From Nearly Bankrupt to Booming
It was another hectic morning at Timbrook Automotive—that had become the norm in the shop’s first three months. Invoices were piling up, parts needed to be ordered, and estimates had to be written.
And at the helm of it all was Brenda Pope Ayers, who knew nothing about running an auto care shop. Throw in $500,000 of debt, and you’re one step away from a total breakdown.
Perhaps what saved Ayers’ shop was the moment she walked into the back and asked her co-owner—Glenn Huddleston, one of the shop’s two technicians—to help her write an estimate.
“Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘When are you going to learn to do your job?’” Ayers recalls. “So I went in the back room and cried—like I did every day—and then I came in my office and sat down and said, ‘You know what? He’s right.’”
Ayers proved it would have taken more than a lack of proper training and a mountain of debt to knock her down and out. The shop itself is a reminder of her former life—she took over the business after her marriage dissolved, and every day from there forward was a financial struggle.
But, through self-education, her knack as a saleswoman, and some tough skin, she improbably finds herself today not only running a financially profitable business, but also one of the top-rated auto care shops in Lynchburg, Va.
‘WE WERE LOSING MONEY’
Ayers had always encouraged her husband to open his own shop (formerly known as Ayers Automotive).
Unfortunately, as she soon discovered, not everybody is cut out to run a business.
In the low-income neighborhood where the couple had grown up, her husband began to offer discounts and allow customers to sign up for payment plans to cover repair costs.
Ayers, who had been working as a secretary for 30 years, spent her nights performing the bookkeeping for the shop, and noted several times to her husband that because of payment plans and low foot traffic in a low-income neighborhood, the shop wasn’t making any money.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood would drop off their cars. We were waiting on them to get their funds together. Six months later the cars were still sitting there,” she says. “We were losing money. All the money we made went to paying the bills. We were not making a profit.”
And when Ayers brought up the sore subject?
“His response at that time? ‘Well if you think you can run this shop, then you go take it over,’” she recalls her husband saying.
Funny thing: After the divorce, Ayers did just that. Knowing she would probably be laid off from her full-time job, Ayers decided that she would try her hand at the auto care business.
“I was the one that pushed him to open up the shop,” she says. “I was the one that was driven to do it. We had been there for almost five years and I just couldn’t see shutting it down.”
Signing on her friend, Huddleston, as co-owner and technician, Ayers moved the shop out of the low-income neighborhood and found a new property six years ago near Lynchburg’s college, Liberty University.
Ayers and Huddleston had good credit and were able to purchase the property for $500,000. This included two other buildings that she rents out to local businesses that have helped ease the debt.
And while the change was exciting, she quickly realized running a repair shop would take a lot of self-education and marketing savvy. Fortunately, Ayers was up for both tasks.
‘I DIDN’T HAVE A CLUE’
Learning how to write service estimates, order parts, schedule appointments, and manage payroll are second nature to Ayers these days.
But at the beginning? It was a struggle.
“I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I think I asked Glen a hundred-thousand questions a day,” she says. “What is a rotor? Seriously, those kinds of questions.”
Once the tension had built to the point where Huddleston asked, “When are you going to learn to do your job?” Ayers knew that she needed to make a change for herself.
Knowing she couldn’t simply ask other service writers at competing shops for advice, she gathered all of the reading material se could get her hands on. She spent her nights and downtime reading trade magazines, books and online training guides.
And while she became more knowledgeable of the auto care world, Ayers discovered that she possessed the organizational skills to run the business more efficiently because of her 30 years of experience as an office assistant.
“I was the office assistant for three departments and I learned Microsoft Office very well,” she says. “So I do a spreadsheet at the end of the day, every day, break it down in times, appointments, parts—whatever goes through this shop.”
And in the course of her research and self-education, Ayers discovered what her true calling was in the auto care industry and how she could keep the business afloat: being a saleswoman.
‘I’M A SALESMAN AT HEART’
Meet John Campbell—he’s owned Farm Service Company for 45 years, sells tractors for a living and only takes his company cars to one shop in Lynchfield: Timbrook Automotive.
Why? Two reasons. First, when Campbell’s handicapped, povertystricken friend received a $3,000 estimate from another Lynchfield auto repair shop, he decided to give Timbrook a visit because of a referral from a friend. Ayers’ estimate for the transmission? $400.
Oh, and the second reason? Ayers is just a dynamite saleswoman.
“She sells herself—and that’s what you’ve got to do,” says Campbell. “She's a talker, and a good salesperson. There's no doubt about it.”
“I'm a salesman at heart,” Ayers says. “I love that. I've sold Avon, I’ve sold Mary Kay. I would rather be out selling than anything else. Little did I know that that could help me in this job. Because as a good service writer, you’ve got to be able to sell. That's what it takes.”
While she knew next to nothing about cars themselves, she says the shop’s financial turnaround began by listening to her technicians, taking notes and then selling preventative maintenance to her customers.
Dealing with many retired individuals, single moms and local college students, Ayers knew funds would be tight and preventative maintenance would be hard to sell.
“If you come in and your car needs brakes and new tires, I always try to break it down with the customers so they can afford to do a little bit every month,” she says. “I don't like to surprise customers. I like to remind them: Your car is like your body; you've got to take care of it.”
Ayers also discovered her sales skills could translate to more commercial work. She drove throughout town and wrote down the addresses of businesses she wanted to offer assistance to and sent them information about her shop with flyers and business cards.
“Your commercial work is your bread and butter,” she says. “I've been blessed that Boxley Materials Company is not too far from me. They initially started using us for their state inspection, and slowly they pretty much started letting us work on all of their commercial paving equipment.”
During her communication with commercial businesses, Ayers would sell how well she was doing with Boxley. She began to discover what she could offer that other shops in town couldn’t, which meant adding another technician and getting vehicles through the shop more quickly.
Today, she’s secured partnerships with several local companies, including Farming Service Company and Times Tickin’ Automotive & Recovery (a towing company). Commercial work accounts for 20 percent of her annual revenue.
“They're just downright good, honest people. They're not going to try and take advantage of a situation,” Campbell says. “They give me excellent service. If I need it done tomorrow, they'll take it to the front of the line and get it done.”
“I worked as a secretary for 30 years,” Ayers says. “There were deadlines, scheduling, planning. That was something drilled into my brain. Most of my customers are very happy because they don't have to wait too long.”
‘YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD’
What once seemed like an improbable feat to Ayers is now becoming a reality—after spending years not making a profit at Ayers Automotive, Timbrook Automotive has seen around $50,000 in growth each of the six years it’s been open, and now does around $500,000 in annual revenue. In 2010, the shop’s gross profit averaged around $10,000 per month—that number jumped up by $20,000 one year later after establishing her business partnerships. These days, Timbrook’s monthly average sales are just over $40,000.
Ayers still works 12-hour days, selling and service writing during business hours and paying the bills at night, but her shop is now earning enough for her to hire a dedicated service writer.
“I know I’m not the best service writer, so once I can fill that gap, my shop will become even better, and then I can get out and sell and do what I really want to do and run the business,” she says.
Ironically, one of the contributing factors to Timbrook’s success is what made her husband’s business fail: occasionally offering payment plans to single moms and retired customers that really need financial assistance.
The difference this time around? With a perfect five-star rating on Google, Ayers is able to offset those
payment plans with heavier foot traffic—she says she gets at least two to four new customers each day that simply find her shop through good ratings on search engines.
And, as somebody who started out completely ignorant of the industry, Ayers understands we all need a little help sometimes.
“My philosophy is you're never too old to learn new things,” she says. “I never imagined in a million years that, at 55 years old, I'd be managing a garage. I look back and it's almost comical.
“But I love it. I've met a lot of wonderful people. I've met a lot of great friends. When people walk in and they've never been to my shop, I don't see dollar figures—I see somebody that I can help.”