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Michigan shop owner builds business from scratch with right focuses

Monday, April 3, 2017 - 07:00
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“I started the company with $900,” John Stewart shrugs. “They said it couldn’t be done.” ‘They’ were obviously wrong; now encompassing three stores in metropolitan Grand Rapids, Mich., his Real Pro Auto Service, Inc. has nearly $3 million in annual sales.

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At a Glance:
Real Pro Auto Service
John Stewart
No. of shops
Years in business
No. of technicians
No. of employees
6, 9, 11
No. of bays per shop
No. of vehicles per week combined
Average weekly restoration ticket
$2.85 million
Combined annual gross revenue

Of course it’s easy to see why anyone might have thought otherwise. Back in 1992, Stewart was a 23-year-old technician fortified with raw ambition and a tax refund check. But the check was mostly gone — spent on equipment like a floor jack and stands — and a proposed partnership faded after Stewart started negotiating with a lease agent for a facility.

“We definitely started that first day off on the wrong foot,” laughs Stewart. With no money, no credit and no client base to speak of, he managed to scrap together enough money and goodwill to rent a little two-bay facility behind a used car lot.

“I didn’t have any employees at first,” he reports. “I just worked from morning till night to try to get things done one way or another. From day one — and it’s no different today — I couldn’t afford to fail. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that we’re doing the right thing.” It must have worked like a charm, because Real Pro Auto Service practically doubled in size almost every year of its first decade.

“Nine months from the first day I started, I had to move out of that two-bay building because I had outgrown it,” Stewart reveals. “I moved into another building for four years before I outgrew that one. After five years in business I (moved into) my third building, and I’ve been here ever since. We opened the two other locations during the last eight years.”

Meanwhile Stewart had to build his client base from scratch, but didn’t do much in the way of marketing outside hanging homemade flyers on doors. “We market and advertise a ton now,” he reports, “but back then I didn’t know anything about it; how to do it, who to ask, where to go. It was all word of mouth, 100 percent. It’s just a matter of taking care of the customers.”

For roughly the first 10 years, Stewart ran the business without any external input. “Then I reached a point where I realized, hey, I don’t know what else to do here,” he notes. “I didn’t know how to make it any different, how to make it go forward; I just didn’t have the knowledge. It’s no different than working on a car — if you don’t know how to do it, you’ve got to go get the information, so it’s been an ongoing educational process. We had a really good consultant for quite a few years that I really learned a lot from.”

By the mid-90s Real Pro Auto Service had enough regular clients to get a computer system. “We started taking that customer information and mailing flyers in-house,” reports Stewart. “Then we went to direct mail, and as the technology evolved we went into online marketing. Now we’re doing all kinds of internet advertising, like Google. We still do a ton of direct mail — we even do a lot through texting. I was always told to stay away from the impersonal ads; people don’t like it. But we tried a couple of text campaigns and it just blew me away. Now we use a service that allows us to text our customers.

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