Zero to $1 Million

July 5, 2023
How first-time shop owners built million-dollar businesses from less-than-ideal beginnings.
Travis Leavitt's boss met him in the shop’s parking lot before his shift started with a message: leave. 

He was told no one wanted to work with him anymore, and that he had created a hostile working environment. None of which Leavitt says were true. Handing Leavitt a box with all his personal effects, his boss told him he was in for a rude awakening as a shop owner—and then he bid Leavitt an unpleasant farewell. 

“When I talked to him (about resigning), he actually took it very well,” recalls Leavitt, admitting his astonishment at the change of attitude. 

Before his unceremonious firing, Leavitt was in line to be his boss’s successor. However, once he learned his boss’s retirement plan would take seven more years, Leavitt made the difficult decision to hand in his notice to pursue his own dream. According to Levitt, he thought he was on good terms with his boss. The exchange was pleasant after the pair met, and Leavitt felt good about it.  

"I even offered to stay on for three weeks to help them; maybe try to find somebody and train or whatever. I felt pretty good about it,” says Leavitt. 

He set out on his own and opened his shop in 2017, hiring a technician he once worked with at Firestone. Though he knew the roles within the business and how they worked—technician, service advisor and shop manager—ownership was a different animal. Leavitt had come face-to-face with a complete lack of knowledge about business operations, finances and leadership. That’s when the words of his former boss became prophetic. 

You’re in for a rude awakening. 

"I didn't know when I made payroll, I had to pay payroll taxes,” says Leavitt. “It was all a completely new learning curve.” 

He says he governed his shop not by KPI, but by his checking account. 

“I didn't (know) what effective labor rate was, or ARO or GP per hour. I was basically going off at total sales and running my business based on what was in my checking account, which wasn't very much. You think you have it figured out, and I did to some degree, but there's just so much more,” Leavitt says. 

Despite having only one other employee, he struggled with being the front man and his pockets were feeling it. 

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know 

Leavitt’s guaranteed income was replaced by start-up uncertainty. He struggled to pay the bills, to pay the rent and to make payroll to cut checks for his lone employee. He lived off credit cards for the first two years and borrowed against his 401(k). He hadn’t counted the cost that operational expenses would take from his business such as payroll and other taxes and software subscriptions. At home, he had a supportive wife and three children to provide for, which created a daunting amount of pressure for the fledgling shop owner.  

“For the first couple of months, I remember talking to my older brother at night, just basically in tears. I didn't know how I was going to do it. I was motivated and driven. I didn't have a choice but to make it work. I was all in,” Leavitt says. 

To make matters more difficult, the shop was only producing $7,000 to $8,000 per month.   

"There (was) just no money,” Leavitt says. “And I mean, you get in that situation where you don't have money to pay this bill and pay that bill, it starts to take a toll on you and freak out. I didn't know how to pay for everything.” 

The darkest days for Leavitt had him nearly $100,000 in debt between his personal and business lives. Still gritty to his core, he tightened his bootstraps and shifted his focus on getting the necessary education he needed to win. 

He joined Facebook groups where he learned from other shop owners, listened to podcasts, read books and went to major training events. 

“I realized the importance of training and learning. We don't know what we don't know. If we can hopefully better ourselves and learn more (we can) do better work and provide a better experience for the customers,” says Leavitt. 

He invested in self-paced learning videos through ShopFix Academy before settling on working with the company after pulling Aaron Stokes aside at a VISION conference. Leavitt admits he didn’t know how he would pay for the coaching, but knew he needed the help and would come up with investment money one way or another.  

"I figured I'd always get to where I wanted to get eventually but I wanted to get there now. And so, I felt like a coach would be the way to do that. I looked at a couple of different coaching companies, (but) there's just something about Aaron; when he talks, you know, he just resonates with you,” Leavitt says. 

Through coaching, Leavitt was pushed out of the aerie like a young eagle. He was challenged to hire more employees, get his shop’s workload to capacity, and do more advertising. Within six months, his car count tripled. In his third year of business, he was able to wipe out his six-figure debt and in year four become profitable. 

“I want to be held accountable. I feel like that's going to make me a better person, better leader and everything else. Not only did it help me learn things, but they gave me confidence and they basically confirmed what I was doing and that I was doing it correct,” Leavitt says. 

Leavitt hit $1 million in Q3 of 2022. This year, he’s projecting $2.5 million and $3.6 million in 2024. For a guy thrown out to the wolves, he now leads the pack. 

"I was all sorts of excited, and I felt accomplished. We made it, but at the same time, I wanted to do a lot more,” Leavitt says, adding that he still reflects on everything it took to get there. I feel proud of how far we've come.” 

A Tale of Two Shop Owners 

When you think of a shop owner, Leavitt has the standard industry pedigree. He was an industry veteran, had become a successful service advisor and had his eye on shop ownership. 

Dana and Judi Haglin were industry outsiders when they founded Haglin Automotive. For Dana, it doesn’t go much further from auto mechanics than his undergraduate degree from Colorado in saxophone performance. As for Judi, the CU elementary education graduate spent three years managing a McDonald’s after college. Today, Haglin Automotive, which sold to the SimplyTRUE Auto Group on March 1, is a $2.4 million shop. 

 'Babe, It’s You and Me’ 

Ask Judi and she’ll tell you Dana is a maverick.  

"My husband, Dana, has never worked for anyone,” she says. “He would work on cars with his dad and his brother to make extra money. They'd fix cars and sell cars. That's how they made extra cash money.” 

After graduating college in May 1981, the pair married the following month, and it was time to find work. Dana, who has mechanical skills, applied to work at a service station.  

"We didn't have jobs and he went and applied for a gas station attendant-type person. Fifty people applied to be the person that pumps gas. He came back and he goes, ‘Well, OK. That's not going to work. What do I do?’” says Judi. 

Dana’s older brother, a machinist who rebuilt engines, worked next to a vacant unit that Dana would claim and begin taking on the engine work.  

Judi jumped headlong into leadership at McDonald’s, gaining valuable knowledge through the corporation’s Hamburger University before coming to work with Dana after three years. 

"The stress got me, so I quit and came to work for Dana and said, ‘Babe, it's you and me.’ And then we've never looked back,” says Judi. 

For the Haglins, reaching escape velocity wasn’t as monumental a task as it was for Leavitt. When the two of them were working, running the shop was easy. They knew who was responsible for what and when something went undone or an error was made, they knew who was responsible. As they added employees, that ability to get to the root of issues evaporated and they had to learn how to communicate with and adjust to other people and their work ethic. 

“When you have more people, and you have those responsibilities—Is it my job? Is it yours? Well, he was supposed to do it—it’s those kinds of communications and (learning about) holding people accountable,” Judi says. 

 'Zero to the Mil’ 

Judi and Dana lived the shop life. Dana was a one-man band removing engines, answering phones and servicing customers. As they moved into more general repair, they shop went from Haglin’s Garage to Haglin Automotive.  

The couple invested in management success training, where they learned to understand and manage their numbers. 

"That doubled our business,” says Judi of management training, which took her shop from $250,000 annually to $500,000. “I learned marketing, (how to) to keep an eye on our numbers and watch the trends. We did that for a couple of years."  

She credits ATI for getting her shop over the million-dollar mark. There, the Haglins were taught which KPIs to pay attention to and participated in weekly phone calls. They also made significant personnel upgrades allowing them to back out of the day-to-day operations. 

"I think going from one technician, my husband, and him fixing cars and writing service, all on his own to having a second guy, like a helper technician coming in, and somebody answering the phones. To do both, is very difficult,” Judi says. “So that's the first big step. And then the next big step, I think, is getting you out of those major roles. You can be the second backup person but have a dedicated service writer and dedicated technicians.” 

Up to the point of sale, Haglin Automotive was a $2.4 million shop. It's gone from a single-bay, owner-run shop in 1981 to 12 bays, five technicians, two service writers, one service manager and a CSR. And as Judi sunsets from the auto repair business, she’s leaving her options open for the future. 

“I love facilitating 20 groups. So that's something I might do with ATI. Those are my two (favorites): teaching and running 20 groups. (That’s) what I might be leaning towards,” Judi says. 

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

Sponsored Recommendations

Find the right shop management system to boost your efficiency

Find the right shop management system to aid in efficient scheduling, communication and payment processing

Craft a strategic marketing plan

Develop strategies and communicate them to your staff to keep you on track

Establish and track your KPIs: Technician Productivity

WHAT IT IS: Technician productivity refers to the time a technician is available to work measured against the actual time spent working on positive cash flow repair orders. Tracking...

Empower your technicians with the right tools for efficient repairs

Foster a highly motivated and efficient team to get vehicles out the door faster