Following their Dreams
A Master technician for 18 years, Mark Guerrero spent most of his time working at family dealerships with little room for advancement, while his wife, Summer, has overcome obstacles and proved doubters wrong as a firefighter, Iraq war veteran and cancer survivor.
In March of 2008, their dreams of taking life’s next step became a reality as they opened After Hours Auto Repair in Wichita, Kan. Since, they’ve relied on their history to help the business grow.
SUMMER GUERRERO: Mark had worked at a dealership for 15 years, but was ready to move on. As the head technician, he was stuck and couldn’t go any further. That’s when we began thinking about different options. Before that, though, I was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a firefighter. I came back in April of 2004, and the next year I found out that I had Stage 4 breast cancer. When we got through it, I realized Mark had not reached his dream yet. I felt like we needed to try and make it happen a little faster, because you just don’t know how much time you have together.
MARK GUERRERO: I started working on cars as a teenager, fixing my old Chevy Nova to get to school. I initially got hired on as a tech at the Pontiac/GMC dealer. I had always wanted to be able to move up, but the chance wasn’t really there. I went to a different dealership, but it was the same story all over again.
I ended up at a CarMax before we finally opened our own shop. In the meantime, I worked out of our garage after work until midnight sometimes and over the weekend, making extra money and helping people out. That’s where the After Hours name started.
SG: With my days off as a firefighter, I began taking classes for small business entrepreneurs through the Kansas Small Business Development Center. I absorbed it and I ran with it. Mark and I then put together separate business plans and compared them. It showed us what needed give and take.
On my way home from work one day, the building we had watched for years had been put up for rent. It was a small two-bay shop on the corner of a busy intersection and had always seemed like the perfect place to start. While I’ve always been the adventurous one, taking chances, Mark is more calculated. That’s created a great balance within our marriage and our business.
Mark thought it was too expensive, but when I did the math later with our consultant, I saw we’d be able to make it work. I went right down, signed the papers, got the keys and took them home to Mark. I gave them to him with a smile and said, “Here’s your new job.”
MG: I called my garage at home After Hours Garage, because of how late I’d work. We kept a similar name because of its history, along with the goal I have of running a two-shift shop someday. When we opened up the store, I would stay until 7 or 8 at night. Now, the hours look a little different.
We out-grew that two-bay after three years and moved to the six-bay shop we’re currently renting. While the market doesn’t quite make it financially feasible to have a double shift, we plan to go to that model once the demand makes it possible. Right now, we’re still able to help those with late night needs.
We transfer the phones to my cell phone at night, and if a customer leaves a message we get right back to them. If they need a tow immediately, we’ll do that even if it’s 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock at night. We try to help people as much as we can.
A great example is when one of my customers’ vans wouldn’t start. They have five kids and relied on the van for a lot. I called the tow truck and got it to the shop by about 10 p.m. Thankfully it ended up being a simple fix. It was a Thursday night, and I was there past 11 p.m. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ll come in over the weekends if I need to and help folks who are on vacation or just passing through.
We always try to do those jobs within a day, as long as the parts are available. Oftentimes, no matter what the project, I’ll stay late to get cars done, even if the hours technically show that we’re closed. That’s a part of giving great service.
SG: As a firefighter, we’re programed to not look at ourselves, we’re always looking at how we can help others. For me that includes the customer. Making sure the customer gets more than they pay for.
Firefighting is seen as a man’s field. When I started, I had to prove myself. I know women can do what they put their minds to because I was 90 pounds when I became a firefighter. It was one of those things where the people at the academy told me to leave. We don’t want women feeling the same way.
Automotive repair shops have the same type of image of being a man’s world. Women feel intimidated to come into this world. When they come in, I want them to know that I will educate them on anything they want to know. We’ll keep the old parts to show them the wear and tear, and we have interactive software that also helps us show why repairs need to be made.
I was a girly girl when Mark and I met. He had this passion for cars, and he said, “No girl is going to drive my car without knowing how it works.” So we went out and pulled an engine and took it apart. I had an affinity for engines, after all they have the same three things we study as firefighters: air, fuel and ignition. That translated into me wanting to help others know more about their cars.
MG: My experiences gave me a perspective on how to run a shop. The dealerships were really streamlined, so I set up our shop to run the same way.
One way I’ve done that is by always keeping the shop up to date, which includes new tools, along with lifts and other specialty tools. In order to replicate the professionalism and streamlined process of a dealership, we know that communication is huge. Everything from the way we take in a customer to how we write out tickets and the way technicians start the work process, it’s all based on the streamlined processes that I learned over the years.
We want customers to see us as a viable alternative to going to the dealer, which takes a lot of work and money, but has begun to pay off.
SG: It starts with the smell. Our shop is very clean and does not smell like a shop. Smells have a lot to do with what can trigger people, so we want them to feel comfortable, and not like they’re in a traditional shop.
Our customers are greeted by our service writer who takes down notes, recording all the information given in each interaction, including what they told her over the phone. She confirms the issues we’re going to try to duplicate and then address.
We have packets that include the keys and all the notes taken along the way. We want it so that it’s as close to the technician being right there for those conversations as possible.
The tech then does the test drive to make sure he can duplicate the problem. He’ll then put his notes in the packet, explaining what he saw and diagnosed. It’s crucial to have every detail so that our service writer can let the customer know exactly what needs to be done.
Once the service is approved, and the technician does the work, he passes the vehicle on to quality control, which is either Mark or myself.
We try to look at the customer’s complaint first for that final test drive, to make sure we’ve resolved the original issue. We then put in our notes to confirm that we’ve seen the issue is fixed.
We have an extensive paper trail of notes that follow the process, and never leave that packet.
Having our shop run like a dealership goes beyond our processes. We also try to have the best tools, from smoke machines to dealer specialty tools.
MG: Having nearly everything a dealer would have starts with the factory scanners. I try not to outsource anything. If I need a tool, I get it, because that is a lost opportunity if you don’t. In the end, with the time you save, it offsets the cost. I usually use my specialty tools multiple times. We will also advertise for big things that we’ve purchased.
We recently bought a thread-repair kit for some of the new Ford trucks. They have a tendency for the threads to break when replacing spark plugs. It’s a job that goes from a couple hours to half a day when you have to fiddle with each plug. Having the right tool saves those hours each time you do the job.
We’ve also recently purchased a new tire machine specifically designed to do the low-profile tires that seem to be on almost every vehicle now.
Most of our purchases end up being directed at keeping our shop up to date. If you don’t, you’ll get stuck in a rut and begin losing out on those jobs.
It can be stressful on the financial end to keep with that philosophy, though. But now that we’ve grown into our six-bay shop, the sales have offset those costs, making it easy to see the reward for the way we do things.