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At Your Service

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For someone who spent his early professional life in restaurants, the passenger seat of a dump trunk was an odd place to find inspiration.

But it was a short ride in an old, rickety truck that led Greg Sands on a path to a whole new career.

“I was sitting there, and just thinking, ‘You know, there has to be a better way to run this type of business,’” Sands remembers now, some 20 years later.

That business was the mechanical auto care industry, and that truck was taking Sands from a Houston repair shop fixing his car back to his job across town, treating him along the way to an eye-opening ride through the industry’s approach to customer service—dump truck, surly driver and all.

“That was a while back, and really there was no expectation for customer service,” Sands says. “It was cruddy business, and I loved it. I saw my chance.”

Since that day, Sands has opened more than 70 auto repair shops, many of which he has sold. Each of his current locations (which will total 30 by the end of 2012) generates more than $1 million in annual revenue, creating a $33 million mechanical repair empire across the South and Southwest.

“I had a quantum advantage in that I was coming from a different industry,” Sands says. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I didn’t have any bad habits to break. Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but all of that helped to fine-tune what we’re doing, and it led to what we’re doing today.”

The secret, Sands says, is creating a business model, a process that’s repeatable and predictable for each employee in each location, allowing every shop to run as effectively in his absence as when he’s there.

Just Say ‘Yes’

Aside from his wife, Sherri, everyone thought he was crazy. He’d worked in restaurants since he was 14, and at age 26, he was one of T.G.I. Friday’s top general managers, running one of the company’s most successful locations.

“What I found in the restaurants was that there was so much talent and so much money in that business, it was going to be hard for me to compete,” he says. “I was looking for a nonglamorous industry to go into.”

Then came that fateful truck ride, and he decided to make an abrupt, if not strange, career change.

“It was surprising when he came to me with the idea,” says Sherri, who worked for Chevron Chemical at the time. “It was flipping careers completely. We both had stable jobs in Houston, but … whenever he brought this up to me, I would think, ‘Gosh, this sounds crazy,” but he had such a passion about it, and he just felt it would really bring out the entrepreneur side of him and he could make this big difference.”

The difference would be to bring the lessons he’d learned working in restaurants to repair shops.

Sands went to work for a former technician, who owned a couple of locations in the Houston area, as a shop manager in March of 1993.

And he had very little idea what he was doing. He didn’t understand the intricacies of repairs, the concepts of ticket average or traditional methods of repair sales. He didn’t know any of it.

So, he focused on the one thing he did know: handling all the customers.

How’d it go? Well, the numbers say it all.

“In the month before I started, the store had done about $48,000 in sales,” Sands says. “My first month there, we
did $92,000.”

The shop wasn’t doing any additional advertising. It didn’t have any special promotions, and it didn’t change any of its approaches to repairs.

“All I did was say ‘yes’ to every single customer that came through the door,” he says. “I didn’t know any better. That’s the way I was trained in the restaurant business. If you were in the restaurant business and you turned away a customer, you’d be fired. You couldn’t tell them, ‘Oh, come back tomorrow.’”

After Sands’s second month, car counts topped 600 and the shop never went back below $100,000 in sales for a month.
Quickly, Sands realized he was on to something big.

“All of a sudden, we had this concept of being a ‘yes’ company,” he says. “Once we had that concept nailed down, we were able to grow.”

Precise Expansion

From 1994 to 2000, Sands helped grow Mobile Car Care from two to 38 locations, becoming company president and co-owner along the way. The company expanded across Texas and opened locations around Atlanta as well.

Tired of the grind—he regularly traveled to each location weekly to keep an eye on operations—he sold his share of the company and moved with his family to Atlanta in 2001. As part of the deal, he held on to the six Georgia locations.

“What I’ve always said is that I’ll open stores provided that I have good people to run them and I have a good spot to move into.”
—Greg Sands, multi-shop operator

Over the next eight years, Sands—with Sherri now as his full business partner, handling the financial aspects of the business—grew his current company to 26 locations, expanding back to Texas and up to Colorado and into Tennessee. He has four more shops that will open by the end of 2012, and there will be several more next year in the Denver area.

Sands often laughs to himself when he describes the company’s growth: “It makes it sound a lot simpler than it was when you just do the timeline thing.”

But the fact is Sands has nailed down a near precise plan to open a successful repair shop. The plan is so solid that a leading industry consultant uses it to teach his clients how to run their businesses.

The Plan

Brian Gillis, 39, is one of Sands’ regional managers, and he says that everything in their shops revolves around an overriding concept of putting the customer first. That’s where everything starts, he says, and that’s why the company doesn’t have failing locations.

Borrowing from the service industry again, Sands says it’s similar to the way high-quality hotels operate.

“Look at the difference between a five-star and a one-star hotel,” Sands says. “They both have the same problems behind the scenes: Cleaning people don’t show up, there’s not a room ready; it’s all the same things, right? The difference is a one-star hotel will tell you, ‘Sorry, you can’t check in early. Your check-in time is at four, so please come back at four.’ A five-star hotel will find a way around it; find a way to keep you happy. … What they do is they find a way not to say no.”

And that’s what Sands has instilled in his shops. He calls it a “customer pathway,” where his shops have identified every aspect of their jobs where they may interact with a customer—from the moment they pull in the parking lot or call to the moment they drive away—and have an exact process in place to handle it.

Of course, there’s a lot more to running a successful company than that. Here are some other highlights from Sands’ plan:

Finding the right Location. Sands meticulously researches the areas he moves into and won’t ever open a shop if the area doesn’t meet every single item on his list. The goal, Sands says, is to make each location have specific advantages by being located where they are. Customer-to-shop ratios, amount of cars driving by each day, customer demographics—he has specific numbers he looks for in each.

“Basically, I want to create little monopolies for each shop,” he says. “I have to find my niche.”

Finding the right People. “This is mission critical,” Sands says. “Whether you want one store or 100 stores, defining what kind of people you want is everything.”

Sands will never open a store without having the right people to run it. Basically, it comes down to finding people who will truly excel at the roles they are hired for. For example, Sands wants each shop general manager to have more than five years as a general manager in some sort of shop.

Sands suggests being very specific with the criteria you set for job descriptions. If you want a technician with eight years of experience, ASE certifications and $50,000 worth of tools, then put that on the job posting—and don’t settle for less.
All of his new hires then go through an extensive training program to learn the intricacies of their jobs and the company’s culture.

“We’re a performance-based company,” Gillis says. “We really focus on trying to keep and have the very best of the best in terms of management, our technicians and our service helpers. And we reward people for the work they do.”
Gillis is an example of that. He started 17 years ago as an assistant manager in one of Sands’ Houston shops and now oversees all the southeastern locations.

The right operations. Saying you’re a “yes” company is a lot easier than pulling it off, Sands says, and there are two ways he ensures that he sticks by his philosophy:

1. Throw ticket average out the window. “Everyone in the industry, every article you read is always about ticket average. Ticket average, ticket average—that’s all you hear,” he says. “Because everyone is so overly focused on ticket average, they cannot be a ‘yes’ company.” The only thing that matters, Sands says, is car count. That’s it. Period. End of story. Car count means market share, Sands says, and market share means revenues.

2. Make the customer walking in the door the priority.  The cars in the shop, Sands says, are the ones already sold. The new customer walking in should be the priority. “What we’ve found is that most people coming in for an oil change are actually open to additional work—if they need it and if we recommend it quickly enough,” Sands says. Gillis says that each shop tracks how long it takes from the time a car comes in to when the recommendations are made to customers.

The Secret

By 2013, Sands will have opened nearly 75 repair shops in his career, a number he expects to continue to grow. He’s already scouting for more “perfect” locations.

“I don’t really have a set goal in mind, a number I want to reach,” Sands says. “What I’ve always said is that I’ll open stores provided that I have good people to run them and I have a good spot to move into. If that means I open seven good locations one year, then it’s seven locations. If it’s 10, it’s 10. If it’s two, it’s two.”

Sands is confident in his plan, and for good reason. He’s had his bumps in the road (“I’ve made mistakes every step of the way,” he says), but each “screw-up,” he says, has made his business stronger.

“I wish I could say I just figured all this stuff out on my own, but I can’t,” he says. “Every mistake, every complaint, it helps you build your concept.

“Now, I have people and a plan I can believe in that I know will succeed. And it all comes down to one simple thing: Look inside your own four walls. The only people that really matter who are going to judge you are your customers. That’s where your focus needs to be. That’s the secret.”

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