THE FORMER BUDGET DIRECTOR FOR THE BILLION-DOLLAR HOUSTON SCHOOL SYSTEM SAYS THE AUTO REPAIR FRANCHISE’S SYSTEMS ARE STATE-OF-THE ART — BUT IT’S MISSION IS EVEN MORE SPECIAL
Before Chip Fenner started one of the first Christian Brothers Automotive franchises, he was the budget director for the Houston Independent School District, managing a billion-dollar budget and trying to balance the needs of students and educators with demands from the community and school board. “People don’t understand just how hard people in school systems work,” he says. “I was tired of the bureaucracy and was ready to do something else.”
A friend from church told Chip that (Christian Brothers Automotive CEO) Mark Carr was beginning to franchise his auto repair business, and he should check it out. “I was thinking, ‘there is no way I’m going to open some greasy, grimy car repair place.’ ”
Chip was right. He didn’t buy a greasy, grimy repair shop. He bought a spotless, friendly, comfortable repair business — one with a great business model and plan for growth.“When I actually drove out to the Woodlands store and realized how different it was, I thought ‘wow, this is something I’d be proud to do.’ ”
He’s now owned that store in Houston for 15 years, and he added a second store five years ago. This is his story.
Who told you about about Christian Brothers?
I found out out about it through church. Mark and I go to church together at BridgePoint Bible Church, and as Mark’s business became successful, and he started to grow, a lot of people paid attention. The first few years Christian Brothers was franchising, a lot of the growth came from people at the church who knew business, knew Mark and wanted to be involved. The pastor wasn’t too happy, because people were moving to Atlanta, moving to Dallas, moving to Tennessee to open stores!
What do you like about being a franchise owner?
I like that I get to make my own decisions within the model. You have to do things that are consistent with the brand, but as a business owner you have flexibility. I like being in charge of running the shop and handling employees. If things go wrong, you can only look to yourself — and I like that. The business model is very good, and if you follow it correctly, you do well.
I also enjoy the people in the organization. I have a lot of great friends in the system who are good, godly men and women, and I enjoy getting together with them. Some of the ones here in town, we have a monthly golf get-together. We’ll also get together for lunch sometimes. That’s in addition to regional meetings that bring owners together.
What sets Christian Brothers apart?
We are followers of Christ, and we honor him by providing great service, and that sets the tone for who we are and what we do. We’re not in-your-face about it. I give away free Bibles on my counter, but a lot of people, when they first walk in, they ask “Which one of you is named Christian?” Once they get to know us and see the way we treat them, they begin to understand. We are committed to service, not just to accomplish our business goals, but also because we feel like we’re answering to our savior in everything that we do. When I’m dealing with a customer, I try to recognize Christ in them, and see Jesus standing there before me, which makes it clear how they should be treated. Another way to look at it is, how would you treat that customer if it was your mom, or aunt, or daughter, or grandfather? You’d take care of them the right way. That’s what we do, and we trust God for the results.
Apart from the spiritual aspect of the business, how does Christian Brothers stand out?
It’s a turnkey business that is smartly designed to help you succeed. If you follow the model, you will be successful. (Christian Brothers has never closed a location.) It’s going to be hard work, but you will succeed.
It’s important to be able to follow the system. There are certain types of people who want to start their own business from scratch and tinker to make it work. This isn’t that. There is a framework for how to operate that you need to follow. There is a lot of wiggle room, but you have to run the business so that it’s consistent with other Christian Brothers. The really nice thing is, there are so many other Christian Brothers who you can call for advice, who are out there working hard and boosting your reputation.
Who is the right fit from a business perspective?
I’m not going to flower up everything: Businesses are a risk. If it was easy, everybody would own one. You have to work hard, you have to go out and shake hands — you have to pay attention to all the pieces to make it work. If you’re not good at follow through, or if you’re not patient, you should think twice. You’re not always going to be rolling in money. It takes hard work and prayer to make this work. The good thing is that, if you ever run into trouble, you make a phone call and ask for an honest assessment of what’s going on. A corporate coach or another franchisee can ask you “Have you done this? Have you done that? Are you making sure to call customers back?” There are a lot of little things that are easy to forget, and I like to visit other franchisees to get a refresher on what I should be doing and what they are having success with. Part of that is staying on top of changes in the way you can find business. When I started 15 years ago, Facebook and Twitter were non-existent. You have to stay on top of those things.
How important is previous automotive experience for a Christian Brothers owner?
It’s not necessary at all. There’s a quick learning curve on a lot of this stuff. At first I didn’t know much about repairs. I’d be under the car looking up and learning from my technicians so I could explain what was wrong to my customers. That was helpful, because the customer is not an expert either, and it was easier for me to put the issue in layman’s terms. You know, a customer doesn’t need to know everything that goes into making a watch — they just need to know that one of the gears is bent and that’s why the watch isn’t working, and you need to replace it.
What attracts customers to Christian Brothers?
With the kind of people Christian Brothers accepts into the system, what we believe comes through to our customers. I enjoy talking to them about what’s going on in their lives and getting to know them. We want long-term relationships with customers, and that starts by taking care of them and doing what makes the best sense for them. For instance, say they’re planning to trade in their car in a week. Why change the brakes if there’s 1,000 miles worth of life left in the pads? We’d tell them to skip it, and they are shocked by that kind of honesty.
As the budget director for a billion-dollar school district, you had to master financial data. How do Christian Brothers’ tools compare?
I’m a CPA by trade, so the financial management comes easy to me. Everything Christian Brothers uses is state-of-the-art — top notch, quality stuff.