Passion Play

Dec. 1, 2015
Two shop operators share their stories of how ‘doing what’s right’ trumped convention in growing their community-centric businesses

Mark Smith and John Fowle have never met. They don’t know each other and they’re not aware of each other’s repair businesses—Fowle’s Willoughby Hills Auto Repair in Ohio and Smith’s four Midas locations in Virginia.

Yet, ask either about what has led to their remarkable levels of success, and they give a similar, intangible answer.

“You have to follow your heart,” Smith says. 

“[I]t’s about doing what’s right,” says Fowle. 

Forget common conceptions of how to grow an automotive repair business, both shop owners say. The metrics, dollars and cents will all add up if you focus on one thing: people.

“This industry isn’t about cars, it’s not about making repairs,” Smith says. “It’s about people—it’s about serving people. And that doesn’t just mean the ones that walk through your doors. … Make a difference in your community, and it’ll be all the difference for your shop.”

Fowle and Smith have done just that, albeit in different ways. And both hope more and more shops come to the same conclusion they did long ago: Goodwill is good business.



Like many on that day more than 14 years ago, Mark Smith didn’t know what to do.

He watched the newscasts like everyone else.

He remembers the first plane hitting—then the second. The buildings coming down. The panic, the terror, and the helplessness that immediately followed.

Smith still thinks back to Sept. 11, 2001, often.

It was a pivotal moment in American history— and it proved to be a turning point for Smith, as his reaction to the events set off a chain reaction that led to him overhauling his entire business.

But, first, on that day, he made a phone call.

“I knew a guy who ran a local blood donation center,” he says. “And I called to see if they needed help. They were short on blood. I told him I’d do a blood drive for him—I’d give anyone who donated blood a free oil change.

“He was reluctant and didn’t think it’d work. I said that it could be the dumbest idea on the planet, but I’d like to see.”

That year, Smith gave away 25 total oil changes between his four Richmond, Va., Midas shops.

Today, he laughs at that initial attempt; poor planning, too rushed, and overall fairly ineffective. But, in 2002, he tried it again. And he did it again the following year, and every year after.

In 2015, Smith’s annual blood drives brought in 500 people—and enough donations to account for 2.4 percent of all blood in central Virginia blood banks.

Oh, and his business? It’s quadrupled in sales over that time.


After 13 years in a corporate role for Midas, Smith was tired of the grind. He traveled more than 200 days per year, and wanted to settle down—and break out on his own.

Within Midas, he found an opportunity in the company’s four Richmond franchises, which at this time in 1998, were up for sale. Smith and his wife, Pat, bought them.

That first year, the four shops combined to do $2.2 million.

“I came in thinking what everyone else does: You have to compete on price,” he says. “Well, it turns out you don’t. I did. And I lost a lot of sleep and a lot of money.”

Around the time of his 9/11 revelation, Smith also completely changed his approach to business operations, focusing on people rather than dollar figures.

He created what he calls “The Absolutes” of his business—13 principles that help guide him and his team through day-to-day operations—and wrote out detailed job descriptions for each team member based on those concepts.

He then raised the shop’s bottom-feeder prices, and retrained his staff to sell based on value and the service the shop now provided.

There were bumps in the road (Smith says he had roughly 300 percent turnover in the first three years following the changes), but the shops prospered. By 2014, the business generated $6.7 million in total sales. His Short Pump, Va., location is now Midas’ highest-grossing franchise in the country at $3.7 million.

His four facilities are on pace to top $8 million for 2015, and Smith has his sights on $10 million in the coming years.


The shop’s charitable efforts snowballed after that initial blood drive.

In 2002, Smith saw that a local food bank was struggling for donations prior to Thanksgiving. He offered to combine efforts with his blood drive that year, and personally buy a turkey for every blood donation the shop received. Smith gave roughly 60 turkeys.

That idea led to a more steady involvement with FeedMore, which runs the Central Virginia Food Bank and Meals on Wheels. Smith kept donating, and eventually spearheaded a campaign that donates backpacks full of food to needy children. For every state vehicle inspection the shop performs, Smith donates a backpack. They donated nearly 6,000 backpacks in 2011 and 2012 combined, and have since topped 10,000.

Smith’s shops also hit the 10,000 mark for total blood donations in 2012, and now run six drives each year.

Now he wants to launch a tire program (he’s calling it ReTIRE Hunger) that raises funds and food for FeedMore. When schools or local sports teams come asking for donations, he prints off free oil change cards, and allows the groups to sell them and keep 100 percent of the funds. And he has refrigerators set up in his Colonial Heights location that stores food for Meals on Wheels.

“This is something we will always, always do,” he says of the charitable giving. “This is who we are. It’s what has built our reputation, and what we have a passion for doing. … You have to follow your heart with things like this, and trust your gut that it’ll work. We want to serve a bigger purpose in our business now.”



Simply say yes. That’s the first step, John Fowle says.

“From Day 1 of opening the shop, we’ve always had someone knocking on our door for a cause that needs help,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest shop in the world or just starting out, there’s always something you can do to help. Sometimes, you can give donations, sometimes you can give time or host an event, anything that can help.

Fowle’s “Day 1” comment isn’t figurative. The day he opened his doors at Willoughby Hills Auto Repair roughly 20 years ago, members of the Willoughby Hills (Ohio) Fire Department walked in. They were looking for donations to purchase portable defibrillators for their trucks.

Fowle opened his own wallet and offered what he had.

Those who know him well say it’s indicative of his personality and character. Fowle sees nothing extraordinary about it. It’s his responsibility, he says.

“If you have a business in the community, you’re a part of that community, and you need to support it,” he says. “It’s not about good business, it’s about doing what’s right.”

Still, that philosophy has led to a reputation that’s allowed the business to thrive. Since starting out as a two-bay, gas station service center, Fowle has grown Willoughby Hills into a million-dollar shop. In turn, that’s allowed the business to have a greater impact on its market.

From donations to the American Cancer Society to its Brakes for Kids initiative to raise funds for a statewide child and family services program (they’ve raised more than $65,000 in five years), Fowle’s team takes its philanthropic responsibility to heart. And for Fowle, it’s all reached a very personal level.


It started with Fowle’s mother. After that, it was his father.

The experience of losing a parent doesn’t get easier with age, Fowle says. It was difficult, but also changed his life and gave him new direction for his business’s charitable focus.

“Supporting hospice care has become, probably, our biggest thing we do,” he says. “My mother went through it and they took care of her. The people who work and volunteer through hospice are such amazing, special people. Anyone who’s gone through that experience has a deep connection to it. If we get behind one, that’s the one we want to do.”

Fowle’s family was so deeply impacted that two of his sisters and two nieces now work with the organization, and the shop now hosts an open house fundraiser for hospice each year.

It started small, roughly 10 years ago, Fowle says. Today, though, it’s a 150-person, daylong event with food, drinks, a DJ, a magician, a dunk tank, and games for kids. Local businesses can make contributions, and they sell raffle tickets during the day for various prizes (last year’s “grand prize” was a large TV) with all the proceeds going directly to hospice.

It’s a large endeavor, one that costs the shop roughly $10,000 each year to put on, Fowle says. He chalks it up into the yearly marketing budget (the shop’s total marketing budget varies between 4 and 7 percent of total gross sales).

“Yeah, it’s not a cheap thing to do, but the value that comes out of it is incredible,” he says. “And that’s not just for the contributions to the organization or getting our face in the community—it’s great for our team.”


To run a business so dedicated to supporting its community, Fowle says having total buy-in from every member of his team is crucial.

“It’s not me, it’s not our business—it’s the people we have here that make this special and make it so successful,” he says. “We can’t do it without them, and the culture that’s created by having those type of people here, it just changes our entire approach in everything we do.”

From daily customer interactions to lending a hand on a difficult job in the back of the shop, Fowle says his team truly acts like, well, a team. And that makes indoctrinating new employees that much easier, he says, as he knows each team member sets the right example to follow.

It also allows the shop to do more. Willoughby Hills often opens up its parking lot to school organizations and sports teams to do fundraiser car washes. It helps support the causes dear to its staff, and the Brakes for Kids program aims to raise more than $20,000 this year alone.

The word-of-mouth reputation the shop has built through these efforts is undeniable, and Fowle says it gives his team a sense of pride.

“People are excited to represent a company that stands for these things,” he says. “It’s a good feeling all the way around. How can you go wrong? You’re doing something you enjoy and you’re giving back.” 

About the Author

Bryce Evans

Bryce Evans is the vice president of content at 10 Missions Media, overseeing an award-winning team that produces FenderBender, Ratchet+Wrench and NOLN.

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