COUPLE HAS FOUND A HOME, AND A VERY SUCCESSFUL YOUNG BUSINESS, IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
Steve and Andrea Peterson are off to one of the best starts in the history of the Christian Brothers Automotive franchise. Their store opened in Castle Rock, Colorado, in February, and it has made a huge difference in their lives. Steve used to be removed from the customers in a corporate office for a hospital company he ran, and now he can directly interact with the people he serves. Andrea and Steve both get to see much more of each other. As an added bonus, they now live in ski country — a dream come true for the Texas couple.
This is their story.
What were you doing before Christian Brothers Automotive?
Steve: I had spent 20 years working on the administrative and management side of healthcare companies. Before joining Christian Brothers I had been part of a for-profit healthcare system that was growing until the economy melted down. Between the recession and the rapid changes to healthcare regulations, I decided it was time to do something different.
At the same time, both of our daughters were out of the house, so Andrea and I started asking ourselves, “If we could live anywhere we wanted, where would we go?” We settled on Colorado — we enjoy skiing — and started looking at business opportunities there.
We knew we wanted something that would allow us to work together. I wanted to be closer to the customer, too. I had spent my whole career in corporate offices and wanted to be able to interact with the people I serve.
How did you find out about Christian Brothers?
Steve: We had been Christian Brothers customers for over a decade, starting when we lived in Dallas. When we moved to Houston, we started going to a Christian Brothers there, and my daughters are going to school in College Station, Texas, and Fort Worth, Texas, and they take their cars to Christian Brothers, too. We were always impressed with the way we were treated as customers.
Andrea: We didn’t know they franchised until we started looking at business opportunities.
Steve: I was interested in the auto repair industry, and it was one in which we thought we could make a difference for customers. I noticed a franchise opportunities link on Christian Brothers’ website and filled out a form that asked where I was interested in opening a location. The timing was great, because Christian Brothers was ready to start rapidly expanding in Colorado.
How did your experience as customers inform your decision?
Andrea: Speaking as a woman, it’s a different experience going in there. You don’t feel uncomfortable, because it is such a clean, warm, inviting environment. Every lobby looks like someone’s living room, and the lobbies are kept pristinely clean. That’s true in the garage area, too. Out in the shop, we are very focused on cleanliness. Our shop floors are white! We clean them all the time. If you walk into a business and it is dirty, it makes you uneasy. You don’t ever feel that way here.
Steve: The customer experience is great. Then, when we looked at the business model and saw their success and their track record, we knew it was a good fit.
Do you work together in the business every day?
Andrea: We knew we wanted to own a business together, but I’m not in the business full-time. I handle the marketing and advertising initiatives for the business. When we were still in Houston I earned a master’s degree in tourism administration. I’ve been a corporate meeting planner for some large international businesses. It’s a skill I could use just about anywhere, and I’ve been able to use my gifts and talents to get the word out about Christian Brothers in the community.
I teach meeting and events management at one of the universities in Denver, which is where I am spending a lot of my time. One of the things I like best about Christian Brothers, though, is that we get to see a lot more of each other.
Steve: There is no more constant travel. When we first started the hospital company I had been with, we were living in Dallas. But I was spending every other week in Houston, as well as traveling to other cities. We eventually moved to Houston just to not have to travel as much, but it was still a lot. I remember once when I was home, Andrea asked me, “Do you realize you have already been gone 100 days this year?” Now we get to spend time together.
What do you like about owning a Christian Brothers?
Steve: I like interacting with customers. I tell people that, of all the things I do, the last thing I would give up are the keys to the shuttle car. When you drive people to work or home or wherever they need to go while their car is being repaired, you get to spend time with them and get to know them. I really enjoy getting to know customers on a personal level.
Andrea: We have experienced a great level of success in our first year, and there’s pride when you walk through the front door and know, this is ours. Both of us have worked so hard and so long for other people — to now work on something that belongs to us, and to know that the way we act and how we treat customers and employees has a direct impact — it’s a different feeling. It’s fun to put a name tag on and go to a chamber of commerce event and hear someone say, “Oh, my daughter was at your shop last week, and she had such a great experience!”
Steve: I have spent my whole career doing startup, venture capital and private equity-backed companies. You are building something, but it is never yours. Here, you are growing something, and it is yours. There’s a pride of ownership. There is also a very positive perception of the brand. It is something you can be proud of. The team here does a great job of taking care of customers, and we all feel a responsibility to deliver great service. We live in this community. We go to the grocery store. We don’t want to worry about who we’re going to run into at the grocery store. We want to look forward to seeing our customers everywhere.
You are off to a fast start. What can others learn from your experience?
Steve: The biggest thing for us — and we know that this isn’t something that everybody would be able to do — is we were able to move to the community the store is located in a year before the shop opened. We started putting down roots everywhere we went, joined the chamber, got involved in a church here and started looking for opportunities where it made sense to connect. That was huge for us.
Andrea: We had a glossy brochure printed about us and the shop. The home office worked on the design with us, and it included our personal story and picture. We also got our website up and started engaging in social media to make connections. Then instead of doing a traditional grand opening, we had a VIP event. Steve was very intentional in how he networked in the community. He got involved with the Castle Rock Public Works Commission, and I took my event planner background and brought together the mayor and town council members, the fire chief, the executive director of the chamber — people who are very connected and who have become our promoters.
Another thing that we did is we bought and wrapped our courtesy shuttle six months before we opened, and we drove it everywhere and started to get recognition. It’s kind of a mobile billboard.
It was also nice that since we were able to move here a year ahead of time, we weren’t trying to figure out where the grocery store was at the same time we were trying to start our business.
We courted the hometown newspaper for a feature story about us that turned out to be very, very beneficial. A lot of people in Castle Rock read only that newspaper.
What other lessons would you share?
Steve: I would say that in the three to six months before the store opens, promoting the business and getting visibility needs to be at least a part-time job. One thing I have shared with people is that while the business has the Christian Brothers name, you have to own the effort and own the results. You can’t sit back and wait for the home office to make you successful. The support Christian Brothers provides is phenomenal, but at the end of the day, they offer a support function. It seems sometimes people think: “This is easy, they’ve never closed one. I’ll kick back and collect the royalties.” It doesn’t work that way.
Christian Brothers provides all the tools people need to be successful, but just like fixing a car, you’ve got to pick up the tools and use them. The nice thing about their mindset is that they will allow you to be successful, and they recognize that there are a lot of different ways to achieve success based on the franchisee’s talents. They are not rigid. They will provide you counsel and guidance if they see you heading in a direction that they have seen fail before, but they give you the freedom to succeed in the way that is most successful.
What sets Christian Brothers apart?
Steve: Honesty and integrity and the Christian aspect of what we do. The shuttle car is a big deal. It lets us make it as convenient as possible for people dealing with an inconvenient time. It also lets you get to know customers. The guys at the Christian Brothers in Houston where we were customers knew who we were. We’re the same way here. We want to know about our customers and their kids and what they are up to. It’s about looking at customers as friends and as relationships instead of transactions. People also like that we are part of the community — much more than I realized they would. Customers come in because they saw the shuttle at church or at the grocery store.
We also get to build the team here, and they like taking care of customers like they have never been taken care of before.
Andrea: Our mission and approach attracts a different kind of employee. They have probably had as many negative experiences as they want to ever have within the industry, and they come to us because they hear how we are different.
Neither of you is a mechanic, so how do you manage the store?
Steve: The first thing that has made it manageable is the technology Christian Brothers has provided us. We have the same technology to scan vehicles that the dealerships do, and our technicians have the skills to use it. A lot of mom and pops don’t have those tools, and they are guessing and throwing parts at problems, so the underlying issue doesn’t get fixed as often as it could. There is also a lot of support from the home office from an operations and process standpoint. I was talking to my coach this morning about a couple of issues, and he provided great counsel.
Andrea: When Steve came to me with this idea, I said: “We don’t know anything about the automotive business, so how are we going to do this? How do we sell something that we don’t know anything about?” The home office helped us identify the frontline guys who do that for us. We are just leading a team. We don’t have to be in the weeds. We are bringing along the people who can do that, and we do the management side that we have been doing throughout our careers.
Steve: We also got peace of mind from the Christian Brothers philosophy, which is that they don’t succeed unless we succeed. There is ongoing training. Since we’ve been open our team has been to Houston two or three times for additional training for us, our service manager, training for a technician. There are also resources for technicians if they are stumped on an issue with a car.
What are the other franchisees like?
Steve: We went to annual convention the year before we opened, and it was wonderful. Last December, as we were getting closer to opening, I got a wild hair to spend time with successful shop owners to pick their brains. I picked up the phone and called five owners. They all said, “I don’t care what else I have going on, you tell me when you are coming and I will clear my calendar.” We are invested in each other’s success, and everyone is pulling in the same direction. We share a common faith and a common philosophy, and that helps, too.
Andrea: There is a healthy competition, too. Christian Brothers hands out awards, and we compete to run the best and most successful locations — but at the same time, we do whatever we can do to help each other.
Do you get together with the other owners in the Denver area?
Andrea: Right before we opened, we hosted everybody in our home.
Steve: We also just started having a monthly lunch to talk shop. We all like each other and get along well. Any one of these guys would do anything they could to help us out in a bind.
Are you excited by the growth of the brand in Colorado? (Christian Brothers opened its first store in Colorado in 2011 and is on pace to have nine by 2016.)
Steve: We are. One of the things we struggled with here, more than in Texas, is not everyone knows who Christian Brothers Automotive is. We have to work harder to get that name recognition. People didn’t automatically know what we were.
Andrea: A lot of people thought we were going to be a new fire station when they saw the big brick building going up!
Do you have time to take advantage of the skiing?
Andrea: Yes! We bought a season pass. When our daughters come to town, we head out. As Texans, we came here just about every year. Our daughters learned to ski very young.
Steve: Owning the business is a time-consuming endeavor, but I’m not putting in any more hours than I was in my corporate jobs. One of the nice things is that our weekends are free unless we choose to come in to the shop. I probably spend 70 hours a week at the shop, but I don’t look at it as 70 hours of drudgery. There are breaks, there is the time driving the shuttle with customers. It’s not constant pressure.
Andrea: And there is flexibility within that time. Is he leaving the house at 5:30 and not getting home until 7? Yes, but he has flexibility within that time to go work out. For me, I also have the flexibility to contribute at night. You can do all your social media stuff and send your emails whenever you want.
Steve: One tangential benefit is we work in a pretty nice place. My office here is nicer than many of the places I’ve had in my corporate career. It’s a nice place to be.
What does a normal day look like?
I generally get into the shop at 6 a.m. because I like to get caught up on emails before the phone starts to ring. It’s also a little bit of solitude. From 7 to 9 a.m. my primary focus is driving the shuttle. Then things start to quiet down. I’ll pay bills, go through mail. I am a finance guy by background, so I look at metrics. I write personal thank you notes to our customers. Then, about 4 p.m., the shuttle starts to take priority again as people come back to get their vehicles. I’ll spend time out in the shop visiting with technicians. I am typically out of here by 6:30 or 7 p.m.
Andrea: It is a long day.
Steve: It is a long day, but I love what I am doing and the team we are doing it with, so it doesn’t feel like “work.” The nice thing is when I walk out of the shop, I truly walk out of the shop. I’m not taking it home with me. It’s not all-consuming.
Andrea: And no more constant travel.
How nice is it to be able to spend time together?
Andrea: That is so cool.
Steve: It’s one of the things we were looking for. Another nice thing is that I am five minutes from my house.
What kind of person do you think would enjoy owning a Christian Brothers franchise?
Steve: The term that hits me is “servant leader.” If you are not willing to serve people and put on your oil change shirt and go out and in the shop to help out when it’s busy, if you aren’t willing to empty trash cans and clean bathrooms, you are not going to be successful. If you are not willing to go above and beyond expectations for your customers, you are not going to be successful.
Does faith come up with customers?
Andrea: A lot of customers ask what “Christian” means in the name. There is an assumption that we have to prove that with the name comes integrity and honesty. For us, as customers, that was a big draw. It was nice knowing that it was meaningful and not just a marketing ploy.
If you had it to do over again would you?
Steve: Absolutely, yes. It wasn’t easy when we were waiting for the location to be built because I’m not a patient person, but now that we are open we love it.
Andrea: There were times when I was worried about the choice, but when I look back on it I know this was totally the right thing for us. Steve is probably happier now than I have ever known him to be in our lives. He is working hard, but the payoff is so different. There is no comparison.
To learn more about the Christian Brothers Automotive and to start a conversation about franchise opportunities, contact our team today and we’ll be in touch!