians to begin repairing family members’, friends’ and neighbors’ cars right out of his driveway.
“I would pick up the customers’ cars at their houses, bring them to one of the technicians’ home garages, get the parts and then deliver the finished vehicles,” he explains. “I was the customer service middle man, explaining what the vehicle needed and why it was important, and the customers loved my services. Friends and family started telling their friends and family, co-workers, etc., until my neighbors started wondering if I was opening a used car lot.”
Matt and his then wife, Laura, who now co-owns the shop with him, decided to order business cards. But to do that, they needed a name for their business, and Weber’s Car Care just wouldn’t cut it. Matt says people often wonder how they arrived at Clark’s Car Care, and he always replies, “Funny you should ask.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called Clark or Mr. Clark,” Matt says. “In college, I earned the nickname Clark Griswold (the main character in National Lampoon’s Vacation movies) for my habit of accidentally running into doorways and narrating scenic vacation spots in a very dad-like and corny manner. Who better to name your business after than the iconic hero played by Chevy Chase?”
All joking aside, Matt and Laura knew opening their own shop was a huge step, one that could mean success or failure. But Matt knew he had to take the chance, despite having a young family at the time — go big or go home, he likes to say.
“We started getting more serious about opening a location,” Matt explains. “It was much tougher than we ever imagined. Two kids in their 20s with no money, no credit and no business experience trying to rent a building to turn it into an automotive shop. Not many owners were willing to rent their building for automotive use. People were worried we were too big of a risk and it seemed like the odds were against us.
“We searched and we searched and while we searched, we applied for a home equity loan and got approved for $20,000,” he continues. “That wasn’t going to be enough.
We had no other collateral. The SBA basically told us that we needed to be in business to get money for a business.
“But, our dedication was strong although our solution was insane; we applied for a lot of credit cards. We collected applications from many different banks and filled them out and mailed them all in the same day. We simultaneously got approved for $100,000 in credit. We used this credit to live on as we started Clark’s Car Care.”
They leased their first location from a shop owner who wanted to downsize, but he didn’t have much faith in the couple’s dream either. However, Matt and Laura had a plan.
“The building owner was skeptical, and the other shop owner was pretty open about the fact he thought we had no chance,” Matt says. “We convinced the owner that we would not just be one more small business that failed, but that we had plans that would ensure our success. We signed a lease purchased from Office Depot without the presence of a lawyer, ordered a small sign for the door and purchased a motorized car lift. I put my two-weeks notice in at the dealership, and we were all in.”
Learning How To Be Business Owners
Clark’s Car Care opened in November 2001, and initial marketing efforts included oil change flyers and ads in the local newspaper. Their customer-centric approach soon attracted more and more business, and they began to add employees. But Matt and Laura soon realized they really didn’t know how to run a business.
“We were feeling stressed and going deeper and deeper into debt — $80,000 in credit card debt,” Matt says. “We got a flyer in the mail about a $200 seminar that promised to help automotive businesses that were feeling the same way we were. We decided to attend, and that seminar changed our lives.
“The seminar was basically a snapshot of a comprehensive management system that involved intense training and coaching and was automotive-industry specific,” Matt explains. “We were in awe and couldn’t wait to get started. We were convinced this program was going to solve a lot of our problems. But the program was very expensive, and we had no money, so we decided it was sink or swim time and charged the $20,000 fee to our already high balance credit cards. We needed to figure out how to run the business productively and profitably, or we were going to fail, despite our passion.”
That persistence paid off as Matt and Laura focused on training sessions that helped them develop an advertising budget and create systems and policies to track key performance indicators.
“We started to become profitable, and through careful accounting and strong discipline, in our third year we had paid off our debt and had a party to celebrate the last payment,” Matt says.
Since then, Clark’s Car Care has continued to grow, currently including eight bays and eight employees. It hasn’t always been easy, but with a clear vision, Matt and Laura have managed to come out on top.
“On our journey, we encountered the bumps in the road faced by most businesses — expansion, slow seasons, staffing problems and budgets,” he concludes. “We handled these situations by discussing our possible solutions, asking our management company and fellow shop owners for advice, and implementing policies that addressed each issue.”
A million dollars in sales, completely debt-free and always profitable — what more could any shop owner ask for?