Transitioning to Shop Ownership
Successful in his current job as a diagnostic technician operating a thriving mobile service business on the side, John Bridgwater is now looking to open his own brick-and-mortar shop after years of dreaming. Motivated by a goal to have a shop open by his 49th birthday next July, he has wheels in motion to finally make his dreams a reality.
While he is keeping some of the finer details of his planning close to vest, Bridgwater is actively scouting locations and making plans to open a shop that bears his personal signatures of integrity and exceptional customer service. His goal is to help lift the public’s opinion of auto repair to a higher echelon—something closer to that of a medical doctor.
Using a broad range of connections, ranging from friends, his church congregation, family, and associates through the International Automotive Technicians Network (iATN), Bridgwater has harnessed the power of word-of-mouth advertising as he approaches the final countdown to opening his own auto service shop within the next 12 months.
These days, my alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m., and that’s go time—I typically don’t stop until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.
My mobile business, Bridgwater Automotive, is just two years old, and I’m hoping it’s the start of something much bigger. It’s focused on general service. I do everything from check-engine lights to engine replacement, maintenance services, plenty of brakes, and pretty much whatever repair a customer needs. I primarily focus on standard vehicles and light trucks, including diesel engines. And it generally takes up most of my free time outside of my day job as a technician at a local shop.
My early-morning hours are spent straightening out paperwork, getting caught up on financials and writing estimates for my mobile business. Come 7 o’clock, vendors start opening up and I can start ordering parts. I leave the house at 7:30, drop my daughter off at school, get to the shop I work at by 8, and work until 4:30. As soon as I leave there, I stop by my vendors to pick up whatever parts I need, come home, get some work done and grab a quick bite to eat. I try to shut down the operation at 9 whenever possible.
I have goals, I understand what it takes to reach those goals and I’m willing to make those sacrifices in order to meet them. If anything, I should have done this 20 years ago.
I remember as a very young child looking over my dad’s shoulder as he was doing tune-ups on his work vehicles and our camper van. We had a ’71 Ford Econoline—I think it was an E-350—that my dad bought from a Holiday Inn, and he modified it to be a work/camper van. Even before that, I’ve always had the curiosity about what makes things go. When I was five years old, I tore apart a mechanical adding machine just to see what was inside.
The challenge of being a diagnostic technician is what I enjoy. I don’t like mundane. I don’t like brakes or oil changes—they’re money-making work, but they’re brainless. The diagnostic stuff, especially electrical, makes me think, and I enjoy a good head-scratcher where the logic of it isn’t making sense. I can look at the pieces, put them together and deduce what’s going on.
Starting my mobile service operation was both harder and easier than I expected. The hardest part was making the first jump. I’m paid reasonably well for what I do at my current full-time shop, but I needed more money. I had also been working at Home Depot in retail, which, of course, only pays so much. I got tired of not having any time for my family, so I decided to start my side business in hopes of eventually changing that.
I quit my job at Home Depot, quite honestly, after praying about it, and I was given the message that I should quit my retail job and become more self sufficient. That was in April of 2012.
By July of 2012, I had a small business that started with zero capital. I just started turning wrenches both at my home and at the homes of my customers—and it worked out.
My garage at home is mostly for storage, a standard two-car garage in a residential neighborhood. I can fit a car into it if I need to, but most of my work is done in the field. Occasionally a friend will drop their car with me and let me work on it at my leisure, but because it is residential I try to keep that to a minimum.
Before I began, I asked my neighbors if they would mind, and I clearly described that I would be having an office here and maybe a car here and there, and none of them objected at all. As a matter of fact, most of them are now my clients.
When the phone isn’t ringing I’m worried about paying my bills, but then what business owner isn’t? That’s the biggest challenge, but my business has been steadily growing. Word of mouth is a beautiful form of advertisement, and I’m looking at doing some online advertising.
My first customers were a few close friends at church. They had some work for me, started spreading the word, and it took about a year before I became comfortable with the flow of work. One of the niche markets that I have available is that I am an active member of my church, and most of my clients come from the church and implicitly trust me because of that association.
It was at least six months before I got the first call from somebody other than directly from my church. I now have presences on Google+ and Facebook, and I get cold phone calls from both.
The other thing is networking—going to places such as VISION High-Tech Training & Expo, talking to everybody I run across at the grocery store, talking to everybody and tooting my own horn. Even the guy who does my business cards is now one of my customers.
I really want to do a brick-and-mortar facility. In the public’s eyes, I don’t believe any mobile technician has the same level of credibility that a brick-and-mortar shop has. I have looked at a few shops in the area, but I’m still looking around. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity.
I’ve worked in several shops throughout my career, some holes in the wall and other large places that were immaculately kept. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some terrific owners along the way, and have picked up ideas on what to do and what not to do. The places that worked to build a team were always more enjoyable, and made me want to be there every day and do the best I can.
I want to be one of the shops with the best reputation in town. My goal is to have a shop that is profitable, so I’m ready to retire in 15 or 20 years. I also want my shop to have the reputation for being completely, 100-percent honest. I know that integrity is an issue, at least a perception issue, in this business.
Customers have to have the feeling that they’re wanted, they’re appreciated. Little details like making sure when the car is done there are no handprints, and there’s an oil-change sticker. A lot of companies will put an oil-change sticker of three months and 3,000 miles. I look up the service interval for that vehicle and take into consideration the customer’s usage, and I fill out the oil change sticker for my mobile customers based on actual factory recommendations.
For example with Toyotas, it’s generally 5,000 miles rather than the 3,000 that most people write on the stickers. It only takes a little bit extra on the back end, the time to research it, but I think it’s well worth it. That’s one of those things that the customer looks at and says, “Wow, they’re being careful, they’re being accurate.”
I accept any repair that I am properly tooled and experienced for. I am willing to buy tools, but if it is a job I doubt I will be doing again and tooling is expensive—reflashing a Porsche, for an extreme example—I will pass on the job. With trying to buy an already functioning business, I’m trying to hold off on buying too many more tools. If I buy a business that’s already functional and turn-key, I’m going to be doubled up on a lot of really expensive tools.
I work strictly with floor jacks and jack stands. I have considered a portable scissor lift, but that is not really practical, as I have no lift gate on my truck and no way to take it to a job.
For advice, I’ve developed some pretty good friendships through iATN. I’ve been a member since 1997, and some of the people I know are business owners who have done similar things to what I’m doing, so I can talk to them for advice. It has taught me technically, managerially and personally a lot about this business. If I look at one single influence in my career that was bigger than anything else, it was joining iATN and becoming an active member.
My biggest advice for any repair business, whether you’re operating out of a truck or a high-end facility, is to stop undervaluing yourself. Some people are looking for the cheap buck. They’ll put an engine in for $400 or $500—you can’t do that. You’re devaluing yourself, and you’re devaluing the business. If you’re going to do the work, charge an appropriate value. That includes markup on parts as well.
To come up with fair prices, I looked at how much profit I want to make, how much it costs for me to operate my business, and then built a parts and labor matrix from that. For friends, I want to help them out, but I don’t do it by cutting costs. I do it by providing excellent service, and they know and understand that. The price is what the price is, and if we collectively as an industry would remember that and work together instead of against each other, we would have a reputation closer to doctors than the reputation we have now.
Playing the role of armchair quarterback, I tend to speak a little bluntly. Follow your dreams. That’s an open-ended thing, but I think if you want to do something, don’t be afraid wondering, “How am I going to feed the kids?” or, “Am I going to have to work too much?” Stop coming up with excuses. If you have a dream—follow it.