Unconventional Model Puts People Over Profit

June 3, 2021
With a unique business structure, Fix It Forward has successfully given away 270 cars and repaired another 600 in the Moorhead, Minn., community.

SHOP STATS: Fix It Forward Auto Care  Location: Moorhead, Minn. Owner(s): Matthew and Kristi Carlson  Average Monthly: 310  Staff Size: 8  Shop Size: 7,200 sq. ft. Number of Lifts/Bays: ARO: $420 Annual Revenue: $1.5 million  

SHOP STATS: Fix It Forward Auto Care  Location: Fargo, N.D. Owner(s): Matthew and Kristi Carlson  Average Monthly Car Count: 300  Staff Size: 7  Shop Size: 8,125 sq. ft. Number of Lifts/Bays: 10 ARO: $450 Annual Revenue: $1.6 million

Most people don’t have that ‘a-ha’ moment you see in the movies, one that changes the direction of someone’s life. 

Matt Carlson did. He even remembers the moment vividly.

He was sitting at his desk at Microsoft, where he served as a programmer, fixing a typo on an error message screen in an obscure piece of software that “nobody would ever see.” 

That’s when his phone rang. On the other end was a woman desperate for the help of Carlson’s passion project, a nonprofit he founded and ran out of his farm with a handful of volunteers called Fix It Forward Ministry, which fixed cars for those who couldn’t afford repairs.

She needed her Dodge Durango fixed—and ASAP.

Talking with the women, Carlson realized she needed it much faster than his current six-week backlog could provide. She had just been informed her abuser was being released from jail in two weeks, and although a crisis center was helping her and her kids relocate, it was impossible without transportation.

“That’s when I realized I couldn’t do the software thing anymore, when I had this opportunity to really help people,” Carlson says. 

His mind was made up: He quit his job at Microsoft, which he’d held for 15 years, and helped the woman and her family relocate quickly. He’s continued that work, helping members of his local community in Moorhead, Minn., since 2018. 

He’s coupled the nonprofit organization, Fix it Forward Ministry, with a for-profit repair shop, Fix It Forward Auto Care. During regular business hours, the Fix It Forward Auto Care facility operates like any other repair shop. At night the space becomes a valuable community resource, as volunteers complete free repairs and fix up donated cars to give away for free. 

A True Win-Win

Carlson began the non-profit, Fix It Forward Ministry, in 2015. The goal was simply to find those in the community that were being hindered because of unreliable transportation and provide that support so they could be self-sufficient.

Up until Carlson left Microsoft, all operations were happening from his personal shop at his farm. But once Carlson left to run the non-profit full time, the demand started to increase at an unsustainable rate with the resources they had.

Carlson’s original idea was to find other shops in the area that would be willing to house the cars and spread out the work across multiple locations. But what he found was other shops were willing to volunteer to repair the cars but not at their own shops. He looked at buying an existing shop, but with such a unique business model of his own, Carlson felt forcing a drastic shift would be detrimental to the business. 

So Carlson started his own shop, Fix It Forward Auto Care, in 2018. During the day, he’d run it like any other repair business. Then after hours, the non-profit would have a space to work for free, with ultimate convenience for Carlson. 

Other than providing the space, the repair shop does not support the non-profit financially in any way. Volunteer technicians come from their own repair shop or other repair shops in the area and all parts and other non-profit expenses are funded by community donations. Excess profits from the for-profit get reinvested back into the repair business. Carlson says this model is used in other industries, but has yet to see it used in the auto industry. 

Carlson estimates the non-profit utilizes 100 unique volunteers every year. In its lifespan, the organization has given away 270 cars and repaired another 600. 

The repair shop also sees benefits from the non-profit, Carlson says. Customers want to bring their business to the shop because they know the mission. They also inherently trust them, Carlson believes.

“Trust is a big issue in the auto repair industry, but why would we lie to a customer about their car and then turn around and give away free repairs and cars?” he says, adding it attracts both quality customers and quality technicians who are keen on making a difference. 

A Well-rounded Approach

What makes the non-profit different from almost any other organization that fixes cars or gives away cars for free, is that they don’t deal directly with the customer, Carlson says. 

Instead of taking in requests directly from the general public, the non-profit only accepts jobs from referrals from their partner organizations. This avoids the tedious and time consuming task of vetting every request to make sure the need is real and someone isn’t just trying to take advantage of a free car or repair. 

The non-profit works with over 40 different agencies including local homeless shelters, jail systems, housing agencies, job training organizations and mental health facilities. All of the organizations have case managers, who will refer their clients to the facility. If the non-profit were to field requests on its own, Carlson estimates he’d have to staff dozens of case managers to meet the overwhelming demand. 

“We aren’t not specifically helping people, so much as we’re helping these organizations help people,” Carlson says. “If somebody can’t afford to fix their car, that’s not the root of their problem. There’s something else going on that got them into a situation where their car isn’t reliable and they can’t afford to fix it.”

What Carlson finds is that these organizations do everything they can to help fix the large issues, whether that’s getting them proper counseling, job training, or housing. But without transportation they can’t get a job and without the job they don’t have money to spend on transportation. That’s where the non-profit steps in. 

“There’s nothing else in our community to help with transportation,” Carlson says, noting the local bus system isn’t operational 24 hours a day or on Sundays and often doesn’t go into the industrial parks that many work at. “Transportation is the No. 1 barrier for these organizations’ clients to become self-sufficient.”

Slow and Steady

When Carlson began the non-profit, he never expected the amount of the support he received or that there would be as big of a need as there has been. 

But now that it has become evident that the for-profit can be fiscally viable and the non-profit can be socially responsible, Carlson is ready to expand. 

They’ve already added an additional repair shop just a mile away in Fargo, ND. 

Carlson’s goal is to grow as fast as reasonably possible while not outgrowing themselves. He believes a franchise model would work best in other communities, that would operate a repair shop during regular business hours and then follow Fix It Forward Ministry’s vision by aiding the non-profit after hours. 

Carlson isn’t setting a hard deadline or timeline on his expansion, but feels that a new shop every couple years is realistic. He is eager to prove the business model will work in other communities. He believes the results that the first shop has produced more than prove that. 

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