The 2017 Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Awards: Mike Brewster
President / Gil's Garage / New York
As Mike Brewster begins his presentation, nearly 40 attendees are crowded around him. Between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., there will be no interruptions, no work performed, no phones answered. Everyone is there to discuss the past month at Gil’s Garage. As Brewster looks into that small crowd, he’s not just speaking to his employees―he’s inviting them to provide the best service possible to the residents of Burnt Hills and Clifton Park, N.Y., to carry on his family’s 41-year legacy, to be the face of progressivism in automotive repair.
And with two facilities equipped with 23 lifts and 23 technicians churning out 2,175 cars and $625,000 per month total, it’s safe to say: Whatever he’s saying is working.
Actually, one of his own employees who nominated him for a Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Award, technician Robert Kenney, can verify that claim:
“He feels what you do at the top will continue throughout the company,” Kenney writes about Brewster. “Treat everyone fairly and they will do the same to you.”
That humbling statement backs up Brewster’s response to the question, “What’s the secret to your success?” His answer is simple: There is no magic. There is only the willingness to help others, and the ability to inspire that giving nature in your employees.
In fact, at that monthly meeting Brewster hosts each month to go over KPIs, sales numbers and upcoming changes at Gil’s Garage, he openly discusses his commitment to his employees and the customers. Everyone in the room knows about how, in 1985, when his father had just passed away and Brewster was a new father to 6-week-old twin girls, he took over the family business, striving to carry on his father’s tradition.
When I first took over, my dad was well liked in the community, and he had a tremendous business,” he says. “It didn’t say ‘Mike’s Garage’ on the business. So I emulated what my father would do, and tried to get my folks to do the same thing.”
Those first few years in business were both a trying and revealing time for Brewster, who had worked as a technician in the family shop, dating back to when his parents owned a gas station. At the age of just 25 when he took over the business, Brewster openly admits he had very little business know-how, which kept him constantly playing catch-up, working unorthodox hours, and focusing much more on quality repairs than he did customer service, financial performance or measuring KPIs.
That all changed, however, when Brewster received a flyer from the Automotive Service Association (ASA) advertising a shop management “bootcamp.”
“I was hungry for knowledge about my business,” he says.
After bootcamp, Brewster shifted his entire focus to the numbers. If he was truly going to offer the best service possible to his customers and the best working environment possible to his employees, it meant outlining a vision for his business and the lengths to which it could go. So he took himself out of the repair floor and spent more time with customers and “the books,” performing strategic planning and becoming very goal oriented―to an intense degree.
“My sisters and some of the staff jokingly tell me I’m never satisfied,” Brewster says. “No, I’m always satisfied, but we need to stretch for more. If we make $1, I will ask how we can do $1.10.”
This addiction to improvement has become an ever-evolving cycle for Brewster: To this day, he continues to attend industry training and participate in his 20 Group; in turn he’s become more involved with ASA and the Automotive Training Institute, hoping to educate other shop owners on the lessons that have fueled his business. Brewster then channels those ideas through his monthly shop meetings, asking for feedback and ideas for how to always take the next step forward. This has led to a number of agendas and pivots over the years, from expanding the original location by 10 bays to investing in updated equipment, from instituting monthly bonuses to forming a gameplan for charging for diagnostics.
This communal focus on constant improvement clearly led to the shop’s gradual, albeit massive, improvements. In Brewster’s first year, his lone location pulled in around $500,000 annually. Now, during a good month? His team will top that easily. His second location in Clifton Park just had a record month, earning $200,000, nearing the entire company’s annual revenue to around $8 million.
Brewster doesn’t know where he’ll take the business next, but, at the very least, he knows it’ll be moving forward thanks to his dedicated staff—a staff he not only keeps inspired through community work and philanthropy, but also stellar benefits, such as health insurance, profit sharing, bonuses and a 401(k) matching program, that have given the shop a stellar retention rate over the years.
“Really, we’re using golden handcuffs,” Brewster says. “We give folks a reason to stick around. We are constantly looking to improve and grow the company.”