“Oh, we could never work together,” is a sentiment shared by many couples but when Kim Johnson and her husband, Greg decided to purchase a franchise, it was because that’s exactly what they wanted to do. Kim, a former executive assistant, had recently come back “over the hill” — a phrase, Kim explained, that meant she quit her job over the hill between Silicon Valley, California, and Santa Cruz, California, to stay home with her new baby. In addition to being a mom, Kim taught 10-12 jazzercise classes a week while her husband continued his hourly commute over the hill to Silicon Valley, where he worked as a director of sales.
“Because my husband was still commuting, we started talking about owning a franchise. We began the process by talking to a franchise broker who spent a couple hours on the phone with us asking questions like what kind of hours we wanted to work, what industry we saw ourselves in, what our goals were and what expectations we had for ROI,” Kim said. “A couple weeks later, the broker called us back and said there were five franchises interested in opening a location in our area that fit our profile. One was a coffee shop, one was a children’s birthday party place, one was a closet organizer type business, one was a juice store and the last one was a transmission/automotive repair center, AAMCO.”
With five choices and a big decision looming, the couple carefully considered their needs, the community’s needs and the future.
“We looked at them all and decided there were already too many coffee shops in Santa Cruz and since we had children of our own, we needed to keep an eight to five Monday through Friday type schedule that would work with their sports schedules. We also realized automotive services are a need versus a want and that would be beneficial in case something like the economy went down,” Kim said.
As luck would have it, soon after choosing to open their shop, that’s exactly what happened. Even though the economic downturn affected the automotive industry too, the Johnsons were thankful they chose the route they did. The economy wasn’t the only challenge thrown their way. Upon opening, they had no experience whatsoever in the automotive industry, but they continued forward, trying to hire the most qualified people along the way.
“When I came into the shop, we had a manager who I felt was putting too much pressure on the customer, and I didn’t like the whole pressure sales strategy, so I took over the desk,” Kim said. “I found myself doing my best to learn everything I could from my mechanics. I would have them talk to customers if I was unsure of something, and pretty soon I found myself becoming so familiar with it I’d have to rely on them less and less.”
The challenges weren’t over. Greg got offered a job he couldn’t turn down back over the hill in Silicon Valley. Kim found herself running the 2,800-square foot, four bay shop by herself. She rose to the challenge, and what she found was that she had a few advantages.
“Being a female on the front of the desk turned out to be an advantage. We get a lot of moms and wives who bring their family cars in, and I really felt like it was important for them to understand what was happening with their vehicles,” Kim said. “There is so much vulnerability when you get to a repair shop and you don’t know what’s going on with your car. Most people don’t really want to know, but they do want to make sure they’re getting the right answers and being told the truth. I made it my goal to help my customers understand without having them feel like they were vulnerable anymore. Since then, it’s worked really well at the shop.”
Ten years later and Kim is practically an old pro who would tell her younger self a thing or two:
1. Try not to be intimidated. This tends to be a man’s world, but know you can do the exact same job and figure things out.
2. Be patient with yourself. It can be scary, but take the time to understand and feed off of what your mechanics and technicians are trying to teach you.
3. Learn as much as you can. It makes you feel powerful and gives you an edge when you’re standing behind the desk.
4. Read good stuff. Learn as much as you can about the industry instead of letting it go over your head. If you don’t understand what’s going on or what you’re talking about, you’ll be eaten up.
5. You will be fine.
Since opening her shop, Kim continues to put emphasis on quality. Whether it is finding the best mechanics, completing the job the right way or going the extra mile for a customer, she does it because, in her words, “quality is critical.”
“I think reputation and putting out a quality product are crucial. Your customers’ experience dictates your success. As part of the AAMCO family, I am able to deliver a great customer service experience, which allows me to retain existing customers and attract new ones. I’m not trying to make a million dollars here. I just want to make sure the customers are happy and be able to walk away at the end of the day thinking, ‘OK we did a good job’ instead of losing sleep over something that happened,” Kim said.
The atmosphere of the shop is how Kim achieves this. She’s not a yeller and believes in treating her employees with the same respect they give her.
“It’s not a pressure environment. I want my employees to be comfortable, happy and love being here. I don’t ever look at them any different than myself because as far as I’m concerned, we’re all on the same team,” Kim said.
Perhaps the team mentality is what keeps Kim’s return customer rate so high. Remarkably, 90 percent of the customers who visit the shop are return customers. Since Santa Cruz is a family and college town, that’s the primary demographic. Kim is constantly coming up with new ways to try to reach new customers.
“The new customers are using their smartphones more and more so I do a lot of smartphone friendly advertising like Yelp and Google Review. Millennials are referencing these online rating websites more than ever before so I encourage my customers to do online reviews so new customers feel comfortable coming in,” Kim said.
Online referrals aren’t the only way new customers find out about Kim’s shop, though.
“I’d say there are at least 10 shops that consistently send their cars to my service center for transmission work. Of course, I don’t consult with those customers on any other total car care, but the fact other shop owners think enough of my shop to send their customers to me makes me feel fantastic,” Kim said.
Kim doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. She’s tossed around the idea of adding a smog center on the lot next door. She also plans on bringing her 20-year-old son, Cody, on board to learn the business and oversee the shop’s social media initiatives. Before too long, the business that started out as a family endeavor may be one again. Only this time it won’t be a man’s world. It will be mom’s world.