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Overcoming Addiction to Open a Multi-Shop Operation

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Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Rob Rowsell’s three flourishing auto care shops is, well, the fact that he’s still alive.  

Just five years before opening his first shop with his wife, Claudia, Rob was homeless, jobless and nearly toothless. Constantly in and out of jail, Rob was a seemingly hopeless crystal meth and crack cocaine addict.

That was before he stumbled into a rehabilitation clinic in 1999. And now, just 16 years after his recovery began, Rob and Claudia not only run a successful six-bay shop, Alpine Auto Repair in Alpine, Calif., they also have two more shops in San Diego County: Bob Bowen’s Auto Service (25 bays) and Family Auto Service (11 bays). All together, Rob and Claudia’s shops employ 34 people and to repair an average of 1,170 cars per month.

“Every day that I wake up and do what I do, as I drive to work, I just praise the Lord,” Rob says. “It blows my mind.”

And while the journey wasn’t easy, Rob and Claudia can now reflect on the hardest and bleakest moments of their lives together and see how it’s not only made them better business owners, but better human beings.

A Gateway Drug

Growing up in sun-soaked Southern California, two experiences stick out in Rob’s mind: Fixing cars with his father, and the California drug scene.

While Rob’s business mentors would eventually shape him into a successful shop owner, his dad introduced Rob to the very idea of auto repair. Cars formed a special connection between Rob and his father, who was a street rod fabricator, metal fabricator, custom trailer manufacturer and carnival ride refurbisher, and performed various “extraordinary” welding jobs on big rigs and motorcycles in addition to cars.

But when Rob wasn’t in the shop with his dad, he was experimenting with drugs with his friends. In 1977, as early as age 11, he recalls drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.

“It’s a gateway drug, and gradually other things became acceptable,” Rob says. “Crystal meth was the big thing in Southern California where I grew up. It was the thing to do when I was a kid.”

The next two years were a downward spiral for Rob, who dropped out of the ninth grade at the age of 13, and then continued to become more and more dependent on drugs.

“So the last grade of formal education I have is eighth grade,” he says. “Chasing dope was more important.”

And Rob would continue to chase dope, even well into his relationship with his future business partner and wife, Claudia.

Making a Change

Funny enough, back in 1997, Claudia met Rob because her car broke down.

It could easily have never happened, though. Rob, who had moved to Arizona to find a job, was managing a Shell gas station at the time, bouncing from job to job because of his addiction and trouble with the law. Luckily, on this very day, he was there to greet Claudia, who was working as a medical receptionist at the time and got a ride home from Rob.

As their relationship grew, Rob’s personal life continued to whirl out of control. And blinded by the newfound love she shared with Rob, Claudia continued to stick by him during his darkest moments, periodically living with her parents when he went to jail.

“It's very true when they say you start becoming the people you associate with,” Claudia says. “Even though I've never used drugs, I started having the mentality of a drug user and accepting his behavior.”

“She was addicted to me while I was addicted to drugs,” Rob says. 

Rob’s addiction even drove the couple into the streets at times. They lived in hotel rooms and spare bedrooms for years, living only off the money Claudia earned at the doctor’s office and the occasional job Rob managed to hold, as well as the money that was gained from fraudulent schemes, petty theft and shoplifting he was involved in—and that was only if Rob wasn’t using their money for drugs.

AN EXPANDING BUSINESS: Rob and Claudia Rowsell purchased their third shop, Family Auto Service in La Jolla, Calif., in 2014. They are planning on further expansion. Photo by Emily Riley

“All our money was going towards Rob's addiction,” Claudia says. “Whether I gave it to him or he just took it, it was going.”

While Claudia put up with Rob’s addiction out of pure love, the couple hit a breaking point—one year into their marriage 16 years ago, Claudia became pregnant with their first child while the couple was still homeless. Claudia worked all she could, but six months into her pregnancy, she could no longer support both Rob and her child.

That’s when both Claudia and Rob had to make a decision.

“The biggest thing was realizing I can't change Rob—I can only work on myself,” Claudia says. “Rob went into rehab, and I had to focus on me getting in the right place and not accepting that this is all OK, and bettering myself for our relationship and our daughter.”

“That was a huge wake-up call for me,” Rob says. “I had a daughter, and the only way Claudia was going to stay with me was if I got into that rehab.” 

And then, when Rob emerged from rehabilitation in December of 1999, he decided to head into the only business he ever knew: auto repair.

Honesty is the Key

Before Rob could ever get back into the business he grew up in, he had to learn to be honest with himself.

“When I was in rehab, they taught us that rigorous honesty is the key,” Rob says. “If you're not honest, you're eventually going to use again. You're going to try and clean up your past, or you'll continue to create more wreckage. So you better just get honest.”

And honesty is what put him on the path toward a successful multi-shop operation. At a temporary job agency in Arizona, Rob was tempted to lie on his application—like he had so many times before—but instead decided to be honest: He could do some electrical work, some cement work, and had a spotty history in the auto repair business.

While his honesty only landed him a three-week stint with the local electric company, the woman working the front counter at the temp agency saw Rob’s potential. This particular woman’s husband was the owner of an auto repair shop, and he needed a new manager. She handed Rob a business card and said to give Richard Broadwater of Tunex Mesa Auto Repair a call.

“There's no way anybody else would've even looked me in the eye,” Rob says. “I still had a lot of my teeth missing. I was only three months clean. But that’s just the kind of guy he is. I did not have to be transparent with him about my past. All he wanted to know about was my experience. He overlooked my looks, and that’s taught me a major lesson in my career.”

And not only did Rob land a service advisor job at the shop, he also eventually became manager and continued to be mentored for the next five years by Broadwater, who taught Rob the business ropes and set him up for success when his father’s friend’s shop became available near his hometown in California.

Living paycheck to paycheck, Rob visited the shop for several days and convinced the owner to sell the business for $150,000 with no money down. The owner collected payments for several months, and Rob’s father kicked in $50,000.

“There was no real game plan,” Claudia says. “We met with the owners and just decided, ‘OK, we’re going to do this.’ My goal has always been to support my husband, and this was something he wanted deeply, so we didn’t even have to think twice about it.”

A Complete Turnaround

What seemed improbable 16 years ago when Rob had hit his lowest point is now a reality for the couple, who together manage three blossoming shops and are looking to expand even further.

After purchasing their first shop in 2004, the couple bought the 10,000-square-foot Bob Bowen’s Auto Service in La Mesa in 2010, and then bought the 8,000-square-foot Family Auto Service in La Jolla in 2014.

Rob credits his success to his several mentors, including longtime industry consultant and CEO of Turnaround Tour Gary Gunn, who has taught many different aspects of bringing the business to the next level, such as budgeting for profit; establishing successful, repeatable, systems; creating an operations manual for all the processes in his shops; and, most importantly, leadership with his people.

“He’s just a ferocious learner,” Gunn says of Rob. “If you're going to put a label on Rob, I would say he's driven from his toes to his ears. He's driven to succeed, he's got a new lease on life he didn't have before. He's got the tiger by the tail.”

Claudia, who had no history in the auto repair business, says she is becoming more and more knowledgeable each day by simply immersing herself in the business and following Rob and his mentors’ leads.

“When we first started, someone would ask us to do a smog check, and I had no idea what they were talking about,” Claudia says. “After 10 years, it's been amazing how much I've actually learned and how much I actually know. When someone comes in and says something is wrong with their car, in my head I know, ‘Oh that's your brake booster.’”

And while Rob’s drug history is a thing of the past—he hasn’t picked up a drink or drug since exiting rehab 16 years ago—his dark story has taught him to be a more caring, thoughtful, sympathetic business owner and fellow human being.

“You can't even imagine,” Rob says. “Looking back, the transformation that's taken place, to go from homeless and toothless and unemployable to homeowner, multiple business owners, church board member, Sunday school teacher, Youth Leader, chamber of commerce board member, community activist? To be involved in all those things from where we came? That’s incredible.

“I don't care where you come from or what challenges you're having. If you want to run a successful shop or multiple shops, just look where this guy's come from.” 

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