4 Business Lessons I Learned from my Mechanic

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In the past, when I’ve looked for career advice and mentors, I’ve sought out wisdom from leaders in my field and other white-collar professions.

But I recently starting going to a new mechanic in my neighborhood who knows as much about business as he does about cars (which is saying a lot). Not only does he keep my red 1999 Subaru Forester running like a top, the lessons I’ve learned from him have helped me keep my burgeoning business running smoothly too. Here are four of my favorites:

Lesson 1: Be a business owner, not an employee. While sucking on his Camel and plugging a hole in the rear tire of my car, Frank once casually mentioned that he owns a house in an affluent New York City suburb where he lives with his wife and four kids in their 20s – plus a weekend home in the Hamptons, a haven for the rich and famous. How’d he do it? He said that he’d started working at the six-lift garage when he was a 17-year-old kid in the neighborhood--and then bought the operation from its owner.

The Takeaway: Owning a business means you own assets and wealth. Working for a business means you own a paycheck. The earlier you start your business, the more time you have to build your assets. (True, I’d already started my freelance writing business when I started going to him. But his basic business success, built on earning passive income and building equity in an enterprise, has influenced me as I build out new products that deviate from my old service business model of merely writing for money.)

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Lesson 2: Love what you do. “This is fulfilling work,” Frank said, standing under my station wagon, tightening up some parts that had rattled loose (but that I was unaware of). It was late on a Friday on a holiday weekend after the shop had closed, and while we spoke, his longtime wife–the naturally pretty blonde in the framed pictures behind his desk–called to ask what he wanted for dinner. Still, he took his time under my car rather than hustling me out. “It used to be really fun back in the day when all the muscle cars came in. Now cars are all run by computers,” Frank said, as he worked. “But it is still satisfying to see that you fixed something at the end of the day.”

Takeaway: Your career is long. Find work that you enjoy enough to devote long hours -- and many years -- to.

Lesson 3: Communicate with the customer. While doing a routine timing belt change, some complications came up. Frank didn’t wait until I strolled in at his recommended time to tell me. He called me several times throughout the day to keep me posted as he explored the engine, how the findings translated into costs, and how they affected completion time. When my ride was finally done, Frank walked me over to a small table where the old parts were laid out, and explained how each one works and pointed out where they were broken. Maybe he’d sniffed out that I’m a dunce about cars, but his tone was far from condescending. I got the sense that he does the same for every customer.

Takeaway: Know your client’s pain point and expectations, and keep them posted. Knowledge=trust. Surprises=bad.

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Lesson: Be current, and candid, about prices and services. Now, being the car dunce that I am, I have no idea what the cutting edge of auto-repair technology actually entails. But I do know that Frank’s garage is the only one in his area that relies on an actual computer that prints out an actual receipt detailing parts and labor. When you call for a quote, he takes your information and calls you back after researching it through an app. By comparison, his competitors blurt out a figure off the top of their heads and a receipt is scribbled on a carbon-paper notepad–but only if you ask. And he takes credit cards. The last guy I used was cash or check. And all checks were to be made out to "cash."

Takeaway: You build authority and trust with customers and vendors if you use the latest information and transparent methods to explain your pricing and services.

Of course, Frank's business model is nothing new. But the principles by which he’s succeeded could be the basis for a business school course. Fortunately, he’s been willing to share them for the (very reasonable) price of an oil change and a new set of spark plugs.  

Emma Johnson blogs at WealthySingleMommy.com.  

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