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Good Neighbors

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In the summer of 2016, Alan Mahrt briefly pondered the best way to introduce his new Midas location to its neighbors. Then, the Ankeny Area Chamber of Commerce provided a truly memorable icebreaker.

Just a few days after Mahrt’s Midas location opened its doors, the good people of Central Iowa rolled out the proverbial red carpet with the 2.6-mile Ankeny SummerFest parade that draws an estimated 20,000 attendees each year and takes nearly two hours to complete. 

The chamber had invited Mahrt and his Midas employees to take part. 

“I have never seen a parade in the Midwest that had the attendance that it did,” recalls Mahrt, president of Auto Systems Experts Inc., which owns and operates 42 Midas locations across the Midwest.

Mahrt’s Ankeny employees seized the opportunity that summer day, passing out countless beverage koozies with the new shop’s address and phone number emblazoned on them. 

Had Mahrt not talked with the chamber of commerce prior to that parade, he says the first few weeks of business in Ankeny would’ve undoubtedly been slower. Today, Mahrt says the Ankeny shop continues to grow, with car counts and annual revenue numbers that improve each month.

Marht learned long ago the value of weaving his business into the fabric of a community. His group has earned widespread respect for its ability to get new facilities to make an impact in their communities. 

And that’s a skill with immeasurable value. If a new shop can’t embed itself into a community’s culture promptly, it can eventually break the business, Mahrt says. In order to get a town’s citizenry to file through your shop en masse, you must first show you care about connecting with your business’s neighbors. That process can be difficult for owners, whether they operate MSOs or independent shops. The key, according to Mahrt, is taking the initiative to reach out to local organizations. 

“The biggest challenge is just to step out of your comfort zone and get involved,” he says. “Make contact. … Don’t wait for them to come to you. You’ve got to put forth the effort.

“Long term, you will reap the rewards of doing that.”

 

A LASTING FIRST IMPRESSION

Mahrt and the powers-that-be within Auto Systems Experts—which operates as an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP)—demand that their shop managers get involved with community endeavors. Whether it’s joining forces with a local service organization, or sponsoring a youth baseball or soccer team, that exposure can pay dividends for an auto care business. And, for new shops, it can show local residents that the business is eager to embrace that community’s culture. 

If those efforts aren’t made by a business, it can be easy for consumers to overlook it in favor of competitors that have been entrenched at length in the area, Mahrt says.

But how can a new auto repair business leave a lasting first impression? Simple: Get creative. 

Auto Systems Experts, for example, struck gold a few years back with its idea for a new charitable endeavor. Beginning in the Des Moines, Iowa, market, it launched Project Feed More, which made a small donation to the local food bank for every oil change each Midas location performed. 

Not long after, Midas corporate co-opted the project, naming it Drive Out Hunger. Now, participating Midas locations across the nation donate to local food banks for each oil change performed, typically $1 per oil change.    

Mahrt says Midas corporate “saw locally what we were doing, and the impact [the project] was having, not only on our stores, but also in our communities.”

The Auto Systems Experts group—which, in addition to the new Ankeny location, took over operations of seven Midas facilities in and around Kansas last year—also provides donation checks to local food banks quarterly (Mahrt says his group has donated nearly $300,000 over the last three years to local food banks). And, when hand delivering those checks, Mahrt has technicians and service advisors tour the food banks to provide them with a better feel for whom they help. During such charitable excursions, employees typically wear Midas-branded hats or T-shirts. Drive Out Hunger banners are posted prominently in Mahrt’s Midas locations, making customers well aware of the cause. 

Mahrt also makes sure to spread the word about his company’s efforts to eliminate hunger in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. He says Auto Systems Experts, which has been an ESOP group since 2000 and is 100 percent employee owned, spends around $330,000 per year in radio spots that are usually 60 seconds in length. And those spots make little mention of an auto shop promotion; they largely express the need to eradicate hunger in the area, and how Auto Service Experts shops are donating to food banks. Mahrt recently hired a public relations firm to further help spread his shops’ message with regard to charitable work. 

“At the end of the day, do we want to grow our customer base? Yeah, everybody does. But our primary aspect to this thing is doing what we can do to help feed those in our community,” Mahrt says. “We just want to do what we can to give back. And people really embrace it.”     

 

The Ins and Outs of an “ESOP”


Alan Mahrt, president of the Auto Systems Experts Inc., a group that operates 42 Midwestern Midas locations, breaks down the logistics of an employee-owned stock ownership plan (ESOP). 

The way an ESOP works, any employee that’s been with us at least a year is considered an owner in Auto Systems Experts. Each year, shares are released to all the current employees that have been with the company at least a year. Once you’ve been with us seven years, the shares that you have through the ESOP are 100 percent yours. We are audited and evaluated yearly. It’s kind of another retirement plan, and incentive, for people. 

Primarily, the reason it’s set up is that it helps you retain and recruit people, because there are very few in the automotive world that can say you’re part-owner of the business. So, you would hope that employees are more conscious about shutting the lights off at night when they go home, turning the thermostat down or up, depending on the season—things that affect the bottom line. 

 

HELP FROM FRIENDS 

One of Mahrt’s main philosophies for opening new shops: If customers aren’t rolling in right away, operators can’t be afraid to pound the pavement. In Ankeny, Mahrt instructed that fledgling shop’s manager to occasionally knock on doors, simply to inform residents of Midas’ arrival nearby. 

“The best thing you can do is, if the phone’s not ringing, well, then you wring the phone out,” Mahrt says. 

Mahrt’s checklist for quickly getting a shop rooted within its community includes the following items: 

Seek out local organizations. Mahrt suggests reaching out to local entities like the city council, and even the local police and fire departments (doing so might even result in a fire truck appearing at your shop events, as was the case for the grand opening of the Ankeny location). Mahrt also recommends searching out opportunities to appear at chamber of commerce luncheons, because doing so “gives you an opportunity to hand out your business card and have a conversation with people.” 

Seek the advice of vendors. “Go talk to vendor groups,” Mahrt says. “See any suggestions they have, what they’ve done. Whether it’s a NAPA or an AutoZone, they’re building stores all the time. What do they do? There’s nothing wrong with asking.” 

Utilize digital resources. Obviously, social media outlets like Facebook offer decent advertising options (for tips in that digital realm, read the Ratchet+Wrench article “Set Up Facebook Ads for Website Conversions” at ratchetandwrench.com/facebookads). But Auto Systems Experts places particular value on garnering Google and Yelp reviews. Once customers have paid for their repairs, employees simply encourage customers to subsequently provide a positive online review of the business.  

Employ a direct mail campaign. In Ankeny, Auto Systems Experts used the help of two direct mail pieces straight out of the gates for that new shop. Mahrt recommends targeting all zip codes bordering the shop and hitting “every single one of those households with the direct mail.” 

 

CAPITALIZING ON COMMUNITY EFFORTS 

While every business owner should have a sense of civic duty to some extent, community giving also serves as a valuable marketing tool. There’s no crime in taking advantage of that. 

Mahrt has witnessed firsthand just how powerful giving back can be, in multiple respects. 

“Ultimately that's our goal in this—that people are aware of it, and whether or not they need service today or not, it's just on their mind.”

—Alan Mahrt, Owner, Auto Systems Experts

“What I’ve noticed over the last three years, since we’ve been doing the Drive Out Hunger aspect, is we will have customers come in and say, ‘This is such a wonderful thing that you’re doing,’” he says. “We’ll have customers that are not even coming for service that specific day bring a bag of food and stick it in [Midas’ donation] box. 

“Ultimately that’s our goal in this—that people are aware of it, and whether or not they need service today or not, it’s just on their mind.” 

Mahrt suggests the Ankeny location’s continual, month-to-month growth is no coincidence. 

“I believe,” he says, “it is an accumulation of very high-quality employees and the fact that, when people do come in, it gives us an opportunity to talk to them about our Drive Out Hunger program. 

“People want to do business with people they can trust, and that give back.”

SHOP STATS: Midas Auto Systems Experts Location: Ankeny, Iowa Shop Size: 6,623 square feet Staff Size: 6 Number Of Lifts: 8 Average Monthly Car Count: 300 Annual Revenue: $800,000 (projected)

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