HOUSTON (Aug. 18, 2008) — Mark Carr is a believer in divine intervention.
The Houston entrepreneur, who was clueless about how a car worked when he and a friend opened an auto repair shop in 1982, is today president and chief executive officer of a 53-store automotive service chain with annual revenues of $50 million and that adheres to the basic Christian principle, “'Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Mr. Carr bought out his original partner in 1984.)
The genesis of Christian Brothers Automotive Corp. (CBAC) is as remarkable as its growth.
“I was working for a photographic business but I had basically become an order taker,” Mr. Carr recounted. “It got to the point I was so bored, one night I got down on my knees next to my bed and pleaded, 'God, if you have a plan for me, please send me a sign, because this life just isn't it.'”
The very next day a Bible study class friend, who was a mechanic, approached him about starting an auto repair business. Another friend helped Mr. Carr, who had very little formal business education, create and hone a business plan and then introduced him to a banker. He borrowed $70,000 to start the business.
“We were so young, we went down to the bank with a suitcase figuring we'd get the money in cash,” Mr. Carr said.
He also sought advice from successful business owners and did some planning. “I sat down and made a list of all the reasons people hated to get their cars fixed. The customer doesn't want to feel stupid. People want to understand, not be talked down to. They also want to know the owner's there. If you know the manager's going to be there, you'll be a lot more peaceful.”
It took seven tough years, including a period when he said he came close to losing his home, before Mr. Carr felt he could leave the security of his photographic ser¬vices job to work at Christian Brothers exclusively.
“I didn't advertise at all. It was all word of mouth. What's marketing? It's not advertising. It's how you interact with the customer. It keeps us alive.”
The franchising venture came about after a fellow church member wanted to open a location in 1996, and its gross sales in the first year were outstanding. Another friend then wanted to open a third store and Mr. Carr agreed.
CBAC hasn't looked back. The chain is in seven states and plans to expand in cities like St. Louis; Columbia, S.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Little Rock, Ark.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Las Vegas. The company (www.cbac.com) scouts locations and management scopes out the surrounding community from a helicopter before making final decisions. Franchisees have no say in the locations but can indicate their preferences.
Franchise candidates who make the cut after a rigorous interview process—“We probably turn down people four to one,” Mr. Carr noted—need to come up with $65,000 in cash and CBAC helps them obtain a Small Business Administration loan of about $260,000. Five of his franchisees are women.
Mr. Carr said that years of experience and good management means a franchisee's average income is about $125,000 a year, including a $70,000 salary for the franchise owner—after expenses and the 50/50 split with the corporation off of the net. CBAC reports that technicians typically make $25 to $35 per hour, service writers earn about $35,000 annually and service managers can make from $50,000 to $60,000.
Hiring, insurance and accounting are done at CBAC's Houston headquarters, where Christian Brothers' signature hotel-like facilities are recreated for training of franchise owners. Customers sit on comfortable leather couches instead of plastic chairs, and wood flooring and decorative lighting is the norm—not grease-stained walls or girlie calendars.
Mr. Carr, whose passions include art, designed the interiors. “How much did it cost to do this to each shop? $65,000. It isn't that much to make it look good,” he acknowledged.
Acquiring the land and building the facility costs an average $1.4 million, Mr. Carr said. He once retained ownership of the land and buildings, but for the last three years or so CBAC has changed its approach, waiting about a year, then selling the facility to either the franchisee or a third party. The profits are used to fuel the corporation's expansion.
Although one of its locations sells an average 20 sets of tires a month, tires aren't part of CBAC's customary services, though repairs and replacement are done. Sometimes, at a customer's request, the work can be taken to a nearby tire store at no markup.
“We're ensuring that our franchisees have the proper equipment to replace the direct (tire pressure monitoring) system (TPMS) sensors and relearn both types of systems during tire repair or replacement,” said David Welty, CBAC's director of automotive technology. Each location is equipped at startup with a tire balancer, tire changer and alignment equipment, he said. Older locations often update their alignment equipment to keep up with the evolution of this industry.
“As the industry changes so do we so we can continue to provide our customers with the highest level of service that they could expect from any repair shop in the country,” Mr. Carr said.
Neil Hand, a former dental technician, said opening his location in south Austin, Texas, in September 2005 has “been life changing.”
The store, featuring epoxy floors and 10 working bays, keeps four ASE-certified master technicians with more than 100 years of experience working at near full capacity, Mr. Hand said.
“We have a calendar three, four days out in advance. And we try to keep some time open for the emergencies. We don't pressure anyone to do everything at one time. We do it on their financial calendar.”
His shop enjoys a high percentage of repeat business, a lot of customers being widows whose husbands used to maintain their cars, and as many as four or five vehicles per family.
“The name on the building is tested every day,” Mr. Hand said. “We have a really good path to follow. We don't waiver from that. We read and re-read the owners manual and tried to apply it with God in mind.
“God's also brought us the right people. If you don't have the right people, you can have all the mottos you want and it won't mean a thing.”
Mr. Carr said CBAC will continue to grow on basic Christian principles. “'Love your neighbor as you love yourself.'
“There's not a country, race, creed or person that doesn't want that. We're in an industry that's really not known for it. The other thing is, people want to be told the truth. Just the truth.
“It could be bad news. It could be good news. We hope it's good, but if it's bad, it's the truth. We'll deal with it. We'll lay it out for you. It's just that simple.”