Most independent shops start out as a vision of being your own boss, of building success on your own accomplishments. David Estes realized this through an unusual route: He bought a shop on Craigslist.
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“It’s been my dream to own and operate an automotive shop since I was 15 years old,” he states. “When I saw this particular shop come up for sale, I interviewed the staff, and between the shop’s location and longevity, it was what I wanted: a knowledgeable and friendly staff, one that doesn’t go in for high pressure sales. I just didn’t want that kind of stigma for auto mechanics anymore.”
Located in a trendy section of Denver, Buchtel Motors is on South Pearl Street, “the hip epicenter of the Platt Park neighborhood” (5280, The Denver Magazine). The building itself is an old corner gas station, rich with retro vibes. “That was part of its appeal,” says Estes. “I liked the vintage look. I knew it would appeal to a lot of customers.”
Estes came into his automotive passion ordinarily enough; his father was a Master Tech for 41 years till the latter recently retired. But this Houston native had to fulfill a greater passion first: he followed his girlfriend to New York City where she was starting a career in public relations. Amy Estes — yes, she married him — was following her own dream of going to the Big Apple, “and he supported me in that,” she says.
Estes finished college at NYC’s City University with a degree in business management and “went the corporate route,” eventually becoming Director of Operations at a company involved in the automotive aftermarket. “I learned a great deal about product marketing, manufacturing, branding and business operations,” he reports, “But the dream of owning and operating an automotive shop lived on.”
Looking for a facility in Colorado, they found two or three (you really can get anything on Craisglist), self-financed the Buchtel purchase, and hit the ground running. Estes brought his dad in to evaluate the operation and help out for a while; Amy took over public relations.
“It was really neat to see them work side-by-side,” she says of the father and son team. “Yeah, he worked for free,” laughs Estes. “It worked out pretty good because it was a busy time of year, and I was really contemplating whether I had the work load to support an additional tech. He helped me make that decision as well.”
Being truly turnkey, Estes kept most of the technicians. “A lot of it is just updating the software, the equipment, the tools,” Estes notes. “The previous owner kind of fell out of that over the last 10 years. Currently we’re updating all of the computer systems, management software, customer service retention methods. The techs now have iPads; we can go and remotely check in cars, send text, pictures and quotes via that. No more handwritten hardcopies, line item stuff.”
And according to Amy, Estes did an amazing job of earning the trust of his employees in a very short amount of time. “That’s the foundation of being an effective leader, to make sure folks trust and respect you,” she says, “and he’s done that in little ways.”
Like ordering pizzas on Fridays, having some drinks at the end of the work day, talking about the week and what they needed to focus on. “And every time one of the tool companies come by, David buys something,” Amy reports. “It doesn’t have to be huge, but it’s a new tool to give to the techs that says ‘you’re important to me.’”
In the beginning Estes drove most of the shuttle runs. “I dealt with customers first hand, did a lot of meet-and-greets,” he recalls. “A lot of people were surprised that the owner was driving them home, and I felt that it was a great opportunity to reassure these customers that we have the same great service, same great people; nothing’s changed. I did that for like the first two and half months, almost every day.”
For Amy’s part she focused on internet presence and community involvement. “I think for a shop like Buchtel the website is critical,” she explains. “While an 80-year-old customer may have been coming here since the ‘70s, we might also have an 18-year-old who’s a freshman at (nearby) Denver University, along with everyone in between. How each of those individuals get their information is very different, so we utilize every (Internet) platform available.”
But Amy’s biggest contribution so far has been getting involved in the numerous community events that characterize South Pearl Street. “In the short amount of time that we’ve taken over ownership, we’ve had a role in almost every event that they’ve had. We’re actually stepping outside and saying, ‘hey guys, we’re here.’ I think that’s really helped us spread the word about how we are, and our commitment to the community and to our customers.”
Of course the shop has a deep legacy and will remain Buchtel Motors, but the Estes’ are talking rebranding. “Right now the logo is simply the building,” says Amy. “While it has a lot of presence on its own, we feel that the power of Buchtel Motors is in the capabilities of the techs. So David recently purchased an old 1955 Ford F-100 and he’s been working with the techs on restoring it. We hope to integrate that truck with the logo; maybe put it on some apparel we can give customers to thank them for their business—different ways to promote the company.”
And as the Estes’ complete their transition, Amy marvels over the past year. “I think it’s rare in life to watch not only one dream come true but two, and people being supportive in that, especially this day and age. I’m really proud of the fact that we’re more than just husband and wife; we’re champions of each other.”