HOUSTON — Christian Brothers Automotive Corp. unveiled a growth plan in 2008 with the goal of reaching 200 franchised auto repair shops by 2017. With its 113th store slated to open in August, the company is well on its way to meeting that target. In fact, the franchisor, which was founded in 1982, expects to open an additional 10 stores, mostly in new markets, by year-end. New stores, which the company builds and then leases to its franchisees, are planned for Tampa, Fla.; Indianapolis; Denver; Omaha, Neb.; Minneapolis; and Charlotte, N.C. Christian Brothers invests about $1.5 million to $2 million to buy real estate and build a franchise store, while the franchise owner is expected to invest $360,000 to $420,000, according to Josh Wall, vice president, franchise and strategic development for Houston-based Christian Brothers. He said the company has chosen to build all its stores to integrate its unique aesthetic design rather than renovate an existing building. "We have explored doing a retrofit in several markets, especially in the last five or six years as, in certain markets, those can be the only options available to us," Mr. Wall told Tire Business. "But it turns out to be as expensive or sometimes more expensive to go in and retrofit, to have our same aesthetic look and feel for a franchise location." With stores in 16 states, Christian Brothers expects to net $130 million to $135 million in sales this year, compared with $120 million in 2012. Unit volume sales per store are expected to average $1.16 million this year, compared with $1.14 million in 2012. The stores offer bumper-to-bumper automotive services, except tires. Mr. Wall said the franchise has refrained from selling tires—although some of its stores do offer them—due to the need for extra space to stock the product and add equipment and training. When opening in a new market, the company helps its franchisee build brand recognition with its custom "SureStart" program in which a franchisee develops grassroots marketing, builds relationships in the community, buys selective media advertising and hosts grand opening events. In addition to entering new markets, Christian Brothers has been expanding its training program for new franchise owners. Most of the people who sign up for a Christian Brothers franchise have no experience in the auto repair industry—other than being a customer at a repair shop, Mr. Wall said. Christian Brothers considers that to be ample experience for customer service. "They know what it feels like to be served in this industry and that usually is a great place to have them motivated to really do a better job than what's out there in the industry today. That helps us to stand out a bit," Mr. Wall said. As for the mechanical and management side of the business, a new franchisee undergoes years of training. "Our training is pretty extensive and begins about a year before they open their business. It's part-time for a while, as our franchisee is typically still working for an employer or having their own business prior to opening a Christian Brothers. But we begin really focusing on the industry education...about small business ownership and the Christian Brothers philosophy," he said. Then, during the first year after a store's opening, the owner works with a coach—a member of the corporate staff who has business ownership experience. On a weekly basis the coach contacts the franchisee and analyzes the business' operations, the team dynamics and the leadership style. This year, Christian Brothers has hired additional staff to help franchisees beyond the first year and help coach owners through the first five years of operation. "The SBA (federal Small Business Administration) qualifies a mature business as being 5 years old," Mr. Wall said. "And so we want to work with these franchisees to a point of maturity and helping them to really understand their business needs at year three vs. year one or year five, because it's different. "So that program has been very successful as we really build those relationships in years two through five. We're also building internal peer groups where these franchise owners from different markets across the country can really have effective best practice sharing and peer coaching and encouragement." The company also has expanded its customer communications by recently implementing a program in which its shops email customers their repair estimates rather than just making a phone call. Mr. Wall said email can be more convenient and expedient for customers who can simply read the breakdown on services and costs and then reply to the shop with their approval. In another aspect to improving customers service—and subsequently sales—Christian Brothers has recently invested in flash programming tools and training for all its shops. "Most vehicles that we're seeing today will require flash reprogramming and we've been integrating that into our service model. It's been a multi-year process while we've been determining the best equipment to install in the stores and to train (service personnel)," Mr. Wall said, adding that flash programming is "the biggest trend we've seen in the past couple of years." In addition to training technicians on how to use the tools, the company has been training counter staff on how to educate customers on the importance of the expensive service. The company has built its reputation around its stores' customer service and aesthetically pleasing waiting areas, but not on the meaning of its name, which derives from the founders' religious orientation. "That's something our customers may or may not pick up about us," Mr. Wall said, noting, "That is probably the most popular question we get from first-time customers: 'Are these two brothers with the last name Christian?' "And that's great. It gives us a chance to talk about the history of the company a bit. But often times we'll serve customers who may think that's the case for several years before they may pick up on it. Any customer from any type of religious background could come into our store and feel very welcome, very warm and served at a high level, and that's the goal." To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127.
Christian Brothers solidly on target to reach goal of 200 stores by 2017
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