From the Army to the Auto Shop
Andrea Brown says she’s always had a knack for perseverance. After serving in the Army for five years, Brown was determined to kick the statistics that can accompany female veterans (a recent Clinton Foundation survey reported that more than 35 percent of female veterans are unemployed).
She did so by becoming the second female veteran and first black female to own one of the roughly 2,500 Midas franchises in the U.S. and Canada. Through collaboration, partnerships and education, Brown has established her franchise, Midas Auto Centers–Chicago Heights in Chicago Heights, Ill., as one of the top in the area, and she has a plan for continued growth.
I was active duty in the Army as a pharmacy specialist for four years. After my transition from the military, though, I received a Bachelor of Science in biology/pre-med and, thereafter, I received a Bachelor of Science in nursing and was a nurse for two years.
But even working as a nurse, I was always looking to become a business owner. As you might imagine, automotive repair was not No. 1 on the list. I was just looking for something that I was good at. When I was in college, I used to clean homes to help pay for my education and I got tons of referrals because I was so meticulous. So I looked into seeing if I could open a franchise cleaning business.
Being a veteran, I went on the Veteran Affairs website, and there was a page that listed several Fortune 500 companies who partner with the Department of Veteran Affairs to give veterans discounts on franchise fees or financing.
I just so happened to be looking at this with my friend (now my business partner) Stacy Everett, who had been with the Midas family as a manager for over 15 years. Lo and behold, we run across Midas. The light bulbs started going off. I have management experience and he has repair experience. We thought, why don’t we try this.
I contacted the proper authorities at the VA and the Small Business Administration (SBA), and they informed me on all the applications. I had a lot of support from the SBA liaison in that I was given the ABCs of what to do throughout the entire process.
So even prior to presenting myself to Midas International, my LLC was established. It was having radical faith and the belief that you can step outside of your comfort zone into an arena you’re not accustomed to.
My next step was going in to present myself to Midas International. I already had a business plan and all of the necessary documentation. The owner of the Midas where Stacy worked was looking to expand into other markets, so when he heard I was interested in owning a franchise, he volunteered to let me purchase his. This was a huge benefit because Stacy had worked there for years and was very familiar with the staff.
After that, I presented my business plan to the SBA and they approved my financing. I officially became the owner of the Chicago Heights Midas location in July of 2012.
After opening, several things worked in my favor. First, after Midas gives you the approval to become a franchisee, they send you to a training and education course that prepares you to become a Midas owner. I spent a couple weeks in a live training class and after that, they have a field of management that comes out and looks over your shoulder and tells you everything that’s required of you. So you’re not going in blind.
I also think my skills from the military have been a huge benefit. Serving your country is a job like no other. Having that mental capacity and mental toughness is huge. I am a little militant. I’m trying to develop structure, discipline and consistency within this operation.
I require organization and that’s one of the things I’m trying to instill in my staff. You have to have discipline. I’m not afraid to keep repeating myself or call meetings to go over our processes because I want the consistency to be there.
Although I am very exact and stern, I’ve also had to learn leniency. I know these guys aren’t army soldiers. If something is not done to my standards, I have to have some type of leniency to work with them so the changes are adopted over time. Everybody wasn’t raised in the environment that I was and you have to understand that and respect their position or why they behave the way they do. It’s about understanding the individual and proceeding from there. I am a fan of having individual meetings with my staff. I handle each person differently and this gives me a chance to connect with them.
In addition, the location I acquired is the shop Stacy had been the manager of, so he has had experience with this location, the employees, and the community. He is the general manager and in that sense, things haven’t changed too much. He’s the muscle and I’m the brain. Our skills balance each other out really well, and having worked as a team for the past two years, we’ve developed each other’s strengths.
The other benefit to this location is that it has been in the community for 30 years. I didn’t have to establish a new customer base. With me coming in, it was mainly about learning the systems of the vehicle, becoming acclimated to how the automotive repair business works and how we can best serve the community. It takes a lot of endurance because things aren’t going to be smooth all the time.
What I’ve found is that my operation is in a lower socio-economic area. Fifty-five percent of the median household income is below $40,000. My reality tells me that statistically, there’s only so much that the community is able to provide me. So how am I going to be a contender with shops who are in wealthier areas and can easily bring in millions of dollars per year?The challenge is to get my profitability up to that million-dollar status.
There’s a couple of ways that I have done that. First, I worked with Midas, CARQUEST and a third-party company to educate me, my management staff, and my technicians. Some of the things we’re focused on is upselling on our tickets, improving our communication skills, and overcoming objections. We’re always in the process of taking classes and keeping up with technology so we can improve our profitability by working on our weaknesses.
Another training area I’ve been focused on is getting the staff to understand the female point of view and soften the edges. Like most shops, the majority of our customers are female and they’re intimidated before they even walk through the door of a repair shop. This is a constant topic in our meetings. When we’re speaking to women, we need to educate and explain things. I feel they’ve taken that approach that I’ve given them and it has helped tremendously. For female customers, knowing there is a female behind them in my store is comforting.
Education is one of the keys to being successful and finding those resources that can help you is crucial. I work very closely with the Illinois Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) and their Women Vetrepreneurship Program, which helps female veterans who are trying to start businesses or increase the business they already have. The WBDC has given me all of these opportunities that otherwise I would not have.
For example, another way I’m trying to increase profitability is by obtaining federal government fleet accounts, which the mayor of Chicago has been working to help smaller businesses obtain. Over the past year and a half, I have established my LLC as a veteran-owned, minority-owned and female-owned business. I am at the level where all of the documents have been submitted and I’m registered through the government to receive those contracts. I am very close.
Thanks to the WBDC, I was given the opportunity to be in meetings with the mayor and I’ve also appeared on numerous local news programs, which has increased my exposure significantly.
It takes a lot of perseverance when you’re trying to achieve something like this. It’s not a walk in the park. We’re in the process of devising an action plan to increase our profit. I have to lead the staff to know what specific targets in the operating area we need to focus on in order to increase our daily profits. My leadership skills are really needed for this action plan to work. This is an instance where being exact, organized and disciplined is a huge advantage.
Over the past two years, I’ve demonstrated that I do have the strong leadership that it takes to be successful. I’ve had to prove that I can be a contender in this arena and the statistics show it. We’ve experienced growth and for the past year and a half, our location has ranked in the top 25 of the 100 shops within the Chicago area.