Running a Shop Shop Life

2022 R+W All-Star Runner-Up: Travis Troy

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An Iowa boy, Travis Troy grew up with “literally nothing.” He and his sister were raised by a single mother who would tote them to the food bank to get groceries because she earned too little to keep stocked cabinets and too much for government assistance. By the time he was 10 years old, he wanted to earn money to ease the family burden, so he found a job sweeping floors in a Dubuque, Iowa, transmission shop called M-K Matic. ”I got paid 15 bucks a week to do that,” recallsTroy.

It was when Troy took his next job at 16, working for Drive Line of Dubuque, that he realized the automotive industry wasn’t just a means of supplementing his family’s income, it was a career with unlimited potential.

“That's really where I got my feet wet and started getting into the automotive side and realized quickly that it's a passion,” says Troy. “It wasn't just the working on cars. I grew a passion for every aspect of it, whether it was the people or the business, and at that time, I had no idea what business was.”

After completing high school, Troy remained with Drive Line, taking a full-time position for a year as a shop floater—assembling and installing Western snow plows and taking odd jobs around the shop, a jack of all trades as he put it—before leaving the company to attend Des Moines Area Community College to study automotive where he’d meet his future business partner, Josh Mullins.


From Honest Mistake to Honest Wrenches

Troy and Mullins met in their Intro to Electricity class where they were partnered up for a class project. Like lab partners on any collaborative task, the pair exchanged phone numbers, and that weekend, Troy got a call from Mullins seeking his help with removing screws from the rotor of a Honda he was working on in his driveway. Once Troy popped the screws off, Mullins realized he had more than a lab partner on a one-off class project. He had a friend who shared his passion for fixing cars, and he asked Troy if he’d like to fix cars together on the weekends.

"We were working on cars every chance we could and actually really making some pretty good money at it,” Troy says. “ It got me through college is what it did." 

It wasn’t long before the city of Ankeny got wind of the pair’s operation and moved in with a 24-hour cease-and-desist letter that carried a hefty $25,000 fine. The infraction: running a commercial business in a residentially-zoned area.

“We were like, ‘Oh, crap. We didn’t really know we were doing anything wrong.’ We were just paying our way through college,” says Troy of the misunderstanding.

Troy, who was a student by day and diesel mechanic at night, called into work that evening and explained the situation to his boss—who now works for him. That night, Troy and Mullins rented a commercial storage unit, moved their equipment into it, and the following Monday—May 1, 2011—formed a limited-liability corporation and Honest Wrenches was created.

They operated from the storage for about 18 months, driving 15-minutes from the college to the unit to repair cars during a three-hour break in their class schedule.

“We would schedule appointments and fly down there, open the storage unit, make it look like we were open for business all day, and have customers come in for appointments, get them back out of there, close everything up, and fly back in order to make to class by 2 o’clock,” he says. 

Over the course of the next two-and-a-half years, Troy competed college and continued to work full-time at night in the diesel shop while building Honest Wrenches during the day, reinvesting every penny into operations. In September 2014, he and Mullins met up, gave each other a fist bump, and said it was all or nothing. Both men resigned from their jobs—Mullins worked in a restaurant—and put all of their energy into full-time shop operations.

Troy calls the first years “a grind” as they worked seven days a week to secure fleet accounts and clients and to begin staffing the shop. “It’s almost a blur to see how fast it all happened,” he says. Today, Honest Wrenches has two shops—Ankeny and Des Moines—24 employees and has been profitable since day one. The company does $4 million in annual revenue on a monthly car count of 225 between the shops.


Doing ‘Whatever It Takes to Lead

One of the big ideas in Micheal Gerber’s bestselling book, “The E-Myth: Revisited” is that technicians—defined as anyone with a specific skill—who start businesses falsely assume that because they understand the technical aspects of a business they also understand how to operate a business that does that technical work. It’s a pitfall Troy stumped into early on and had to overcome.

“Ninety percent of us who get into this business are technicians who become owners. Nobody tells you the amount of leadership it requires to operate a shop at a high level. It can blindside you. It did for us, and we had to focus on building our leadership skills and becoming better people,” says Troy. “Thankfully, I’m a grinder, and I devoted hours and hours at night learning and to doing every training I could do to become a better leader.”

And that’s another core tenet of Gerber’s book: those who are exceptional in business are driven by an insatiable need to learn and grow.

“You’ve got to want it. It means you’re willing to do whatever it takes whenever it takes and give it everything. It might mean hearing stuff you don’t want to hear from other people or doing training when you’re exhausted. The list goes on, but you have to do whatever it takes,” Troy says.


“Once You Work Here, You Never Want to Leave” 

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the staff at Honest Wrenches embraces the company culture. It’s led by a man who took it upon himself at age 10 to care for those he loved by pushing a broom across a shop floor for $45 per month.

“We care about our people, and that sounds extremely cliche. What we do for our people, most owners wouldn’t blink an eye to ever think about doing something like that,” says Troy.

At Honest Wrenches, the company sponsors team outings, like ax throwing, bowling, and family outings to minor league baseball games hosted in suites. He helps his employees deal with personal matters and gives them the tools to become successful professionally—like when he brought 14 team members to VISION in March 2022. Troy also cooks for his staff every week—once a week for each store—bringing them a home-cooked breakfast or lunch into the shop. 

He says he almost lost sight of how much these actions mattered to his staff when they opened the second shop. Scrambling to get both locations firing on all cylinders, his and Mullins' employees pulled them aside and reminded them of the Honest Wrenches standard.

“We lost sight of culture for a hot minute and our team told us that culture isn’t what it used to be, and we had to fix that. And that’s what it’s all about: managing up and managing down. It’s OK for our team to manage up and hold us accountable because it's the same thing we’d do for them. And we appreciate that more than they will probably ever know,” Troy says with pride.

“I’ve got two families. I’ve got my family at home and one big family here, and I’ve got to take care of them both.”

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