Would you want your children to work in automotive service?
After eleven brutal hours in the shop, I hopped into my truck and headed down the road to pick up Tommy, a fellow shop owner. It was a Wednesday night and we were on our way to a training seminar. This was January 1989, and I was still turning wrenches and putting out fires all day. Tommy was a bit older than me and I could see the years had not been kind to him. His hands were beat up, he complained about business, knee pain, back pain and just pain in general.
As we entered onto the highway he sighed, turned to me, and said, “Joe, you got kids?” I replied, “Yup, two boys and a girl.” He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Joe, keep ’em out of this business. You don’t want them to end up like us, do you?”
I continued to drive, not saying a word. To be honest, I didn’t know how to respond. Why would he say such a thing? But then I began to think: the 70-plus hours I put in each week, no vacations, no sick days, the stress of getting all the cars done, customers complaining the price is too high, employees not showing up, bounced checks, wrong parts, defective parts, rent going up, insurance increases and those weeks that I didn’t earn enough to take a paycheck home to my family. And here we were, on a dreary winter night traveling 30 miles to attend a training seminar. I’m cold, hungry, tired, and living on coffee and doughnuts all day. Man! Why in the world would anyone want to get into this business, let alone my own kids?
It took a few more years of pain, suffering and nearly going broke before I found out that it wasn’t the business that was beating me up. It was me. I was a tech and ran my shop from the mindset of a tech. I could fix anything on wheels, but when the wheels of my business fell off, I had no idea how to fix it. And although my two boys did work with me through junior high and high school, I never encouraged them to follow in my footsteps. And I regret that to this day.
My kids all went to college, earned degrees and are working in the field of their choice and doing fine. But I will never know how it would be if one of them wanted to come to work with the “old man.”
By the mid ’90s, I had turned the business around. I devoted that decade to learning about business. I already knew how to fix cars; I had to learn how to run a business. By the late ’90s, I managed to buy the property and the property next door and expanded the business a few times. We now have nearly 20 people working for us and I am no longer active in the day-to-day operations. I have people working with me to run the business the way a business should be run. I am not telling you this to impress you; many of you reading this have done the exact same thing. What I want to bring to the forefront is that my friend Tommy and I had it all wrong. We were mechanics who happened to own a business; we were men in business, not businessmen. We were killing ourselves. We were so entrenched with the day-to-day operations and fixing cars, we never thought in terms of business, profit and the future.
The other day my daughter-in-law asked me why no one in the family works in the business or has plans to take over the family business some day. I was as silent with her as I was with Tommy on that cold winter night in 1989.
I know how hard this business is and sometimes just getting through the day is an ordeal. But we need to think about tomorrow: What will our lives look like in five years, in 10 years?
If your shop is not operating as a business should, then take a long hard look at the person in the mirror and tell that person to do something about it. Many of us are great techs and constantly train to get better. That same effort needs to go into improving our businesses. You owe it to yourself and to your family.
Owning a repair shop is something we should be proud of, proud enough to have a son or daughter be part of it. Get the help to get your business on track. Do something today that will make a difference tomorrow. Don’t wait until someone taps you on the shoulder on a cold winter night; it may be too late.
Joe Marconi has more than three decades of experience in the automotive repair industry. He is the owner of Osceola Garage in Baldwin Place, N.Y., a business development coach for Elite Worldwide and co-founder of autoshopowner.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.