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Surviving Suicide – Part 2

May 5, 2010

To continue on from yesterday’s post, my late husband Rob opened up his own business in 1986. He originally started it out of town, with 2 partners (against my intuition, which was correct) and had at least a 1 hour drive each way with heavy traffic. Customers that had done high performance enhancements were almost married to Rob as he’d done the conversions, but even they didn’t like the distance. The bread and butter of any automotive repair shop is the day to day maintenance of a vehicle, but they weren’t coming for that, only when they had issues with their high performance related conversions. Long story short – it wasn’t too long before personality issues amongst the partners started surfacing and I don’t think it lasted even one year before it was being dissolved. The other 2 partners had not put any money into Rob’s business, one had provided the building to house the business, the other partner had just been given 33% because Rob and he were friends and had worked together at the BMW dealership for many years and he was quite an amazing mechanic too. It cost the friendships and several thousands to terminate the incorporated business and Rob learned a great lesson of what not to do again. I did not tell him “I told you so”, instead just supported him in transitioning on and getting a local location.

He and his brother found a new location in Toronto. At this time I was not working, was pursuing my own dream to create a Rock Concert Fashion show in Toronto called “Fashion Rocks”, but was having difficulty in getting about $16K for advertising. Looking back on that dream now, I realize I should have just persevered because my idea was just ahead of its time as many years later, “Fashion Rocks” became a huge success and was televised from the UK I believe. Oh well … lesson learned, filed for later. I had several years of accounting experience from working many different jobs that were all related to accounting. I was quite hurt and peeved that my husband wouldn’t have asked me at that point to join him and help run the business, but instead asked his brother who had no business experience whatsoever. I knew then as I’d known the first time he partnered, that it was a bad choice to work with his brother, much history had proven that out, I voiced my opinion again, but it wasn’t listened to.

His brother found a “great” location he announced. I asked if it was zoned for automotive repair and neither of them had even considered this, yet they’d gone ahead and ordered utility services like gas, hydro, water, printed business cards, letterhead, ordered phones, etc. and had incurred quite a bit in legal fees to do this too. Once I pointed out about the zoning, it was discovered that no it was not zoned automotive and so they had to cut their losses and quickly find a new location. They finally found an old beat up building in the outskirts of the Beaches area of Toronto, ironically not too far from where Rob had worked at the dealer. Poured a new concrete floor, painted everything freshly, had built an office enclosure and opened the door. Many of the customers who wouldn’t make the drive out of town came back when they heard Rob had opened a new shop. Within a few months of being in business, Rob asked me if I could come into the office and “take a look” at the bills as he was getting quite a few phone calls asking for payment from suppliers, etc. and he didn’t think his brother was doing a very good job lol! I did come in, found this huge folder of unpaid bills at least 90-120 days, tallied everything up and updated Rob on what was owed and got them paid. At that point, he did realize his brother’s strength was not running the administrative side of things and asked that I come to work with him. I did so gladly and for the first couple of years it was absolute bliss! We were making a ton of money, were ecstatic at how successful the business was, how great the customer base was and how enthused they were about his work. Word of mouth was how we got most of our customers, nothing better than that! We’d stay late and arrive early because it was just a great business to be part of. Customers would roll in at the end of the business day to pick up their cars, they’d pay happily and then stay for hours just to shoot the “doo doo” lol! Was a wonderfully positive time in our lives.

Five years later our landlord announced he wouldn’t renew the lease, so we were forced to find a new location. This time I said we needed to be more “downtown” and we did find a great new location. This benefitted growth even more because now we were within a few minutes of the downtown area in Toronto and customers could easily grab a cab to get to work after dropping off their vehicles. I’d brought on a very good friend of ours to train and groom to do what I did for about 1 1/2 years before I planned a pregnancy leave. Then when my son was born, I was fortunate to be able to spend the first 2 1/2 years of his life with him at home, it was all due to my planning. Once I was away from the shop, tensions began to build with our friend/Office Manager and Rob. One issue came up that my friend/office manager couldn’t resolve or actually didn’t want to handle himself with Rob, it was a very serious one and he discussed it with me. I told him to either confront Rob about it, or I would and gave him 24 hours. He did not discuss it with Rob so I did and Rob blew up and fired him on the spot and that left no one to run the biz. I had to go back to work and for a while, brought my son into work with me which was quite challenging as an automotive shop is not exactly a safe place for a child, but we managed as we had a spare office and put up a travel crib and he merrily booted around on his little battery powered 4 wheeler and the mechanics who worked for us really took a shine to my son and worked very carefully when moving cars in and out. After about 6 months, I found a great daycare just down the street and my son thrived there so the problem was solved. Again our landlord would not renew, with very short notice to us, about 2 months as I recall, so this was a new hurdle to overcome.

I as I’d always done, found a solution. I decided at that time that as it was our business, we could set the rules and decided to move our biz to where we lived to stop the commute. Our business hours were totally radical for our industry, we worked only a 4 day work week, Monday to Thursday and had a 3 day weekend which was very civilized. Some told us we couldn’t do that, we’d never succeed, but we did. A few customers complained but I’d just tell them “hey you make a little less but you save your sanity” and that seemed to make sense to them, for those who didn’t like it, they didn’t become a customer because we just weren’t a match. I knew at the time it was a big risk leaving behind most of our customers, but we found an existing turnkey biz to purchase which was a 6 bay Firestone dealership in Mississauga. We left probably 95% of our customers behind as they lived/worked in downtown Toronto, but we felt because it was an existing biz with established clients, we’d be okay.

We moved to our new Firestone location Sept. ’99. It was not the clientelle we were used to at all. We’d come from a customer base of business men/women, doctors, lawyers, professionals to a very rough crowd. I used to say our customers resembled those out of the movie Deliverance, and would hum a few bars of that well known banjo song. I truly am not exaggerating. Our shop was only 10 minutes from where we lived so that was a huge bonus, but the price we paid was being a franchisee and being dictated to by Head Office and dealing with a clientelle that averaged early 70’s for vehicles, many of which shouldn’t even have still been on the road! Some were so old and rusty that we couldn’t even put their vehicles on a regular hoist as the pick-up points on their car for the hoist were so rusted that we’d have punctured their cars as the hoist bore the weight. It was complete culture shock for Rob, and one day I couldn’t find him so went upstairs to the tire stockroom looking for him and he was pacing back and forth freaking out saying we’d made a huge mistake. I calmed him down, said we’ve got no choice but to move forward, that we could turn the clientelle around and it would be fine. Less than 6 months after purchasing the Firestone franchise, the infamous tire recall happened between Ford Exploders (Explorers but that’s what we called them ;)) and factory original spec Firestone tires. It was devastating and pretty much a 50% loss straight across the board not only in tire sales, but even worse in repair work.

To top this all off, my husband and I separated Feb. 2000, both mutually agreeable because things just weren’t working, but decided to continue working together as we had much vested. The combination of separating and the tire recall was a tremendous strain, but we forged forward.

I’ll continue tomorrow and give more details on my story which now resembled a bad B Rated Movie!

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