John Cayer: 2022 Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Winner

Sept. 8, 2022

How John Cayer of Premier Auto in Worchester, Massachusetts, willed his four-person, 950-square-foot shop to $1 million.

In July 2019, John Cayer took a mission trip to Torreon, Mexico, with Shop Fix Academy founder Aaron Stokes and three other shop owners to renovate the home of a local pastor. One morning, the three men talked about what each believed was necessary to become a million-dollar shop. Stokes turned to each of the other three men and addressed what they needed to do to achieve the milestone. When Cayer asked what he should do, Stokes said, “You need a bigger shop.” Cayer scoffed. Stokes responded, “Well, you’re going to need to do two shifts. You won’t consistently do a million dollars out of that shop. It’s not possible. You’re going to have to try to work out two shops.”

Challenge accepted.

The Road to $83,333 per month

It wasn’t that Stokes told him he couldn’t do it—he presented Cayer with a method by which he could potentially hit the mark—but that he wasn’t going to do it in a shop the size of a two-bedroom apartment at 950 square feet. “I took that as more of a challenge than anything,” says Cayer.

How Cayer met that challenge—and organized a great team in the process—is what makes him the 2022 Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Award winner, sponsored by AutoZone.

Once stateside again, Cayer got on his grind and set his sight on proving he could turn Premier Auto Repair into a million-dollar shop. The math involved in achieving such a feat requires a shop to bill $83,333 per month over a 12-month period. In 2020, Cayer hit $56,000 in March, $75,000 in April, $65,000 in May, and in June, he got a taste of what it was like to be on the cusp of hitting the monthly sales mark for the first time. The student brought his excitement to the teacher.

“I'll never forget in June of 2020. I remember on a group call, I said, ‘Hey, Aaron, remember that time you  told me I wouldn't be able to do a million dollars?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, we just $81,984, so 82 [thousand],” recalls Cayer, with pride in his tone.

Stokes was proud, but he reminded Cayer that he needs to strive for the $83,333 average month over month to hit the target. 

“And that really, that was that extra kick that I needed. The next month, we did 98 [thousand],” says Cayer. 

Cayer realized he’d have to do some retooling in his shop in order to hit a million dollars. In the months following his $82,000 high, his shop suffered a few slow months and setbacks, including the loss of a technician who wasn’t the right fit for the shop. It was in this valley, though, that he made the discovery that would catapult his shop forward in a big way. While operating with a lone master technician in October, the shop hit $66,000, a figure that shocked Cayer.

“That's when I was like, ‘Wow, we really have the capacity and the ability to do more than I ever thought we could do,” he says.

After adding another tech to wrap up the year and finishing 2020 at $785,000, he held a meeting with his team. Something, Cayer thought, wasn’t adding up. He had the two best technicians he’d ever hired and yet, the needle wasn’t moving. 

“I had a guy that could turn 350 to 400 hours with his eyes closed, and we were still at that $60,000 range. January 2021 came around, we did 70, and I pulled them aside one day and said, ‘Guys, we're leaving a lot on the table,’” he says.

He sat down with his team and brainstormed what they needed to do to break through the barrier. They began with processes.”We started only doing waiters before noon instead of having them spread out throughout the day,” Cayer says. Then came a focus on just shop efficiency and ensuring each tech was working consistently throughout the day. “We got real laser-focused on maximizing every second of every day. And that's what we started doing,” he says.

The talk worked. 

“In March, we hit 121,” says Cayer, rattling off nine more months of six-figure shop earnings. “April we hit 112. May was 104. June was 108. July was 136. August was 114. September was 130. October was 110. November was 129. December was 118.”

The total: $1.18 million.

“That's how it happened,” says Cayer. “I would give 60 percent of the credit to my advisor and 30 percent to my techs.

The Rock Star of the Shop

About that 60 percent—Cayer would tell you he found a diamond in the rough, despite her being green to the service aspect of auto repair and the time it took to train his dynamo sales advisor. Still, there was something about Ashley Wright that he couldn’t ignore.

“Her customer service was from the beginning, 100 percent on point. She turned the grumpiest customer into a smiling goofball in 30 seconds. And I did see she had the termination, the desire to learn, you know?” Cayer says.

He pushed his chips to the middle of the table and went all in on Wright betting that he could turn her into a fine service writer. There was no clear path to reaching his goal without her. In a small two-bay shop such as his, he realized half of the workday and revenue potential would be easily lost leaving technicians with the duty of writing estimates. 

“If each tech, over the course of a day, spends hour-and-a-half writing estimates, that's 15 hours a week of production that we lose. So, if we had a bigger shop, and we had five or six techs, I think it would be manageable. But if you take 15 hours out of a shop that has 80 hours in a week because you only have two techs, that's a giant percentage of our potential hours. That really, really cuts into what we're capable of doing. So, we made sure our advisor was really, really good at writing,” he says.

Cayer trained her in-house first, teaching her everything he knew about what makes for a successful service writer. Though he was a patient trainer, he pushed her to learn the business. One way he did that was by listening to and giving constructive criticism on phone calls. 

“When I came into it, I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn't write a quote and answer the phone at the same time. I was as green and overwhelmed as they could be … He never got mad if I made a mistake, he just wanted to make sure I was learning from those mistakes,” says Ashley Wright.

While comfortable talking to customers, Wright worried that she couldn’t close the deal on large jobs. One of her first was a transmission job. Wright feared the client rejecting the price, which would mean potentially losing a big-ticket repair to a competing shop. She ran to Cayer’s office and asked him to close the deal on the job. He refused, instead offering to monitor the interaction and chime in if necessary. Write got back in front of the customer and walked them through the repair.

“I informed the customer what we found. I told him exactly what needed to be done. I told him how much it was going to be and the timeline, and he said, ‘All right, perfect.’ I will never forget it because I started crying. I was so excited. I went upstairs and told John,” Says Wright.

Once he felt he had taught her as much as he could in-house, Cayer enrolled Wright into Sales Fix, the service advisor accelerator program from Shop Fix Academy, and had her coached and challenged by Mike Tatich. He admits Wright wrestled through the course, feeling nitpicked by the particulars of the training, but both attest it was for the greater good of the shop.

“She hated it at the time … I know it was rough for her, but I know now she sees why it happened, and she's grateful that it happened,” says Cayer

Wright agrees and is appreciative of how committed Cayer was to making her into the right service writer for the health of the shop, saying Cayer has always instilled in her the importance of putting the customer first. But that’s the Cayer’s heart, she says. He succeeds because he is a giver—he cares deeply about his customers, his staff, and making them successful too.

Today, Wright holds the shop down, to a higher degree than Cayer does, he admits. 

“I can't say enough good things about the way she's grown and developed, and I would put her up against any advisor head-to-head in any competition. She's writing every estimate, she's quoting every estimate, and she's looking up and ordering parts. She's doing all customer calls. She's literally doing everything associated with this,” he says. 

“And now, I mean, I'll get off the phone, and she'll hear a call and be like, 'Why didn't you do this? Why'd you do like that?' I guess I deserve it, you know? She is the rock star of the shop.” 

Coming Full Circle

Two-thousand four hundred ninety-three miles separate Torreon, Mexico, from Worchester, Massachusetts, but only seven digits stand between Cayer and Stokes. And when he hit $1 million, he texted Stokes to share the news. While he says he doesn’t recall the specifics of the conversation, he says he didn't gloat. He just wanted his mentor to know that—against all odds—he did what he said he’d do and that he appreciated the inadvertent nudge. 

“He's always been super supportive, you know?” says Cayer. “He's a smart guy. I mean, I don't even think he realized the fire lit under my rear end in Mexico.

And if you ask Cayer, his rise to becoming a million-dollar shop wasn’t one event, but a culmination of the lessons learned in ShopFix, all of the networking with fellow shop owners, correct hiring and training, and a trip south of the border. It's his response to those challenges that cement Cayer as a true all-star. 

And his team loves him for it. He continued to inspire them, provide them training, and give them resources outside of work to keep their focus within the shop growing and servicing together.

“I know it sounds super cliche, and it sounds super corny, but he has a heart of gold. He actually cares and that's something that you don't normally get. I mean, I've worked for five different dealerships, and coming here being a small repair shop, you really feel like you're part of a fun family, you know, and you feel like he just wants the best for you,” says Wright.

In His Own Words 

COVID, Cortisol, and Creativity

As told to Chris Jones

Something strange happened during COVID. I had a mild mental panic attack just because of the unknown. You know, the things I think every shop owner went through. We're in Massachusetts, and we were pretty strict from the beginning—in terms of lockdown, shutdowns, everything. So obviously, when it happened and everything started shutting down, I sat down with my team and I said, “Look, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to make it through.” We already knew everybody already had friends that were getting laid off. I mean, this was in March, this was two weeks into this mess. They were getting laid off or getting told to work every other week. So, I sat them down and said, “Nobody's going to lose their job. I'm not going to lay anybody off. We're going to figure this out.” And then I racked my brain trying to figure it out. 

I ordered eight cases of toilet paper. We put an A-frame sign out with a picture of toilet paper, and it said, 'Running Low? Free Roll with Every Service." And while it didn't get a ton of people coming in for free toilet paper—I mean, we did give away a lot of free toilet paper—what we did have is people stopping on the side of the road to take a picture of our sign 10 or 12 times a day. It was all over social media. It was like the best guerilla marketing ever. It was things like that that I really think catapulted us because when COVID hit, that's when we started really getting traction. I just threw everything at the wall. I did a ton of marketing, free pickup, and drop-off, and made a ton of good-looking Facebook ads. It was really putting our nose to the grindstone when everything was up in the air instead of letting panic and fear set in—which it did a little bit, I'm not gonna lie—that allowed me to throw up everything my brain could come up with, Every little silly, gimmicky, goofy marketing idea. And that toilet paper one was a big hit.

We didn't close a single day. Aaron [Stokes] held weekly calls at night, which helped a lot. But in March, I came up with the idea to run free oil changes for health care workers. It's something that a lot of people in Shop Fix ended up doing. March was scary at first because we did, I don't know, probably 250 free oil changes between March and April. It was terrifying because a lot of people came in for their free oil changes and nothing else, but what it did was it allowed us to gain a huge amount of new customers. I mean, our car count in March of 2019 was 91. We were at 156 in March of 2020. We're at 112 in April of 2019 and 155 in April of 2020. And that was with, you know, pretty much the whole state locked down. So, we significantly increased our car count with everything shut down. It was scary because we were spending a fortune on free oil changes. By the time the end of March came around, we'd done $56,000 in total sales. My profit wasn't there, but that was by far our best month ever. That was $16,000 over February, you know, when everything was normal, and that was when the light bulb went off. I realized that the key to [reaching $1 million in revenue] was going to be volume, even though it was tough to do in a two-bay shop. 

The Chick-fil-A of Shops

Cayer’s shop runs under the mantra of “Repairs Done Right.” It’s not a creed he or his team takes lightly. It starts by showing a preference for people over profit and a desire to stand out from the crowd. While there are a lot of great auto repair shops out in the world, for Cayer, it was about finding what made Premier different. And that question of difference was the birth of ‘Repair Done Right.’

‘We're an auto repair business, but we can't focus on auto repair. And that was the big turning point for us. I mean, that's when we went from doing $30 to $40,000 months to $100,000 months— when we really started focusing on customer service,” says Cayer.

But the ‘Repair Done Right’ thing is more of a philosophy about the customer experience and changing the way people look at getting their car fixed.

In the end, for Cayer, it’s about presentation. It’s about showing customers a side of auto repair that restores confidence, trust, and loyalty. From the shop’s overall clean appearance including its pristine granite countertops to its friendly staff and warm environment, Cayer wants people to be excited to drop their vehicles off at Premier.  

“I want to be as transparent as possible with people, and that's what it's about. Whether it's the DVIs, the loaner cars, or the financing, we have windows in our waiting area and we have a sliding glass door and a big window on the back. People can literally see their car being worked on at all times because our shop is so small,” says Cayer.

“We transformed from being a shop trying to be a shop to being a shop trying to be the Chick-fil-A of shops—trying to be the most polite, the most convenient, the easiest, seamless, never-an-issue business you deal with on a daily basis.”

Premier Auto Repair

Owner: John Cayer

Location: Worcester, Massachusetts

Staff Size: 3

Shop Size: 950 square feet

Number of bays: 2

Average Monthly Car Count: 213

Annual Revenue: $1.33 million

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