From a timid 16-year-old pushing a broom afraid of doing something wrong in the shop to a confident shop owner with a passion for team building, Harrison Keyes has come a long way in a very short time. Along the path, he has learned to embrace challenges and to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
Keyes, owner of Jerry’s Automotive Service in Waukesha, WI, and Certified Service Center member and customer of Auto-Wares Group of Companies was recently named 2023 U.S. Technician of the Year by Auto Value and Bumper To Bumper. The goal of the Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper Technician of the Year program is to highlight, showcase and recognize the incredible talent within the Certified Service Center network of repair shops. Technician finalists are selected by their parts suppliers and represent the high level of skill and knowledge base needed in order to repair and service modern vehicles.
Keyes says his ascent to the top of the podium started at Jerry’s in 2000. “It was just after I turned 16,” he says. “I was sweeping the floors, literally afraid of my own shadow, and my biggest fear was that I would make a mistake and ruin something for somebody, even though all I was doing was cleaning. As I got some more confidence, I told the owner that I always thought it would be cool to own my own place someday. This place was well-established, opened in 1958. I’m sure he just thought I was a dumb kid, But I just kept working at it.”
Keyes continued sweeping the floors, working his way up to changing oil and other small jobs in the shop when an accident forced him out of the shop.
“I hurt my wrist in a four-wheeler accident, and I couldn’t work in the shop, doctor’s orders,” he recalls. “But it gave me an opportunity to start doing a couple of things behind the desk. I was trying to pursue knowing it all at some point, so I started with customers. Once I was back in the shop, I was slowly working my way up to becoming senior tech, our top drivability diagnostics tech; again, always pushing, always trying to learn more and do more.”
In 2013, the previous owner told Keyes that he planned to retire in five years. “That basically started the clock moving,” he says. “Fast-forward four-and-a-half years, we’re in November of 2017 and I’m coming up with dead ends. This is a fairly large shop here and I was trying to figure out how to finance it and make it happen. I’ll be honest, knowing what they wanted for it, those are numbers that didn’t really exist in my head at the time.”
Keyes says he turned to Waukesha County Technical College and its Small Business Certificate Program for guidance. “I started that January 2nd and finished it May 15th, and I was able to purchase this business May 29th of 2018. And it was quite the adventure too. It literally had everything I needed for me to get my feet on the ground and figure this out and run with it. Between that and working with an attorney and an accountant, it was definitely a challenge. It was a lot of stress, but it was a lot of fun and we made it happen.”
Keyes says his shop is laid out with six rollup doors on both sides of the building, and incorporates 12 lifts of different designs, including three drive-ons, five in-ground saddles, one above-ground saddle, two portable lifts and an in-ground truck lift.
The team consists of 16 to 19 employees, Keyes says, including writers, one office person, two full-time parts staff, and the rest are techs, whether they’re apprentices or full-on senior techs.
“We have six ASE L1 certified techs, including myself and one of my service writers. Most of us have L2 certifications and two of us are L3 certified. That’s advanced level hybrid and we just don’t do a lot of that stuff yet,” Keyes explains. “A lot of that stuff has been covered under warranty, so we don’t see a ton of it.”
What his shop does see is full-service opportunities with light and medium duty vehicles.
“We service and repair all imported and domestic cars and trucks. Our business is proud to offer a wide array of services, including auto transmission repair. We do everything up to a Ford F550, which would include small dump trucks or utility company bucket trucks. We do quite a bit of fleet work but also a lot of
personal vehicles too,” he says.
“In the seven counties around me, the state requires emissions testing. The program is run through independent shops and oil change places; people who need emissions testing just come to a place like me, they get their car tested, and they’re on their way. Well, a lot of shops have stopped testing because the state doesn’t really pay well. I think this is the perfect opportunity! My competitors are literally referring their customers to me to test their car. Now we have an opportunity to show them who we are, how we act, what we do. That’s a big deal if you think about it – it’s advertising.
“Everyone relies on their car but most have absolutely no clue how any of it works. They need to know they can trust the person working on their car, that they’re going to tell the truth and do it respectfully,” Keyes says. “I think it says something, that we’re willing to test these cars for them and nobody else is doing it around them. They take stuff seriously and I hear that all the time. ‘You were willing to test our car for us when nobody else is, so I’d like to have you fix it.’”
Keyes admits that fixing those vehicles isn’t getting any easier and ongoing training for his team is necessary. Competing with dealer service facilities continues to be a challenge but he says he appreciates the dividends his partnership with the Auto-Wares Group of Companies continues to pay.
“I didn’t really realize how much Auto-Wares, Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper were doing for us as an industry. Actually at the Technician of the Year competition, I was talking with them about the subject and learned that they’re working very hard for us on Right to Repair. That’s what’s going to allow us to do the things we do going forward. It’s an uphill battle for me, an independent shop, to fight this. I’m thankful that Auto-Wares and the full power of the Alliance is putting in a ton of effort towards this. It speaks to how much they care about the industry and the success of their customers.
Keyes says he has been a Certified Service Center member since 2018, and customer of Bumper to Bumper Waukesha for nearly the entirety of his 23-year career and Jerry’s and he appreciates what they offer regarding training as well as quality parts.
“They have provided us great training, and I appreciate the virtual training resources but we really love in-person training opportunities,” Keyes says. “In my opinion, we’re hands-on type people and we learn better in-person.”
Learning together is one of Keyes’ most important goals and he strives to find unique ways to keep his team together.
“I have a unique view because I’ve been doing the office side and the shop side for quite some time. I can understand and appreciate what the techs go through every day, just even trying to diagnose these vehicles. From my side, it’s an interesting world as far as employment goes. You have to get creative to keep your employees here,” he says.
“We’re always striving to be the best shop, updating and keeping the best equipment, try and get the best training possible. I do require 40 hours of training a year, which I cover expenses for.”
In addition, he says, creativity comes into play to help people learn unexpectedly.
“I love to travel and I want my guys to be able to experience that as well. So, two years ago, I started taking almost everyone here out to Moab in Utah I rented some Jeep Wrangler Rubicons and got a great guide and we went rock crawling.”
This wasn’t just an escape from work, Keyes explains.
“Talk about a team-building experience, watching employees who barely talk, laughing and working together. Our guide understands what I’m trying to accomplish, and he builds in these little things we would stop and do together. For example, at one point we stopped in the middle of a field and we had to figure out how to change a flat tire without using a jack. They all had to work together to try and figure out how to do it with what we had around us. What you might think would be impossible became something a team could overcome. They still talk about it to this day.”
Keyes admits, there’s a financial consideration. “Sure, it’s expensive. The cost alone is huge. And then the hidden costs of the shop not making money for two days are intimidating. But it really is an investment rather than an expense.”
Keyes says he does very little advertising to reach customers, relying on word or mouth and positive Google reviews. It wasn’t always this way, however.
“When I took over, we probably had 40 Google reviews and we weren’t taking it too seriously. We took care of our customers, that’s what mattered, and you can’t take those completely to heart because any review that starts with, ‘I used to be a mechanic and..’ will likely be the worst review ever,” he explains. “But then I realized that those reviews really are how people are learning about us.
“We’ve just hit 460 reviews and we’re running at a 4.9 rating – it’s very hard to maintain that, but I do take those very seriously now.” One of the key tools within the Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center program is Search Engine Optimization, reputation management, and locator services. This includes managing Google reviews and providing tools to make responding easy.
2023 Auto Value and Bumper to BumperTechnician of the Year
Including Keyes, twelve top technicians from across the United States competed for the prestigious title of Technician of the Year in July. The event hosted in Detroit and sponsored by DRiV and Garage Gurus, included a 90 minute, 100 question, custom ASE examination. In addition, for the first time in the program’s history, a hands-on mechanical element was introduced. Garage Gurus professionals administered a timed hands-on quick strut and outer tire rod test that accounted for a portion of the technician’s overall score and also served as a qualifier for the US AutoTech National Championships held in Tampa, FL in late October.
The other 2023 U.S. Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper Technician of the Year Finalists include:
Jose Zuniga; Ricks Automotive; Cleburne, TX; 4M Parts Warehouse
Jason Scott; Advanced Automotive & Diesel; Paris, TX; ABC Auto Parts
Dave Schreier; Cordells Automotive; Holmen, WI; Automotive Parts Headquarters Inc.
Chris Potucek; CC Auto; Harrodsburg KY; Hahn Automotive Warehouse
Christopher Funk; Holmes Transmission & Auto Repair LLC; Monticello, IA; Arnold Motor Supply
Steven Perry; Bona Fide Auto Repair; Roseburg, OR; NPW Companies
Maclane Reeser; Maclane’s Automotive; Downingtown, PA; Eastern Warehouse Distributors
Ted Curran; Monkey Wrenches, Inc.; Brentwood, CA; Trimon Inc.
Chris Broom; Broom Auto; Ruston, Louisiana; Parts Warehouse, Inc.
Phil Clark; Barnes Auto Service; Louisville, Kentucky; Moog Louisville Warehouse
Kim Mertz; Len’s Auto Repair; Cottleville, Missouri; All Car Automotive Warehouse, Inc.
In addition to the 12 Technician of the Year Finalists from the United States, the Auto Value Technician of the Year Champions from Canada and Latin America were also in attendance to celebrate their accomplishments with their US peers. Nick Zeiger from Driven Automotive in Regina, Saskatchewan and customer of Auto Electric was named the Canadian Champion. Mariana Meija of Mega Tecnicentro, and customer of EXA Auto Parts in Medellin, Columbia was declared the Latin America Champion.
“This program recognizes the lifetime work and achievements of our amazing technicians. These folks are truly professionals, and we are so proud that they represent Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper” said JC Washbish, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, Inc. “Thank you to DRiV and Garage Gurus for hosting us. Their products and training are valued by our technicians who use them every day.”
“Our Garage Gurus sponsorship of the Auto Value & Bumper to Bumper Technician of the Year program means a lot to us here at DRiV,” says Kevin Reamer, Director of Program Groups with DRiV. “Hosting these top technicians from the U.S., Canada and Latin America, showing off the Garage Gurus training toolbox and assets, and spending time with professionals eager to showcase their expertise was invaluable. This is a partnership that elevates all of us and highlights the full distribution channel from product manufacturing and distribution to the service and repair facilities.”
Keyes says the opportunity to compete in this year’s competition would have seemed unthinkable to his timid 16-year old self, and he appreciates the strength of his fellow competitors. He also appreciates the hosts.
“This is such a humbling experience and a great honor. The automotive industry has been my entire life, my entire career,” Keyes said. “I can’t thank Auto-Wares and our sales rep enough for pushing me to compete. It feels amazing to receive this recognition. The technicians who came to Dearborn are the best of the best and to be crowned the 2023 champion was unexpected.”
What he has learned over the years, he says, is how much relationships matter.
“It’s knowing how to take care of people,” he says. “I rely on my parts reps, the counter people and the delivery drivers. I rely on my customers to bring the cars in for us to fix. I rely on my employees to fix the cars. and I couldn’t do any of this without them.
“Again, this is all an investment in relationships.”