We will never forget the day the owner of the shop next door stopped by and asked our manager, “Who are your best mechanics?”
The manager quickly replied, “Dale and Tony”. That was us and because we were “the best,” the business opportunity of a lifetime fell in our lap.
The mechanic shop next door also worked on cars, but only brakes and mufflers. And because that was all they worked on, they would refer out the piddliest little jobs to us. We took them and did our best, even though they were small jobs. We knew most of the guys who worked there, but we had never met the owner.
But on this day, for the first time, we met the owner of the shop next door.
He said, “I only have about 12 more quality years to live. I don’t want to spend them running this shop. I need a couple good people to take over. Are you two interested?”
“Yeah! Of course!” we said enthusiastically, almost in unison.
But when we approached our manager about our new opportunity, he wasn’t as enthusiastic. He didn’t want to lose us.
He said, “You know the grass is not always greener.”
Dale didn’t hesitate in his reply, “I intend to mow this grass and water it. It will work. I will turn out green grass.”
Suddenly, Dale and I became partners. Though we had been working in the industry for many years as employees, running a business is an entirely different animal. Suddenly, all the responsibility of making everything work was on us.
The Importance of a Savvy, Skilled Trainer/Mentor in Start-up
The owner trained us for a couple weeks and then said, “Okay, I’m going to go to lunch. You two can take care of it.”
In unison, we “freaked out.”
We had never done anything like this before. The phone rang and I told Dale to get it, and Dale told me to answer it. Finally, one of us got it and we made it through lunch.
Then the next day, the owner said he was going to be gone for the afternoon. We freaked out again.
We asked the owner how we would figure out pricing and all of that.
“You’ll figure it out,” he said. And we did.
Then he was gone for several days. He took us step by step through many of the processes, but he didn’t babysit us. He expected us to figure out much of it on our own. If we were really stuck, he was available to answer questions. I look back now and realize he did a really good job of balancing teaching us vs. letting us figure it out on our own.
The owner also helped us with “owner financing” and let us buy him out. But since he was sick, he encouraged us to pay him off faster. He motivated us in this decision by sharing some real-life details. He said, “It will be really messy if I’m not here and you have to deal with my heirs, my wife, the lawyers, so you all need to get your own financing…” We were motivated and we ultimately did, but he did help us with the money in the beginning (which helped a lot).”
The Big Difference in Doing the Job vs. Being the Boss
When we first started and felt vulnerable and overwhelmed, the owner reminded us, “You two are less vulnerable than I was in this business. If every one of my techs walked out, I couldn’t do anything. If your techs walk out on you two, you can go in there and go to work.”
It was still a big adjustment for us. We had to shift our thinking from being techs involved strictly with “talking” to cars to talking with customers.
“Before, people would shove a work order in our face and say, ‘Here, do this,’” And we would.
Now, we talk to customers all day. It’s a completely different ballgame.” We talk to customers, manage employees and do all the paperwork. And for years, we didn’t take a vacation.
And having employees? Can I be honest? Dale snickered and tilted his head toward his employee techs “Sometimes it’s like babysitting.” When I was an employee, I never saw it like that.
And Tony chimed in, “Really, the most difficult part of the business is the paperwork because it is complicated and hard to keep straight.”
Tony continued, “It has been seven years now and we are just to the point where we can leave on vacation and everything will be okay.”
Our Complimentary Talents Make Us a Good Team
“Dale and I knew each other in high school.” “We were just passing buddies—didn’t know each other really well. After graduation, I went to an automotive school in Arizona. I learned the book knowledge. Tony had some hard knocks and he just went straight to work and learned to fix things—the practical part. So, one of us has book knowledge and the other one has practical knowledge. We are a good team.”
As partners, “We butt heads every once in a while. It is sorta like being married, but we compromise and work through it.”
In spite of all the difficulties, we love this business. We have never forgotten that the reason we were given this opportunity in the first place was because we always did our best and wanted to be the best at our work.”
In this career transition from employee to entrepreneur, Dale and Tony shared a passion for excellence. They had the right lawn mower at the right time and a profound desire for green grass.