A Rural Shop’s Quest To Modernize
SHOP STATS: TJ's Alignment and Repair Location: WaKeeney, Kan. Owners: Candice and Jesse Beuttenmuller Staff Size: 3 technicians, 1 service advisor Shop Size: 7,500 square feet Number of Lifts/Bays: 4 lifts, 7 bays Average Monthly Car Count: 110 ARO: $370 Annual Revenue: $490,000
When out at industry conferences or talking with other shop owners from across the country, Candice Beuttenmuller, co-owner of TJ’s Alignment and Repair, is usually asked where her shop is located.
When she says she’s based in Wakeeney, Kansas, a small town 200 miles northwest of Wichita, the next question is often, “how many people live there?”
That’s a little bit more complicated. Beuttenmuller’s go-to answer is 2,500—but “that’s counting dogs, cats and cows,” she says with a laugh.
In a rural farm town, most of the shop’s clientele are farmers or ranchers and Beuttenmuller describes the vibe as “about as rural as it gets.”
Beuttenmuller grew up in WaKeeney before attending college at Kansas State and moving to Oklahoma, where she met her husband, Jesse. When Jesse was laid off in 2017 from a job in the oil industry, the couple began to consider returning to her hometown. And in a serendipitous turn of events, her family’s repair shop of choice was in peril. The couple jumped at the opportunity to take over and revitalize the shop—despite little experience in business ownership.
Although Jesse’s family has deep roots in auto repair, there was a steep learning curve to overcome. Still, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Beuttenmuller says. “It’s a great place to raise our kids. We’re so lucky.”
Much of the town adheres to many cliches you probably associate with rural towns—at least when it comes to technology—with a general lack of internet savvy and more flip phones than you’re likely to see in any big city, Beuttenmuller says.
But that doesn’t mean she’s stuck with an old-school approach. Instead she’s begun to infuse her shop with modern resources while embracing a small-town culture where everyone knows each other's name.
In the Beginning
When the Beuttenmuller’s arrived in WaKeeney they weren’t quite sure how to run a business. Jesse, who had grown up working on cars and had a natural aptitude for repairs, manned the back of the shop, leaving Candice to handle the front counter.
“It was quite a culture shock for me to come to this side of the counter and sell to people,” she says.
With the help of the shop’s former owner, who was willing to stay on through the ownership transition to ensure the business was successful, they were able to get the business running.
Beuttenmuller credits the VISION Hi-Tech and Training Expo, which the former owner suggested they attend, and the hiring of a business coach, for helping the business really take off.
“We knew we were doing OK. We were growing hand over fist every month, but I was in over my head with running a business.”
Beuttenmuller had a basic knowledge of QuickBooks, but through the training, she developed a deeper understanding of the program and learned how to manage overhead, something she had no previous experience with. It also helped to have a person she could consistently bounce ideas off of and pose questions to. It’s also where she developed a desire for more modern strategies, like a renewed focus in Google reviews and texting software for customers—a shift that was met with quite the skepticism.
Diving in Head First
“A lot of people, including my husband, told me that online marketing and texting is not something we should be doing out here,” she says.
But Beutenmuller knew how much easier running the business would be if they implemented a texting feature. With children ages nine and five, a phone call was rarely completed without screaming kids in the background. Knowing both the children would spend a lot of time at the shop, she thought that wouldn’t make for great business calls. But texting had always been something she utilized, so despite some pushback from Jesse, she started a free trial of Mechanic Advisor for the shop.
Quickly her, and Jesse’s, concerns were quelled by the most unlikely of customers. Farmers and ranchers with flip phones were receiving texts from businesses for the first time and were excited about the feature.
“I don’t know how to answer you, but I love that you text me, please keep doing it,” Beuttenmuller recalls a farmer telling her and after offering to show them how to respond—an offer that met with “I don’t want to know, just don’t stop texting.”
Beuttenmuller texts customers to remind them of upcoming appointments and to request feedback following each visit, but with much of her customer base still using flip phones, she’s limited in her means to get creative with her communication. No emojis, no photos and a strict character limit. But she makes it work, keeping her messages quick, clear and concise.
Creating a Presence
Beuttenmuller has also prioritized online reviews, another strategy many small business owners in the area ignore. Currently the shop boasts a 4.9 rating on Google. And it’s helped with one specific demographic—travelers.
“I also heard from people in the town, ‘Well, Google really doesn’t matter out here,’” she says. “I don’t think they understand the effect that Google has on everything.”
It’s a demographic Beuttenmuller has tried to cater to. She knows most businesses often look at travelers in a negative light, especially repair shops. But with her shop just minutes off the intersection of two major highways she sees it as a critical opportunity.
Although they are often grouchy and stressed out as a car repair was the last thing on their minds, Beuttenmuller does her best to treat them nicely, even though the situation probably isn’t going to be fun for the shop either.
The presence of positive reviews, that Beuttenmuller has worked hard to attain, have helped bring those customers into the shop. And it’s created a cycle. A quick scroll through TJ’s Google reviews will find that a good portion of them are from travelers who unexpectedly had to stop. So the travelers' good reviews are leading to more travelers choosing TJ’s.
Maintaining the Small Town Feel
While Beuttenmuller has worked to modernize the shop in certain areas, they still have much of the small-town feel. She sends the occasional mailer and sometimes takes an ad out in the local paper, but the shop mostly relies on word-of-mouth referrals and community engagement, like its annual customer appreciation cookouts.
In that vein, Beuttenmuller says she has never turned down local youth that come to her looking for fundraising money. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the local wrestling club, the softball team. They’ve all received checks from Beuttenmuller. Her only rule for donations? It has to be a young person and they need to come into the shop and ask themselves. During COVID she set up phone and video calls for those who wanted to make a request, then sent a check in the mail.
She doesn’t do it for business reasons, mostly to help and support the local children. But as a result the shop’s name winds up on T-ball jerseys, at the wrestling club’s matches and in other places around town. She wants the shop to be a community pillar, one where everyone knows each other’s name.
“I will continue to write checks for all of them until I can’t write anymore,” she says. “I think it’s so important for kids who are part of those groups to come into businesses and see support and see where money is coming from.”
The shop is well-known in the community and talking shop outside of work is a common occurrence for Beuttenmuller. As the mom of a wrestler, and a major sponsor of the wrestling club, she’ll frequently get stopped at wrestling matches with questions about car repairs. With Tekmetric, another modern tool that was added, Beuttenmuller frequently schedules repairs on her phone at matches.
“I think some of them would not schedule with me had they not known me and I had I not had that ability to do it right from my phone,” she says.