Alan Heriford doesn’t believe in coincidences. He tells me this for the first time when talking about his service advisor, Stevie McRoberts. She started working for Alan as a technician, but learned how to service advise when somebody went on vacation and she volunteered to fill in. In 2022, Stevie wrote over $1.3 million in service, up 14.4% over the previous year.
Coincidence implies luck, and Alan, better than anyone, knows that Stevie didn’t write $1.3 million last year because she was lucky. Dedicated, sure. Committed, yes. Driven, caring, capable. But it wasn’t luck.
This is the essence of what Alan Heriford has built in Merriam, KS, on the outskirts of Kansas City: a shop so committed to teaching, training, culture, respect, love, and success that luck doesn’t matter.
This belief has been a long time coming.
“Being a shop owner was in my bones,” says Alan. His grandfather was a technician in Clarksdale, MO, and Alan remembers days when a knock would come at the door on a Sunday. A tractor was broken down in a field, and his grandfather needed to go fix it where it was stuck in the mud.
“He was regarded as one of the people who was sorely needed in the town,” says Alan. His grandfather chose to be the right person at the right place at the right time for a town that needed his dedication and skill.
Alan Heriford carried that reverence and respect for technicians with him. By high school, owning a shop of his own was his singular life plan. He wanted to take care of people, and nothing was going to stand in his way. At 15, Alan was changing tires and oil; by 17 he was working as a full technician.
“I always tell people that some of the best experiences for being a shop owner come from working for a couple of horrible ones,” says Alan. “All of those experiences were not coincidences. I was put in a position to learn.”
At 30, Alan bought his shop, JO•CO Auto. “I started out in a partnership,” says Alan. “It was extremely hard.” Soon enough, his partner was pushing Alan to buy him out. It took a loan from his father using his house as collateral, but Alan was soon 100% owner and completely on his own.
“In our industry more than most, so many owners have so little knowledge about running a business,” says Alan. “I certainly didn’t. There’s nothing I was afraid to tackle on a car, but what I knew about business was so little. I believed that if you took care of people, you could be successful. But it’s much more than that.”
“Much more than that” contains multitudes, as any shop owner can attest. “Taking care of people” doesn’t manage gross profit margins, pay taxes, set proper labor rates or manage day-to-day operations.
But, there’s an unmistakable line that you can trace through Alan’s story, one that connects clearly from his grandfather to the present day: you can run a successful business simply by taking care of people if you do business with people who take care of you.
“I get upset when I hear owners talk about why they’re not cheap, and then watch as they go out and look for the cheapest providers and suppliers,” says Alan. “If you put your money where your mouth is, your value proposition shouldn’t be at odds with how you run your business. Parts stores, credit card companies, accountants, consultants, software. I don’t care about how much it costs; I care about how much value we’re getting.”
In the early days of his sole ownership of JO•CO Auto, Alan connected with David Rogers and Terry Keller, owners of Auto Profit Masters. Through their coaching, consulting, and friendship, Alan was able to implement the processes his team needed to grow successfully and sustainably. “Those early years were just one month after another of getting better and better,” says Alan.
Soon, Alan met a service advisor named Ernie Laymen while stopping by a local dealership, and offered him a job on the spot. Right place, right time. Together with perfected systems and processes, Ernie helped JO•CO Auto take the next leap forward. Alan was able to focus his attention on creating a culture of protecting and caring for people.
“We want customers for life,” explains Alan. “I really impress that on our technicians and service advisors to feel what it’s like to be that customer. I tell my techs: as techs, we have no idea how much money these people are spending to take care of their vehicles. If you put yourself on that side of the counter, everybody has a better understanding of the situation.”
Creating this culture is paramount for Alan and JO•CO Auto, where the team of techs is presently made up of two Master Techs and four apprentices under the age of 25. They closed $2,249,199 in sales in 2022, up $344,139 over 2021.
Working with such a young team wasn’t the initial strategy.
“I’ve been in the business long enough to remember when you could put out a help wanted sign or a Craigslist ad and get six or seven techs to come and fill out an application,” says Alan. “People off the street would come by and ask for an application, even when we didn’t have a sign. All of us would take two, three, four, five quality technicians now.”
The technician shortage has changed everything. “I had a tech tell me after 30 years they’re leaving the industry,” says Alan. “I started to question whether I should leave the industry, too.”
But, faced with giving up or finding a better way to run his shop, it’s no mystery the path Alan chose. “My coaches at Auto Profit Masters suggested a new approach: let’s find some young guys, let’s train, let’s get some interest and work on producing the techs we need instead of just putting out ads,” says Alan. That turned out to be the right move at the right time.
“I started hiring guys right out of college programs,” says Alan. “Let’s get learning! One of my techs came to me with no background as a tech. I wanted the right kind of person, more than the experience.”
This works in part because Alan has put the processes into writing, some as basic as how to thread a bolt onto threads. But far more important is Alan’s commitment to culture.
“Guys know that it won’t upset me when they ask for help,” says Alan. “That’s my primary job here! To teach them and help them get the job done. We changed the way that my Master Techs work. They’re all in, and they help just as much. We look at our business and we want it to be healthy, to be happy. We all have to be committed to this goal.”
“Perfection is unattainable in this business,” says Alan. “If you can’t admit that you messed something up, you can’t get better. You need to be able to admit to mistakes, take responsibility, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. In our industry, we compensate wrong. If the tech makes a mistake, they’re penalized for it. We have to create a culture of learning. Everyone has to know why, the techs, the guys in front. They both have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. You have to reward their positive behavior and then teach – not yell – when mistakes happen.”
Creating a culture of teaching and training means that Alan spends nearly all of his time working in the bays working with his younger techs. Yet, the sales continue to increase, and the shop continues to hum. “If wasn’t for our change in direction, I would be buried in fixing cars because we didn’t have enough techs,” says Alan. “At some point, you have to change what you’re doing if you want a different result.” The right strategy at the right time.
Having the right tools also helps. “Shop4D is a big part of our success,” says Alan. “We’ve had unbelievable growth since switching over. I had been on the same program from the time I bought the business, so I was nervous to change, but it’s made everyone so efficient!” When your heart, soul, and time are being poured into developing a team of apprentices into full techs, efficiency is critical.
But, tools don’t operate themselves, and until a team wants a shop to succeed, it will never truly be successful. In this, it’s not hard to see why Alan’s team wants him to succeed.
“You can’t pretend to care for your people,” says Alan. “You can’t say you care about them and then not care about them. You can’t say you’re interested in their lives and then not be there when you’re needed. My biggest hope for this next year is that my employees are happy. That comes from a lot of areas. Money is part of it, but so is helping them be better than they were yesterday. Better employees and better humans.”
The culture is infectious. Both Stevie and Ernie talk about how much Alan cares about growing his techs. “I’m hoping we break $2.5 million this year,” says Ernie. “It’s going to take some hustle. Alan loves training them. I love watching them get trained.”
No coincidences – just the right team with the right mission at the right time.