2021 Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Award Winner: Matt Lachowitzer

Sept. 7, 2021
From shop floor mentor to full-fledged community pillar, Matt Lachowitzer is driven to make an impact.

For Matt Lachowitzer, a full-fledged auto repair group wasn’t exactly part of the plan, but he’s no stranger to rolling with the punches. He’s always had faith that trusting his gut to do what he knows is right would lead him in the best direction.

The Herman, Minn., native was set to attend the University of Minnesota to study law on a football scholarship when a crushing knee injury set him on a new path. Soon after, with just one semester in diesel mechanics under his belt, his sister discovered a grapefruit-sized brain tumor. As the oldest of his six, he left school to help out as she underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and recovery. “There was no question about it. It was just the right thing to do,” he says.

Years later, he was working at a Chevy dealership when the 2008 recession hit and he watched as five experienced, hardworking, loyal technicians were let go to make way for twice as many auto school grads on much smaller salaries.

“That’s the moment I got a bad taste in my mouth and I just couldn’t buy into what was happening,” he says. “I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do next, but I knew I had to leave.”

The scrappy entrepreneur launched his own operation with just one lift, a toolbox, and $5,000 in the bank. As business picked up, he tapped his network for help and learned of a local Meineke technician who’d been fired after telling his manager he was hoping to go back to school.

“Why would you turn away someone who wants to keep learning and growing? That just didn’t sit with me. He started with me the next day as my first employee,” says Lachowitzer.

That technician not only helped Lachowitzer grow the business in those early days (expanding from a two-bay rental shop to a four-bay full building buyout in just eight months), he later became a trusted manager as Lachowitzer added store after store.

Today, Lachowitzer shows no sign of slowing down. Guided by that innate drive to do what’s right, he’s built his operation to five repair shops and a loyal team of 47. “When we expanded that first shop I thought I’d made it. I never thought I’d be here, but now that we have this full Matt’s Auto family that’s helping people every day, the more we grow the more we can make an impact.”

Matt's Auto in The Making

1996 - Begins work as a technician 

2008 - Leaves Chevy dealership

2009 - Opens first location in rented Moorhead, Minn. space with two bays

2010 - Buys out building to expand to four bays

2012 - Buys out an existing shop in Fargo, ND and opens first Fargo location(5 bays)

2013 - Surrounding land is bought for additional expansion to eight service bays

2015 - Buys and remodels a Fargo, N.D. nightclub

2016 - Moved existing Fargo shop into remodeled club as second permanent location with 10 service bays

2018 - Acquisition and remodel into Matt's Automotive & Collision Center

2018 - Purchase and remodel of a new South Fargo, N.D. shop

2019 - Purchase and remodel of a new South Moorhead, Minn. shop

2019 - Roof collapses at original Moorhead shop

2020 - A newly-rebuilt shop opens at the site of original Moorhead shop

2021 - Matt's Auto is currently working on four potential acquisitions and hopes to open two new stores each year to reach a total of 15 shops

A Mindful Mentor

It’s no coincidence that the Matt’s Auto team describes itself as a family. Lachowitzer has been intentional about growing an operation based on culture and core values. So, it may come as a surprise to those who know him best that he’d originally hoped to go it alone.

“Quite honestly, I didn’t want to deal with employees,” he says. “I wanted to be a one-man operation, but I got so busy I just couldn’t do it all myself and that’s when I realized this was a chance to build something special.”

Lachowitzer now dedicates his days to giving his team the tools they need to succeed personally and professionally. He visits each shop at least once a week, not to keep an eye on operations and car count, but to personally check in with each employee. He’s quick with a hug and has come to serve as everything from teacher and mentor to counselor and financial advisor.

“I’m not there to deal with problems. I have a management team for that. Being present is the focus and you have my undivided attention,” says Lachowitzer. “I’m literally there to bring up the energy, and make sure they know I care about them, and it’s become the most fun part of my job.”

“When he asks how you’re doing, he’s not asking just to ask,” says nominator and general manager Vern Newman. “He actually cares how your daughter did on her math test or how your wife likes her new job.”  

Lachowitzer makes a point to learn and celebrate each new hire’s hobbies, anniversaries, birthdays, dream vacation spots, and even their pets’ names to ensure he can help them celebrate what means most to them. And when he notices an employee who’s been stressed or down on his or her luck, Lachowitzer has been known to surprise them and their family with a getaway to his Florida vacation home.

“Whatever might have them down, the thought is always, ‘This person is such a rock star for me. How can I do something for them?’”

Whether coordinating off-site team-building events—complete with telephone pole climbs and trust falls—or awarding a WWE-style “Rockstar of the Month” belt, Lachowitzer also fosters a tight-knit team environment. Every new hire takes a Berke Assessment before joining the team to ensure a cultural fit and Lachowitzer occasionally moves team members to different stores to create an ideal team balance.

“We spend more time with these guys and gals than anyone else in our lives and I want this to be a place that feels like home, where they want to be and help each other,” he says, remembering a tech who went home to tuck his kids in, then returned to the shop to help out while a coworker was out sick.  

“He’s salaried. He didn’t have to do that but it’s things like that that you can’t put a dollar amount on that have built this into a team that’ll work together to knock down walls.”

Words to Live By
When interviewing a potential new hire, Lachowitzer reviews the company’s core values. “I say ‘These are concepts we embody day in and day out. You have to want to set a new standard in our industry.”

The operation’s core tenets include:

  • Employ superstars.
  • Never put money before people.
  • Fuel growth and innovation in everything we do.
  • Be a pillar in our local communities.
  • Provide our team members with a stable and FUN work environment.
  • Be passionate in every moment.
  • Deliver WOW through our service.
  • Be more than just an experience, and set a new standard.

Coaching the Industry Forward

A desire to learn and grow are central to Lachowitzer’s operations, with 10 hours of training required per quarter, and a requirement that his techs become Master Technicians within their first year on staff.

He’s also developed all of the company’s in-house training and coaching programs and is looked to by his team as a positive force working to coach them to their fullest potential.

“He’ll never give you more than you can handle, but he’ll push to help you reach the best he sees in you, even if you don’t see it in yourself” says Newman, who was surprised with a promotion to general manager while out recovering from back surgery. “He filled in for me, saw the work I’d been doing firsthand and believed in me enough to take a leap and trust me with our full operations.”

“He’s invested in your potential where other shops might send you packing and pull up the next application,” says lead technician David Schulz, who came to Matt’s Auto fresh from tech school admittedly with some rough edges. “He sat me down to say this is what needs to change and how we can do that, and guided me up to a management position I’d never once considered.”  

Schulz had previously only aimed to become the company’s top performer—now he’s not only a Master Tech, but is active on training forums and online boards to keep the team up to date, training all of the company’s new techs and “never puts anything before the business or his team,” says Lachowitzer.
“He’s had this amazing transformation to someone you can really lean on, and it’s those moments where you get to see the light bulb go on and the change happen that is so exciting and what I love most about the job.”

"Fixing cars is just a byproduct of what we do. There's always a larger "why" behind that. Grounding your team in that is what pushes beyond numbers to your true potential." —Matt Lachowitzer

Already a natural coach in his shops, Lachowitzer now lends his talents to the Transformers Institute as a business coach and Mastermind Group facilitator, and is currently co-leading a first-of-its-kind group specifically for shop foremen.

“Whether it’s my own team or helping another shop in need, coaching has really lit my fire and the more I get to help others find where they’re struggling and find a fix that sees results, the more I love it. I’m here to help.”

While most coaches might zero in on crucial KPIs, Lachowitzer takes a culture-focused approach with great attention to processes and procedures.

“The numbers themselves are important, but a focus on the ‘why’ behind things your team is doing is going to drive the buy-in you need to boost those numbers. That’s how those KPIs fall into place.”

Shaping Future Success Stories 

As a Transformers Institute repair business coach, Lachowitzer:

  • Spends two days each week coaching repair shops
  • Leads two foreman Mastermind Groups (coaching a total of 32 shop foremen)
  • Consults through in-person meetings, group calls, and individual coaching session
  • Facilitates the guidance of a Platinum Mastermind Group (coaching 15 MSOs)

Community Connector

While Lachowitzer aims to help any and all in need of service, he’s happiest when customers first learn of the shop through a community event.

“At the end of the day, that’s really what we’re about and where we’re out in our element. Fixing cars is just a byproduct of what we do, but our work is all about helping people,” he says.

Lachowitzer and his team have become pillars in the Moorhead and Fargo community, donating regularly to everything from women’s shelters to animal humane societies. Those staying at the Ronald McDonald House—an organization that was especially impactful to Lachowitzer throughout his sister’s recovery—receive free service from the shop, no questions asked.

He’s also always happy to help local young entrepreneurs, including a 12-year-old author (a donation of $2,500 in books provided Ronald McDonald house guests with an inspiring read and helped build a well in Africa), and the community’s local Girl Scouts chapter. Lachowitzer personally hosts repair clinics where local troops can earn their car care badges and buys cookies from any Scout who presents a sales pitch (cookies are donated to food shelters and sent to troops overseas).

Lachowitzer is currently a board member for the emergency food pantry as well and is currently in the midst of a year-long food drive to fill a full semi.

But perhaps the company’s biggest impact comes each year on Black Friday when each shop is closed for regular service and the staff comes together for Matt’s Auto Day of Service—a full day of pro bono repair work for those in need.

In the project’s first year, 10 winners were selected from a group of community nominations to receive $1,000 in repair work. The company received nearly 200 nominations and ultimately performed $18,000 worth of work. In the following years Lachowitzer went over budget each time. Now in its fifth year, the hallmark event has been converted to a year-round affair. Throughout the year the Matt’s Auto team has set aside $30,000 to gift as they encounter customers in need.  

“With some of the big work we were doing—things like evaporator cores and pulling dashboards—it was just getting too hard to finish in a day,” says Lachowitzer, “but seeing the impact these days have, seeing grown men cry as we hand over the keys … there’s just nothing like it. We can’t wait to see what we can do when we’re not under the gun.”

Team Spirit 

Community support is a cornerstone of the Matt’s Auto mission, with a total of $1.32 million since the company’s inception. But many of the organizations the company supports are chosen democratically based on the issues that matter most to each member of the team. These are the top organizations the MSO has helped support:

  • Ronald McDonald House: $154,000 given to date 
  • Make A Wish: $35,000 given to date 
  • Sanford Children’s Hospital: $30,000 given to date 
  • Single Parent Strong annual event: $48,000 given to date (and 150 free oil changes for single parents)
  • Caring For Teachers annual event: $24,000 given to date (and 150 free oil changes for teachers) 

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