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Breaking Down Culture Barriers in Auto Service

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Refugio Davila, Vicente Torres and Ruben Hernandez all share a familiar story: The three are veteran shop owners who grew up working in the industry before eventually opening their own shops in the Chicago area more than 25 years ago.

But even as veterans of the industry, the Hispanic shop owners felt underrepresented by trade associations on the national level.

“Several associations exist for the automotive industry, but we didn’t feel represented,” says Torres, owner of Tecnicentro Automotriz. “It was missing that personal communication you need when you really need help with something in your business. We had a lot of needs, but a lot of times, we were too scared to ask.”

In 2010, a chance encounter between the three shop operators spurred a discussion about the needs of repair shop owners, specifically in the Hispanic community, which led to continued and more passionate discussions about a possible solution.

In November of 2011, the three launched Together We Grow (TWG), an association of Hispanic shop owners in Chicago. The goal was to strengthen the level of professionalism and standards of area automotive repair professionals, as well as create a resource for Hispanic shop owners where they could feel comfortable asking questions and gaining knowledge.

Through extensive networking and relationship building, TWG has grown to nearly 50 regional members, with ambitious plans to expand nationally to 500 shops by 2015.

“We want to remove the bad image that independent repair facilities often have,” says Hernandez, owner of Augusta y Paulina Auto Service. “If one of us is guilty, we all lose. That’s one of the most important reasons that we wanted to establish this venture and this association.”

Uniting the Industry

Davila, Torres and Hernandez met at a local business networking event.

“We started talking about cars and we had a good connection,” says Davila, owner of Davila Auto Service.

As they continued talking, Hernandez says conversation turned to the needs of the repair industry.

DIVERSE OFFERINGS: Together We Grow’s regular meet-ups have ranged from technician training classes (top), to presentations by the assistant press secretary for the Illinois secretary of state (bottom). Photo courtesy Together We Grow

“We started talking about all the problems and needs we had at the time, like getting good technicians and management,” Hernandez says. “We decided to have another meeting and keep talking.”

This time, however, they also invited 26 other shop owners to present an idea they had started tossing around: creating an association to unite and strengthen the level of professionalism and standards in the industry.

Because all of the shop owners invited were Hispanic (and often immigrants), the group naturally focused on the needs of the Hispanic community that were not met by other trade associations. Chief among those needs were language barriers that prevented shop owners from feeling comfortable asking questions or gaining more knowledge.

“I think the fear comes from the same lack of knowledge that we sometimes have about our rights [as shop owners], or ignoring how to do things correctly,” Hernandez says.

Hernandez also notes that they found that many shop owners weren’t aware of resources that existed, or didn’t know where to look.

Because of this lack of knowledge, Torres says there is often also a lack of confidence as owners.

“A lot of times in our Hispanic community, very few of us had the opportunity to set out and decide on a career,” Torres says. “So a lot of times, we didn’t have that business knowledge about everything that’s required when you open a business.”

Hernandez, Davila and Torres asked the group to list all their needs, ideas about becoming better business owners, and what they would want to see from an association.

“We talked a lot about how if we want this to work, it has to come from everyone,” says Torres. “It was important that everyone participated so that we didn’t fall into what happens with a lot of other associations that we’ve been a part of, where it’s nothing more than the decision of one person. At the end of the day, it doesn’t work.”

Creating a Structure

The business owners loved the idea and over the next 11 weeks, the group met twice a week to brainstorm more ideas and create the structure of the association.

The group decided on a monthly format and an annual membership cost of $300, which Hernandez says covers any speaker fees and a stipend for an administrative assistant.

“We don’t profit from this,” Davila says. “We wanted to make it very affordable.”

The group also came up with a list of “guiding virtues” (serve others, responsibility, collaboration and knowledge, excellence and order, creativity and innovation, and joy) that they hoped would act as standards for the members of the association.

“When customers come to a business that is professional, that’s where the customers’ mind starts to change,” Davila says. “We want all the members of the association to follow these standards of quality that we’ve created.”

Forming Meaningful Relationships

As enthusiasm for the new venture grew, the founders started working on lining up content for the meetings.

CELEBRATING SUCCESS: Association members recognized a strong 2013 with a traditional Hispanic holiday party, called a Posada. Photo courtesy Together We Grow

“The needs of the members vary from hiring and training to administration needs to knowledge of their financial state,” Torres says.

Davila says the group started with people they knew, such as Torres’ accountant, who gave a presentation about understanding and interpreting financial documents, and Hernando Malriguez, a Colombian business entrepreneur, who gave two presentations about business strategies.

“We started with people we knew who could help us,” Davila says. “They loved the idea. Because a lot of these people have other clients who are shop owners.”

From there, Hernandez says it was like a “chain reaction.” They asked contacts who else they should talk to, which led to more partnerships.

“We have partnerships with the University of Illinois in Chicago, specifically with one of the professors,” says Davila. “He has given us seminars on how to run effective meetings like this. We could be great business owners, but if we don’t know what to do at the time of the meeting, it will be a disaster. He has supported us and showed us how to have this type of association meeting.”

TWG has formed a valuable partnership with the City of Chicago as well. A city representative invited Davila to take a class offered by the city on how to create a business plan, Hernandez says. Part of the group ended up taking the course. Through the city, TWG also met the director of the City Colleges of Chicago’s Arturo Velasquez West Side Technical Institute, who liked the TWG concept so much he offered up the college’s resources at no charge.

The association has also partnered with vendors, such as parts stores and uniform companies, which have provided association members with discounted prices and packages.
“We’ve created relationships with all of these people and through that, they’ve done these presentations for free or given us discounts because we are an association,” Davila says.

An Ambitious Expansion

For association member and shop owner Carlos Zepeda, joining the association has helped tremendously in his desire to improve his business and his role as owner.

“After joining this group, now my employees are more content, they’re in a shop that’s nicer, and they feel more proud of their work,” he says.

Similarly, Hernandez says that working with the association has caused him to look at his business differently, and more seriously.

“That’s what a lot of us have gained because we’ve realized our mistakes and we can see how others have improved, which causes us to look at our business differently,” he says.
The association, which is up to nearly 50 members, now meets the first Tuesday of every month, with the board of directors meeting mid-month to plan ahead.

“At every general meeting, we hand out a piece of paper to all the members and ask, what topic is most interesting to you?” Torres says. “Then we put it all together and look at what is the biggest need out of all the responses.”

From there, the board of directors puts together the agenda four months in advance, which includes technical training, leadership training, and workshops on marketing ideas, operations management, human resources, and financial aspects of the business.

The group also hopes to expand beyond the Hispanic community, with plans of taking the concept to a national level.
“The idea is that if someone is living in a different state and likes the idea, then we can help them start a similar association,” Zepeda says. “The language doesn’t matter. For now, it’s focused on the Hispanic community.”

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