Raising Arizona

June 30, 2017
By embracing training, one Arizona shop owner was able to overcome his business’s modest beginning.

Earlier in his life, Heath Harris moved at a breakneck pace. As a young technician in the Flagstaff, Ariz., area, Harris was confident, hungry, and even took on a second job as a bouncer at a local bar.

Before long, though, Harris’ career slammed to a stop.

One day, at the age of 25, Harris was pulled aside by his boss. The owner mentioned something about being fearful that the young technician—who often offered unsolicited business advice to the boss—would eventually attempt to take over the shop. The shop operator also seemed to dislike the fact Harris was moonlighting. Long story short: Harris’s services were no longer required there.

“It was nerve wracking, because I was 25 and broke,” Harris recalls of the firing. “The biggest fear that I had was, ‘Am I going to be homeless?’ I mean, I had enough money to live maybe two weeks, and that was it.”

Soon after, encouragement from friends inspired Harris to scrape together every cent he could and open his own one-bay shop. With buddies throwing work his way, Harris found his one-man business gathering momentum in short order.

“There was a lot of fear, but … nothing good happens in life without risk,” Harris says. “Here I am, 16 years later, and I have one of the larger shops in town.”

Yes, these days Harris’s life is moving at a far more comfortable speed than it was in 2001. His shop has nearly doubled its annual revenue over the last five years, bringing that figure to $1.25 million. The shop operator’s climb is the result of countless lessons learned—the most important of which being the value of humility and accepting help in the form of industry training.

Time for Change

Thanks to a pair of $1,000 loans from family members, Harris was able to rent a 600-square-foot facility back in 2001. He had a toolbox, and a vision, but little direction.

On his first date with his eventual wife, Tobey, in February 2002, Harris’ thoughts quickly drifted to his shop.

Tobey recalls, “He told me in the very beginning, ‘Just to let you know, I don’t really have time for a girlfriend right now, because I am really focused on my business.’”

Nonetheless, Tobey was soon bringing Heath dinner at 11 p.m. many nights, as he toiled away in his tiny, lift-less facility.

“My biggest obstacle was, ‘OK, I wear all these hats; how am I going to get it done?'” Harris recalls. “Because you were the sales team, you were the production team. I mean, you were the janitor.

“I really had to be disciplined, and I had to manage my time very wisely. When I started out and wore all the hats—and tried to do everything myself—[it] was not a pretty sight.”

Inching Along

What Harris lacked in time-management skills—or in capital, for that matter—he largely made up for in salesmanship. He used his charm to talk a couple local parts stores into giving him a $2,500 line of credit, for example.

“And I always made good on my word, and I paid them,” Harris says.

When he purchased his first used lift on a $1,500 payment plan, it felt like a landmark

moment for the shop. But legitimate growth didn’t come easily at Heath’s Auto Service, where Harris didn’t hire any employees until six months after the business opened. In the shop’s infancy, its car count occasionally dipped to as low as five vehicles per week.

“My first year in business, if I could do $10,000 or $15,000 a month, I was just ecstatic about it,” Harris says.

Some of the shop’s issues, like the fact it lacked a management system, provided proof that, just because Harris might’ve been good with a wrench, it didn’t guarantee he could operate a shop.

“I was fixing cars, and I was making money,” Harris says. “But it wasn’t until later on that I found out how to track actual gross profit and really, really learned how to run a business.”

Lessons Learned

Eventually, Harris discovered the key that unlocked his shop’s potential: industry training. Harris had resisted training earlier in his career because he fielded a fairly successful business based strictly off referrals. Yet, over the years, he also developed a desire to reach $1 million in annual sales.

And, once he received a few training sessions, the owner developed an addiction for them. It started, nearly 10 years after Heath’s Auto Service’s creation, when Harris joined an automotive repair coaching group. Local referral groups, and his local chamber of commerce, also provided the young shop owner with valuable guidance.

“We were always looking for continued education, such as training with our shop management software,” Harris says. “These networking events and trainings … led me to realize there are groups out there with shop owners who I learned from and was inspired from.”

What truly made his business take off, the owner notes, was continuing his education, and having his coaching group hold him accountable for reaching deadlines for tasks like implementing refined SOPs.

Furthermore, as a result of his training, Harris clearly defined expectations for each of his employees. And, he became a fervent tracker of KPIs like technician efficiency, which help pinpoint shop shortcomings.

Harris also began marketing his shop in earnest in May 2013, focusing on customer acquisition—namely, getting Flagstaff residents that he knew and trusted into his shop. Heath’s Auto Service also began canvassing the town with direct mail, and the Harris’ closely monitored the effectiveness of each such campaign. Harris also began a local food drive, in which customers who made donations earned “Heath bucks” to use toward repairs at Heath’s Auto Service, and the shop became a supporter of the Brakes for Breasts campaign.

Those marketing efforts provided the shop with a prompt increase in car count, Harris says.

“The biggest thing I learned,” Harris explains, is “if you’re willing to listen … there’s a lot of people that know a whole lot more than me out there. And you just absorb all those little bits and pieces and implement those things in your business.”

Clearly, Harris was an attentive student: The shop’s annual revenue was $700,000 in 2012, grew to $972,000 in 2014, and rose to $1.25 million by 2016.

Continuing the Climb

Harris remains hungry, as Tobey, the shop’s secretary and accounts receivable guru, notes.

“He just has this drive,” she says of her husband. “Once he has that vision in his head, he gets it done.”

Harris received a master’s-level course on humility early in his career. Years later, the message was received.

Now, he’s a well-rounded businessman who’s eager to continue his evolution.

“One of the biggest hurdles that I had throughout the years was not growing when it was time to grow, or being scared to grow,” Harris says. “It made me realize that I was the only one holding back the growth of my business, because … I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to provide a good paycheck for the people I hired.”

These days, Harris no longer hesitates when he feels a change is required in his shop. He strives to continue his business’s rise.

“In this day and age, I think you constantly need to change,” he says. “We are in an ever-changing world, with changing people and technology. … With the constant change, you have to constantly be training your staff, as well. There’s always a way to become more efficient.”

Thanks to his willingness to study every element of the industry, Harris eventually earned respect from his peers. A prime example of that: His former boss—the one that fired him when he was 25—recently offered to sell his business to Harris.

Secrets For Hiring Superstars  

One secret to the success of Heath's Auto Service in Flagstaff, Ariz., has been owner Heath Harris' insistence on hiring "superstars." He offers tips on how to unearth future shop standouts.

I’m definitely not looking for mediocre people in my organization. I bring everyone on board by explaining what our goals are, what we’re trying to achieve, the marketing that we’re using. The most important thing we look for, first off, is attitude toward the industry, and what kind of vibe they are going to give to our customers.

There’s a phone screening before they even sit down with me that screens for qualifications, experience, attitude. When I sit down with candidates, I look for people who have high expectations of themselves.

Once hired, it’s basically a working interview for 90 days, with reviews after 30 and 60. We can tell right away if they are living up to their expectations, and the mojo they bring to the shop. I would rather have six people that get paid very well than have 12 people that aren’t invested.

SHOP STATS: HEATH'S AUTO SERVICE  Location: FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ.  Operator: HEATH HARRIS   Staff Size: 6  Average Monthly Car Count: 197  Annual Revenue: $1.25 million

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