You may be tempted to think that Jim Brown is a lucky case in 2020. He’s one of the shop owners who managed to expand his business in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But the more you learn about Jim’s approach to running his auto shop, the clearer it becomes that he simply proved the old saying true: luck is the crossroads where preparation meets opportunity.
In July 2020, Jim opened the second location of Speed Auto Repair, the shop he started working part-time in 1989 when he was only 17 years old. Back then it was called Speed Oil Change & Tune-Up, a fast-service lube franchise that had recently opened up in Roswell, GA. Jim kept working at Speed all through college, and after earning his business degree, he began to see a future for himself at the shop.
“The guy who started the shop was a retired GE electrical engineer,” Jim says. “He took me under his wing and we grew the business together.”
Jim had big dreams for the shop, even at that young age, and the owner was more than happy to let him run with the ball. He spearheaded Speed’s evolution into an independent, full-service auto repair business, buying-in and becoming co-owner at age 24. Four years later, at the ripe old age of 28, Jim bought out the original owner and changed the name to Speed Auto Repair.
We recently sat down with Jim over video chat from his new Speed Auto Repair location, nine miles down the road in neighboring Alpharetta. He talked to us about his love for the auto repair business, how he took the opportunity to streamline his shop during the initial COVID-19 lockdown period, his efforts to uplift his community through auto repair mentorship programs, and what he thinks is the secret to success in the auto repair business. Here’s what he had to say:
The first three weeks when the virus hit here, everything was frozen. It was a little scary, but the right thing for us to do was push through.
What I was trying to relate to my customers is that we care; we're here for you no matter what.
The first thing I did in response to the lockdown was triple my marketing budget. Social media, videos, mailers—all the things that we normally do—I tripled it. What I was trying to relate to my customers is that we care; we're here for you no matter what. We're not only here to serve your mechanical needs, but we're here to get through this pandemic together no matter what may arise. That could mean repairs or service on your car, or it could mean getting your medicine or groceries if you couldn’t leave your house. I made a video for our customers where we laid it all out: whatever you need, just give us a call and we will make it happen.
The next thing we worked on was our shop’s processes. We asked ourselves: how can we become profitable during these times? Those first few weeks were very slow, so if we didn’t have cars, I set my guys to redoing the floors and painting the walls. We worked on building repairs, redid the parking lot, and repaired and serviced all of our equipment. Everything that needed to be done, we took those three weeks, and we did it. We ended up redoing the entire shop.
Then we worked on all of our systems. We perfected our customer intake, our checkout systems, and our digital inspections. We recreated all of our canned jobs and things like that so that when we got busy again, we were ready to roll. We also worked on our expectations of our employees and retrained them on the profitability of our labor margins, parts margins, and gross profit margins. It simplified us overall. We set the bar, trained our employees, and now they know our expectations.
Tekmetric was a huge help in achieving our system overhaul. Using Tekmetric’s tools, we’re able to see the profitability of each job. Our mark-ups, our parts makeup, our labor matrix——it’s all there. And now that we’ve overhauled and perfected our system, we’ve been able to take it to the new store and duplicate it.
I’ve always wanted to expand the business to another location, but I got really serious about it in January 2020. We wanted a location that was far enough away that we could serve a different clientele, but not so far away that I couldn’t easily manage both locations. We kept looking at locations, trying to find the exact right fit between distance, road frontage, income, car count on the roads, and stuff like that.
When the virus hit, I started hearing all these rumors about shop owners who were up there in age and thinking about getting out of the auto repair business. Then in May, the opportunity to take over this Alpharetta location presented itself, and it felt like now was the time to take the chance. We jumped on it, and officially opened our second location on July 13th.
Our big innovation during the pandemic was touchless service: you book an appointment using our online portal, and we’ll come to your house to pick your car up for you. I’d never really thought of doing anything like that before, but it became such a hit that we decided to keep doing it. Most people weren’t even leaving the house when we started the touchless service, so we marketed it as a perfect opportunity for them to finally get all the repairs that they had been putting off because they needed the car to drive back and forth to work.
Once we pick up the car and get it in the shop, we perform our inspection and use Tekmetric to send pictures of all work that needs to be done directly to the customer’s phone. The invoice is attached to the report as well, so they can pay it right there on their phone, and they never have to leave the safety of their home. Before we take the car back, we sanitize the interior, run an ozone machine inside the cabin to purify the air, and completely cover the floors, seats, and steering wheel to drive it back to their house. Once it’s back, we take all that stuff out, wipe the interior down one more time, and that’s it. That whole time, you never even have to see us.
Our previous shop management system was a program that we had written specifically for us. It lasted us about 10 or 12 years, and it worked well for us at the time, but we needed more information. We weren’t tracking as many things as we could, and it was very difficult to track labor profitability, parts profitability, jobs, and everything else. If you wanted to time the technicians in order to track their efficiency, you would have to put a clock on their box. To be honest, those methods are not very accurate.
When we started looking for a new shop management system, our number one goal was to go cloud-based. Right away, we started running into barriers. We use Apple products at all of our stores, and most of the other systems aren’t compatible. We had 25,000 customers in our database with complete histories of all their work: names, addresses, emails, everything. The other systems we were talking to said that we would have to lose all of that information.
Tekmetric has worked very well for us so far. All my guys love it. They love being paperless and doing digital inspections. They all have iPads, and a few of my guys even use their phones. It just makes things easier. You can teach anyone how to use it. We don’t have to walk back and forth from the front office to the back all day long, so it’s easier to communicate. The digital inspections have all the pictures right there with typed up descriptions of what needs to be done. It’s much easier to sell a job when everything’s written on the inspection, and you have the pictures to back it up.
It just makes things easier.
I think the biggest benefit of using Tekmetric is that we’re able to see our customer retention and our profitability for the week, the day, and the job. I think that's huge. We use these reports to lay everything out and see what kind of workforce we're going to need for the week. It’s also much easier to track our technicians’ efficiency. I can see the time that they’re in the building versus what they’re producing and what they track on their labor times. It’s much simpler than any other method I’ve used before.
Before we were on Tekmetric, I wasn’t using any special program for customer retention. Now we use the MyShopManager and integrate it with Tekmetric, which has worked well for us. It’s really simple to manage our reputation and respond to our online reviews. I just log on in the evening and go through the list for both stores.
The whole Tekmetric crew has just been awesome, too. Any time there’s any kind of issue, call, or write-up, they take care of it almost immediately. We’re always excited when there’s a new update. We appreciate that Tekmetric is constantly changing to what the industry's needs are, and at the same time, taking care of their individual shops’ needs. I like that we're able to call up and get somebody on the phone immediately. We love the product and we love people.
I'm a huge believer in serving our community in any kind of way. Wherever we go, we're going to embed ourselves and become a part of the neighborhood. That extends beyond car repair. We ask ourselves what we can do for the folks who live here.
We have a mentor program that we offer to some of the local high school and college students who want to become entrepreneurs later in life. They learn the auto repair trade, but they also learn about the business side of things. We also run a young driver's workshop for students and other people who are just getting their driver’s licenses. It’s all the stuff that you don’t really think about if you’ve been driving for a while, but that you need to know. We teach them about their cars, what the lights on the dash mean, how to change a tire, and what to do if you get in an accident. I’ve written some small books to teach children about how to become safe drivers. We’ve been doing these programs at the Roswell location for a while now, and we’re about to start it up in Alpharetta.
Back in August, we offered free and half-price oil changes to the teachers who were going back to work. When school got out at the start of the pandemic, we offered every single school employee a free oil change. It’s an easy way for us to give back to our community, and it lets them meet us and see if they like our service. Hopefully, they’ll use us again someday.
If you’re trying to get into the auto repair business, my advice is to create a superstar team with your employees. I’m constantly hiring on all platforms and interviewing potential new employees. I’m out there in the community, too. I ask our customers who come from other shops if they knew the mechanic at their previous shop. I set time aside each week to try to recruit people. Once they’re hired, I also believe in continuing to train. Whether it’s with each other or through coaching, I believe in having the team be a constant part of the training process and being held accountable.
I love this industry. I love the people, I love the cars, I love the business. And I still do my best to keep getting better and stay an industry leader. I learn about the cars, the direction we're headed—everything. And as I keep growing in the industry, I grow my business along the way.
For more information about Speed Auto Repair, visit speedautorepair.com