We’re always on the lookout for interesting repair shop owners and operators to interview, and anyone who knows Frank Leutz knows he fits the bill, and breaks the mold. Leutz (above, in fedora) is the owner of Desert Car Care in Chandler, Arizona, which just won “Small Business of the Year” via the Chandler Chamber of Commerce. While Leutz is now at the top of his game, he’s experienced ups and downs along the way.
Leutz was thrilled to know we were based in Boston, saying, “You have culture, baby!” and he appreciates that, having grown up in Harlem in the 70s and 80s, which recalls was full of graffiti, true artists, and old jazz musicians. He appreciates culture, and works as hard as he plays; the night before we’d spoken, he was at the shop until 10pm working on videos for his Wrench Nation series.
Here’s his take on his own business journey, as well as his take on two issues faced by the auto-care industry.
How did you begin your journey to the world of auto care?
I started my journey not really knowing what it was all about. It started in Germany. Then I grew up in New York with a stern German mother. She always scraped her pennies up, and sent us to Germany. I used to help my uncle deliver beer and seltzer during the day. And then I helped him wrench at night. I was only seven-years old, and it was greasy, and we had air guns. It was great – it was like an erector set on steroids!
That was how I developed my work ethic. I didn’t think about time. Time and work ethic really screw each other up. They dissolve each other. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my uncle knew that. Back then, I was growing up in NY, surrounded by the inner city vibe and culture, and staying busy was very important.
I kept busy in music class, playing jazz trombone, eventually getting a scholarship to music and arts school, and even went on to play at places like Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, with some of the greats, including Tito Puente and Branford Marsalis. Music was my outlet, and I didn’t pay much attention to education, so I couldn’t get into the top music schools.
Then, I took a hard left. I joined the military as a signalman, and we went to the Persian Gulf. It also took me to Italy, Guatemala… we had a glorious time. To think: I thought I’d seen it all. The military shined a light on fact that money isn’t everything. Happiness comes from the village mentality of people enjoying the simple pleasures, like roasting a pig together.
I’d always treated life like the headlights on a car – I could only see what was 100 yards in front of me. I couldn’t see around the corner.
When I got out of military, I was kind of drifting in the wind, going from job to job, then met wife in 1990, and moved to Arizona. Her Dad owned a garage. I came out reluctantly – like the headlights – I didn’t know what was next.
My wife knew I was drifting, and she said, “Go work with my Dad,” and I protested, “No, I don’t want to get my nails dirty!” It was tough working in a shop at the time; they weren’t doing right by people, or delivering a decent service experience.
Eventually I landed a gig with Chevrolet, because I couldn’t work with family, and I got a lot of formal training, and saw how good it could be in the auto industry. But that dealership was bought out.
I opened my own store in 1995, in a drug-infested neighborhood. I had no idea what I was doing in business. I was working 18 hours a day, and was just losing money. I had no idea about gross profit, or anything about running a business. In my mind, I was busy, and that was good. I thought, “If the guy up the street is charging $70/hour, I’ll be $60/hour.”
I didn’t realize that everything had to be reverse-engineered to the net profit, so I could provide people with a workable wage. I wound up selling the business in 2003. I’m very grateful for that experience. I didn’t get any formal business training for automotive until I started getting together with think tanks, like RL O’Connor out of Seattle.
My own experience with failure now allows me to talk to the 3-5-year shop owner and help them understand the importance of charging the right labor rates, and to explain the importance of marketing. As small business owners, we’re approached with lots of lofty promises, and spin about what resources others can provide, but we need to focus on “nutrients,” and more empowering tools.
I think of Openbay as an empowering tool for consumers; I saw from day one. That’s why I’m involved with Openbay. I like the fact that consumers now have the ability to turn themselves into “pro-sumers,” or professional consumers. People are now doing their homework effectively – they’re watching things like YouTube, and learning more about their purchases.
There are two big issues –in the industry right now: COI and how to attract more qualified people into the industry.
We all talk about return on investment, or ROI, but the progressive state of mind is just as important, and missing that means the COI – the cost of ignoring.
Most average garage owners are stretched thin. They’re working their counters, and they’re not working on the business as much as they should. So they’re not putting any practice in place to keep it there. They’ve got to stay hungry.
I’ve studied on what Openbay’s CEO has done, and know there’s $60 billion of unsold auto repair work. Like Uber, Openbay is delivering consumers what they want, and that’s a more streamlined approach to auto repair.
But most garages don’t know that. They need to look at the bigger picture. ROI is like a fine-cooked meal. It takes an investment — you can’t microwave marketing. It takes work.Shop owners are burned out on referral programs. They’re burned out on review platforms. I know that if I can provide the ingredients, Openbay provides the outlet, and the qualified, in-market customers. As long as Openbay has visitors to the site, and those leads are converting for us, I can do and repeat what I do best, and enjoy the new opportunity and grow. It’s a no-brainer for me.
We’ve got to figure out how to apply education to the remainder of the auto-care industry that’s ignorant. But it has to be a formula that shops across the country will swallow. You can’t force feed the industry.
There’s also the issue of the pipeline of talent, and finding good automotive technicians. But leaders within the industry can’t just fix the problem by showing up at some fancy expo and speaking. We need shop owners to take a pledge, and to do more than sit on advisory boards. They need to commit to bringing in kids to mentor, and to providing them with an inspiring experience, and working with people from local trade schools.
I deal with my micro-element: I’m Phoenix chapter president of the ASA, and I live and die by those guys, the other shop owners. My crew has been with us many years. I hear good people say we can’t find a good place to work. If I’m having someone come in to work with me, it’s not about the paycheck, it’s about inspiration. Everyone needs to find value in the work, and it’s our job to provide that.
We have to pay attention to the next generation, and we’re mentoring kids in our garage. We’re initiating a full-scale mentoring program, to teach techs the next step, and when they’re done, we’ll farm them out to other garages.
Other industry leaders need to help their local trade schools with similar activity, and time is of the essence. Sharing this story of my own ups and downs, and what we need to do to improve is what I feel I owe. I owe the industry by helping my fellow shop owners.