Q&A WITH CHRISTIAN BROTHERS AUTOMOTIVE FRANCHISE OWNER BOBBY WILLIAMS
For most of his career Bobby Williams was involved with a pretty heroic group of people — the sort of people who, he says, “run into fires when everybody else is running out.” Working in sales in niche automotive markets including ambulances, school buses and fire trucks, he was constantly around people who were passionate about what they did and had a clearly defined mission. When the time came for him and his wife, Sandy, to explore entrepreneurship, they found kindred spirits in the folks at Christian Brothers, taking over their first franchise in January 2015. “They were just some of the most professional, open, honest, transparent folks we dealt with as we were looking at different franchises. And we just felt immediately at home in knowing that these guys had our back, and they were going to have a vested interest in making sure that we succeed.” Here is his story:
What were you doing before becoming a Christian Brothers franchisee?
I was the Vice President for sales and marketing for a Fortune 500 company. Specifically, we were a fire truck manufacturer.
How did you get into that field?
I started out my career in manufacturing school buses. I had a mentor that worked with me and taught me all about business. When he moved from the manufacturing buses industry to ambulances. He asked me to go with him and I became his national sales manager. Essentially throughout my career, I’ve followed him along. He has impacted my life tremendously, teaching me all about business and how to conduct my business professionally. His goal was to eventually become a CEO, and, in fact, this year he realized his dream to be CEO of Oshkosh Corporation. His name is Wilson Jones. He was always a mentor in my career, and when he came calling I would go to the ends of the earth for him, so I followed him from ambulances to fire trucks.
How do you like owning the business?
I love it. We really enjoy working with the team members and customers. There’s always something new to learn, fascinating stories. I’ve met people that played football at North Texas with Mean Joe Green, I’ve met people that have been astronauts, just all walks of life that walk in our door. My wife and I try to conduct all of our shuttles, taking people home after they drop their cars off, and so we get about 10 or 15 minutes with the customers.This helps us learn all about their lives, kids, businesses and everything that’s going on with them. It’s always something different and very, very fascinating.
What makes it fun?
For my wife and I, it’s fun to serve. That’s part of our ministry as we do this business. Transportation is such a part of our lives. We rely on our vehicles to get us where we’re going, and when something happens, then it becomes trouble. So we’re often intersecting people at a troublesome time of life. It’s fun to be able to bring them solutions, and bring them in an open and honest way.
How important is the faith and values aspect of this business?
It’s everything, because we’re trying to do something new in the automotive industry, and bring back the honesty and integrity and openness and transparency. The way I run my business, I’m reminded of Mr. Greenwood. I grew up in a very small town in Texas, and Mr. Greenwood worked on our cars. You would go in and drop you car off and Mr. Greenwood would be there to take your car in, and then he would be the one working on your car, and he would check you out at the end of the day. But if I ever had an issue I could just go to talk to him about it, and I knew he was being very upfront and honest about what was going on. What Christian Brothers is about and what our ownership is about is bringing back that personalized service to people, so that you can feel comforted that we’re not trying to sell you things just to make a profit, but we’re trying to help you deal with one of your largest investments during your life, and keep it going so that you can rely on it and trust it.
How did you find out about Christian Brothers, and why did you decide to buy a Christian Brothers franchise?
Several reasons. One is, we lived in Denton, Texas, and we went through some struggles. We had a transmission replaced that I feel like I was taken to the cleaners on, we had some brake issues, with a similar kind of situation. And we finally found a Christian Brothers Automotive in Corinth, Texas. Brandon Pfaffly is the owner there, and we got to know Brandon. And, for the first time in our adult lives, we felt like we were dealing with somebody in the repair industry that was honest, and would treat us right. The other part of that is we have a handicapped son, and he drives a pickup truck that is set up for him to drive from his wheelchair, and we got to a point where we could trust enough to send Benjamin down to Brandon’s shop and know that they were going to take care of him and make sure his truck’s running properly. We just got to such a trust level with them that we felt comfortable, and we could relax and know that he’s taken care of.
And so, we had moved to Wisconsin for my corporate job, and for Texans it was awfully cold. After about 100 inches of snow in the winter, we just said, “You know what? It’s time to go back home.” We started looking for an exit strategy, and we knew we wanted to own a business, and we looked at several different franchises. There were really a couple of things that turned our head toward Christian Brothers. Of course, our experience with Brandon’s shop, but also the people that we associated with — Josh Wall and the guys at Christian Brothers Corporation. Some of the models we looked at, it just felt like they wanted their franchise fee or percentage, and if you made it, great. If you didn’t make it, well, we’ve got another franchisee in the corner waiting. It just felt different with Christian Brothers. They’re invested in us, and they’ve provided us the support needed to be successful, and we felt that from the start.
How does Christian Brothers Corporate help you, and what are some of the most valuable things they do do support you?
I would say there are several things they do to support us. One is they provide us with mentors, other franchise owners who are experienced and have been in the business for several years. I have another owner that’s dedicated to me that I can pick up the phone, text or call at any given time and ask a question. Second of all, they provide us with experienced coaches from corporate headquarters. The coaches work in a store for an extended period of time, so they know what it’s like to have to work with a customer, how to write up a work order for a customer, those types of things.
The third thing is that they provide opportunities for us to network with other people in the franchise group, and everybody’s willing to help. They’re opening their doors to us. As we came in last year and took over, we started having lunches with other franchisees in the area, and then they would take us back to the shop and they would show us, “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we set up things, here’s how we’re marketing.” It’s just so valuable to see the kinds of things successful franchisees are doing.
How important is previous industry experience?
I would say it’s helpful, but it’s not mandatory. I think most of all what is helpful is that you have a love of people. Because this business is about people, whether it’s the team members that work with you or the customers you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. It’s certainly helpful if you’ve had experience in coaching and mentoring and hiring, because obviously, that’s a critical part of your job. Getting the right team in place is the most critical task that you have to do. If you don’t have the right team in place to serve your customers well, it’s going to be an uphill battle to do the kinds of things that you want to do and be the kind of business that you want to be.
It’s my understanding that since Christian Brothers is not open on the weekends, it’s a big selling point for experienced mechanics who don’t want to work weekend hours anymore. Is that true?
Absolutely. They love it. I mean, for the first time in their career, they’re not working on the weekends. You know, one of the things we try to do with our team is have a quality of life balance. The day after Thanksgiving we didn’t open because we wanted them to have a four-day weekend. And one of our mechanics said, “Man, I feel like I’m working for a big corporation now. I can actually get a couple of days off, a four-day weekend. I’ve never had that before.” So it’s a very attractive thing for our business to go out and find the best technicians available. And also for our customers. Again, we’re trying to do something different in the automotive industry, and that’s why we do the shuttle. We tell them, “We want to give your weekends back to you.” Instead of working all week and then having to take all weekend to fix a car and deal with that, you come in, you drop it off. We’ll take you to work, and then while you’re at work, we’re going to take care of your car, we’re going to come back and pick you up. And at the end of the day, your car’s repaired, you’re back on the road, and you’ve got your weekends back. So it’s a good selling point for team members and also for customers.
What is the genius of this brand when you strip everything away?
I really believe it’s the business model that’s based on the foundation of faith and values and integrity. The other part of it is the model of having an onsite owner, because nobody’s going to protect our business more than me. Obviously I’m invested heavily financially, but I’m also invested psychologically and emotionally in this business. I want to serve customers well, so my wife and I come in every day, day in and day out, and we’re here from 7 to 6 most days, and we’re out with customers, and we’re locking arms with them. Around here we say we give free hugs, and you just find that people just need that personal touch. Sometimes it’s a hug. Sometimes it’s a handshake. Sometimes it’s just letting them know that we’re going to stand in the gap with them and work with them through whatever problems they’re facing and find a solution. So having that owner on site makes all the difference in the world.
What does your typical day look like?
It varies. Yesterday I was everywhere, from doing shuttles to doing the bills and making sure that our vendors are taken care of. I meet and greet our parts delivery guys and girls, so that they feel like an important part of our success. I was out looking at an engine that had a major problem. Every day is different. What I try to do is spend a lot of time coaching and mentoring our team to teach them the level of world-class customer service that we want to be about. In today’s world, there’s such a lack of that around. We found that if we are just a little bit above average all the time, we blow the competition away.
We had a single mom come in here that was struggling and didn’t have the money to pay for a car repair, but if she didn’t have her car she couldn’t go to work and get her kids to school. We worked with her financially to find a creative solutions and make sure that she could get back on the road and take that struggle away. So every day is just a new day. It’s just fun because there’s a lot of variety, and it’s never boring.
How do you feel about the direction of the brand?
I think the leadership has taken it in a very, very strong way. They’re adding a lot of value as we expand geographically. There’s a lot of value in building the brand from an expansion standpoint. But I’m also seeing an incredible raising of the bar in terms of the franchisees they’re attracting. Josh Wall, the VP of Franchise Development, has done an outstanding job to ensure that the people who come on board are going to maintain those standards.
What is it about this business that makes you think you’re going to be around another 20 years?
One is, cars are everywhere, and we love our cars. You have a hard time getting people out of their cars. I look at the statistics in the DFW area and there’s around 5 million cars, and we’re servicing something like 2% percent of all the cars on the road. And I’m having a strong year even doing that. Just at my store alone, there are 140,000 cars running up and down the highway that I’m sitting right on the frontage road too. If I serve them well then I’m going to get my fair share of customers to build that base. It’s going to be an ongoing building of the business, and if I treat them well, and I do it right, they’ll come back to me and they’ll tell their two friends and share that story.
Would you recommend this franchise to others, and why?
Absolutely. There are several reasons. One, for us, faith is very big, and we wanted to find a franchise, a business model that allowed us to live out our faith in an open way. We have that with Christian Brothers. We have Bibles in our waiting room. We’ve been able to pray with people. We’ve been able to minister to people. We’ve been able to help a homeless family get off the street by getting them transportation solutions. So, if you love serving people and love working with people, this is a fantastic business to be able to do that. I think the other part is, the way the model is set up, in my opinion Christian Brothers gives you a safety net. And if you get into it, and for whatever reason you just don’t like it. It doesn’t work for you, then they have the first right of refusal to buy the franchise back from you. So, with all the other support, and all of the other things that we’ve talked about, I have yet to find anything that they said they would do that they haven’t. Their word is as good as anything in writing.
Take me out 10 years or 20 years, and now you’re hanging up this business. What do you want people to remember about your business?
We want people to remember that if you went to Bobby and Sandy’s shop, they were going to take care of you in a very transparent way, with integrity and honesty. And for our team members, I want them to be able to say, “You know what? They took care of us before they took care of themselves.” So, if we walk away in 20 years and we hear a customer say, “They served us well,” and if we hear our team members say, “They looked to take care of us before they took care of themselves,” I feel like we would have accomplished what we set out to accomplish.
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