I didn’t know much about running a business when my partner and I opened our first automotive repair shop in 1997. One day I was a technician, the next day I was an owner responsible for the entire shop and its profitability. I just figured that I could work hard and put a lot of hours in and everything else would fall into place. That notion was far from reality.
There are a lot of comparable shops in my area with four to 10 bays, so a big challenge for me then, and even now, is car count. I remember purchasing all of the necessary equipment, setting up the shop and then just staring at the phone, waiting for new customers to come to us. When you are starting a shop from scratch, it’s hard to make the phone ring.
Fifteen years later, I sold my portion of the partnership and, later, I independently purchased an existing shop. It was the first of my current two locations, Levrett Transmission and Allen Automotive. The phones were already ringing, so that part of running a small business was easier, but there were still so many moving pieces involved in making it successful.
The major difference between being that struggling shop owner that I was 20 years ago and being the multi-shop owner that I am today is that I now know how to handle the adversity. I have a consultant who helps me set appropriate goals and provides me with the tools I need to properly market my business and hire the right people for my team.
I’d love to say that success can be achieved overnight, and if you just fix problem A and problem B your shop could run itself. But, the truth is, the secret to success is found in all of the little things. You have to constantly be on top of the details.
If you think you can’t afford something that will propel your business, chances are, you probably can’t afford not to purchase it.
The turning point for me was the realization that I couldn’t always work in the shop if I wanted to work “on” my business. This is why hiring people with the right personalities and having a management coach/consultant in your corner is critical to continued success. It’s so much easier to delegate with faith and trust.
Looking back, the biggest regret in how I ran my business was this thought: “I couldn’t afford it.” I wish I hadn’t been afraid to employ higher-quality people. Hiring a $25/hour tech wasn’t an option because I was struggling, so instead I brought on less experienced staff and got what I paid for. I learned quickly that one bad employee can throw your entire business off track. As soon as I took the risk and made the change to hiring more qualified techs, my business instantly brought in more money.
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and deliver quality service.
My customers are the lifeblood of my businesses. To retain them, I have continuously delivered excellent service. I know that I can’t ever fall short of that expectation. In order to keep service at the highest possible standard, I look at my shop and my staff from a customer’s perspective. This helps me enforce the right policies to ensure cleanliness, accuracy and consistency. Good service keeps the customers happy. When they are happy, they want to refer others to us.
In order to really see what’s going on in your shop, you need to remove yourself. But, you can’t just hire a service advisor and hope for the best. You need to spend time on formal training to bring that person to the point where they feel completely confident in their position.
Know the difference between short-term and long-term goals. Then, hit your goals.
As a rule of thumb, I always aim to achieve more than I did in the previous year, focusing on last year’s numbers and the growth range. I know how many cars we worked on, the ticket average and the total hours billed. This helps me determine our short-term goals with the realization that my team is an integral part of achieving these goals.
I like to keep things interesting so that my staff stays motivated. Currently, I am running a monthly contest that extends to the end of this year. I set a target for combined sales for both shops at a certain gross profit margin. If they hit their goal, we’ll all go go-karting. The employees love doing things like this and it helps boost team spirit.
As for long-term goals, my plan is to keep growing. It’s exhilarating to constantly hit set targets, and my shops now each average about 6- to 10-percent growth per year. Within the next year, I’m planning to add a third shop, and within five years, I’ll add a fourth. In 10 years, I would like to sell them all.
Right now, my job is to focus on being a shop owner. I have my staff trained to the point where they can run the shop without me the way that I would run it. That allows me to just help out where needed. On some days, I’m in the back office. A lot of the time, I socialize with customers and drive them around. I take two big vacations per year, and I leave town quite a bit. I can go into work late and leave early. I have free time to spend with my family and I never miss my kids’ lacrosse games. Having the right team in place and empowering them to make good business decisions in my absence allows me to have this freedom. This is my “ideal scene.”