Transitioning Into Leadership
On that particular Friday afternoon, every in-process vehicle sat in the parking lot at Downing Street Garage, leaving the shop floor empty and clearly visible under the open garage doors to anyone who might happen to pass by—like Ben Burns.
Burns was taking a walk around his new south Denver neighborhood, where he and his wife had just recently moved. The same thoughts ran over and over again in his head, just as they did on all his “searches.”
Burns, a technician by trade, was looking to go into business for himself. And he’d been looking for the “right fit” for months. He wanted a shop of his own, one where he could take what he’d learned from his years growing up in his father’s St. Paul, Minn., repair business and combine it with his skillset, determination and modern philosophy on the industry.
He had a plan—a vision and blueprint for the business he wanted to create. He just needed a place to carry it all out.
“I was waiting for something to jump out at me, to really find that business that I saw as a fit for what I envisioned my shop to be,” he says.
In the end, it was a hose that did it.
Burns heard the sound of water as he turned a corner in one of the Mile High City’s more upscale communities. And he stopped and watched as the three technicians of Downing Street Garage worked thoroughly, yet quickly, to wash completely clean their day’s worth of work from the shop floor.
“You could see the type of equipment in there, and you could see the way it was set up,” he says. “I’m sitting there watching them clean out the shop and thinking, ‘Man, that is the type of shop I want to have, where every detail is paid attention to like that.’”
Seven months later, Burns owned Downing Street Garage. And his business plan was quickly put to the test.
Burns spent his childhood in his father’s shops, yet it wasn’t until after college and trying to support his young family that he looked to the repair industry for his career.
He and his wife both went to Western State College in Gunnison, Colo., a small town on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. They tried to “make it work” living the mountain life for a number of years after graduation, but when they wanted to have a family, they decided to move to Minnesota.
Burns worked as a technician at his father’s shop, Lloyd’s Automotive Service in St. Paul, while going through vocational school and achieving his ASE 0-1 Master certification. His wife worked as the bookkeeper in the shop.
“I did it with every intention of taking it over some day,” Burns, 30, says. “It’s a great shop with good demographics and works on higher-end vehicles. It was the type of shop I’d want.”
But he and his wife, who grew up in Denver, “missed the mountains and the mountain lifestyle too much,” Burns said. After four years in his father’s shop, they made plans to move back West.
Burns’ overall vision of the shop he’d someday own was nothing if not ambitious.
Here’s the gist of it: Burns wanted a high-end shop like his father’s; not so much for the atmosphere or clientele but for the challenge and difficulty of working on those types of vehicles.
Burns loves the technological side of the repair industry, and he wanted a shop that would be cutting edge, employing “the best technicians” and using the best possible tools and equipment. Ultimately, he wanted to create a shop that people who truly valued their vehicles could appreciate, in terms of the level of work performed.
Easier said than done, Burns quickly discovered.
He and his wife initially moved to Breckenridge, a ski town an hour’s drive up the mountains from Denver. Although it wasn’t a place they envisioned themselves in permanently, one thing about that small-town vibe convinced Burns of another aspect he wanted for his business.
“I wanted the shop to feel like it’s a part of the community,” he says. “My wife and I wanted to be a part of the neighborhood we operated in.”
Burns and his wife began scouring the Denver area for neighborhoods that would meet the demographic needs they envisioned for the shop. And they found it just south of the city in what’s often referred to as the Country Club neighborhood.
It was mid 2012 when Burns happened to pass by Downing Street Garage on that Friday afternoon. He and his wife had been living in the area and were looking for properties to open a shop.
The shop seemed like a perfect fit. It was a state-of-the-art facility with the latest in diagnostic equipment; technicians were even equipped with tablet computers. The only problem was, it wasn’t for sale.
“I saw they had a posting for a new technician,” Burns says. “So, I went in for the interview, and told him that I actually didn’t want to be a technician for him, I wanted to own the shop.”
The owner at the time, Douglass Kirchdorfer, laughed, Burns says, thinking he was joking.
After some discussion, though, they worked out a plan of sorts: Kirchdorfer, who was interested in exploring other career opportunities, would hire Burns on as a technician, almost like a trial period, for six months. And during that time, they’d try to hash out some sort of a deal.
“Douglass was great to me the whole time, really looking to make it work,” he says.
Meanwhile, Burns began finalizing his business plan, taking stock of all aspects of the shop and what he would need to know and understand to run it in the way he wanted.
Burns and his wife were able to secure the financing and officially purchased the business on Feb. 1, 2013.
Burns found an early snag in his plans: Right at the time he took over, the shop lost a tech and its service advisor, big holes for a five-employee business.
Both personnel losses were unrelated to the sale, and although they shook up his plans pretty thoroughly, Burns says it gave him an opportunity to go about analyzing the type of employees he needed and what he did to encourage and lead the ones he had.
So, he leaned on a lesson he learned in his father’s shop.
“If you want the best,” he says, “you have to pay for it.”
Burns adjusted the technician pay from a tiered flat rate system—in which technicians earned a larger hourly wage once they hit certain production benchmarks—to a straight flat-rate system that put the “higher range” of pay as the new baseline.
He also reviewed every piece of equipment in the shop, and updated or replaced everything that needed it. He made sure his techs had the latest subscriptions to diagnostic equipment and services. And he updated all the shop’s SOPs. Meanwhile, he used the shop’s investment in technology and equipment to recruit.
“I know that that’s the type of shop I wanted to work for—one that the owner puts you in a position to succeed,” he says.
And Burns was quickly able to find another top-level Master technician.
Despite the initial loss of personnel, Burns says the shop has done well to maintain its $1.2 million-per-year sales pace and monthly car count of 225.He runs the front desk as the service advisor/owner, and he says that’s an intentional decision to help build a connection with the shop’s customer base.
“I didn’t want to lose people when I took over,” he says. “I wanted them to know me, know that I lived right by here and I’m a part of this community.
“We had a great client base when we took over, where we work on a lot of very nice vehicles. We can see a Bentley and a 1968 Camaro in the same day. I wanted people to know me and be able to feel they could trust me with those types of vehicles.”
He instituted an open-shop policy with his customers, and works hard to explain the value, effort and expertise that’s put in by his staff in each repair.
Burns says the goal is to maintain the shop’s market share over the course of the first year, and then slowly grow its reach.
In the end, Burns says it was his planning that helped him not only make the transition to ownership, but to also adapt to the unexpected elements his new path brought about.
“I had the overall idea of what I wanted the shop to be,” he says. “Knowing what I wanted, I just tried to fill in all the details below it that would build to that.”
And, despite operating in an environment far from where he grew up in the industry, Burns says one thing is universal in this industry.
“When you break it all down, to what we’re all about, it’s fixing cars and trying to keep the customer happy,” he says. “If you know who your customer is and what their needs are, then you just build your business around that.”