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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Jake Cementhead

I had a little fun with my more self-important colleagues on our Shop Management Forum in Auto Tech with this short story. As always, my input received mixed reviews. :)

Once upon a time, Jake Cementhead bought a little auto
repair shop. Now Jake had his own tools, scanners, and was
a college graduate. He kept up on the latest advances in
technology; but never lost sight of the more basic mundane
menu operations, and more importantly, his customer base.
Over the years, Jake watched Tune Up Wizards, Department
Store Auto Chains, and Oil Change Omniscient move in and
about the area. Some of his customers would see the varying
prices, and suggest to Jake he might have to lower his
prices, or try incorporating specials, to compete.

Jake thanked them all with a smile; but politely explained
one of the reasons he became a shop owner was so he could
run his business as he saw fit, with honesty, common sense,
and quality. This satisfied many of his customers, but as
in every human service endeavor, some went job shopping,
even returning to let Jake know what great service they
received at the other shops. Jake nodded, smiled, and let
them know they were always welcome.

Unlike many of the anecdotal stories going around about
mechanics not upgrading their knowledge, or not being the
sharpest knife in the drawer, Jake knew his niche, and the
customer base he serviced. He added computer skills for
accounting, database tracking, follow-up services, and
joined an unusually helpful Internet Tech Group. More
importantly, Cementhead watched his expense sheet like it
represented success or failure, which he came to realize,
it did.

The McDonald's type auto service businesses began to lose
ground. Oil plugs were left out, appointments turned into
heavy sales pitches, and customers' vehicles were brought
back in for the same problem over and over. Soon, Jake's
customer base began to swell again with referrals from the
Tune Up Wizards, and people became less enthused with Oil
Change Omniscient.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Arnie Altruist set up shop
across the street from Cementhead. One day, Arnie came over
to case Jake's joint, smiling, and nodding, just the
happiest-go-lucky guy you ever want to meet. Jake liked him
right away, and let Arnie lead him over to show off his new
renovated Auto Renaissance. Young fireballs were buzzing
away inside, already churning out jobs, and Jake even
spotted a couple of his old customers in Arnie's palatial
customer center. You could eat off the floors. Techs had
their own computers, lifts, railway car tool boxes, and a
symphony orchestra playing Mozart in the corner. Jake
complimented Arnie on the look and feel of his new
Renaissance Garage.

Arnie pulled Jake into his office, and gave him a cup
filled from his personal espresso machine.

"Jake," Arnie announced with a big smile, "I want to help

"Gee, that's really sweet of you, Arnie, but I can't think
of anything I need help with," Jake replied, a little
confused at the new direction of the conversation.

"Ahhhhh... Jake," Arnie repeated, shaking his head with a
touch of sadness. "We both know you're in trouble."

"I am?" Jake asked, surprised. "Really Arnie, I'm fine. My
place doesn't look like yours, but I've paid everything
off, and I have a substantial savings back-up for a rainy
day. I don't..."

"Let me get you started in a program to upgrade your little
shop into the new century," Arnie said magnanimously. "I'll
get you back on your feet again in no time."

"But Arnie, I..."

"No, no, no, dear boy, don't thank me," Arnie chuckled, not
having heard a single word Cementhead had told him. "Glad
to do it, glad to do it. Now let's start off with a new
customer is always right policy, and a nice shuttle
service, and..."

"Arnie," Jake cut in, standing up a little uneasily. "Much
as I appreciate your offer, you don't know me, or my
business expectations. I'm not like you, nor will I ever
be. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I think maybe
it best if we kept a more business like relationship."

"Are you saying you don't want my help?" Arnie gulped.
"Surely you want to be successful. These are changing
times. You'll either change or you'll be swept away."

"That may be," Jake replied patiently, edging towards the
door. "Listen, if you ever need a favor, or you want to say
hi, just give me a ring. Good luck with your business, and
Merry Christmas."

"But...but haven't heard my story about the
little engine that could. At least let me give you some
pointers on smiling."

Jake waved, and hurried towards the door of Altruist's

"Jake," Arnie cried out after him. "Your shop's like a
dungeon, and...and there's dirt on the floor, and...and you
don't even have an espresso machine."

Cementhead jogged across the street and into his little
shop. He sighed, looking back across the street at the
state of the art Auto Renaissance Garage. The phone rang,
and Jake answered it with his usual professional greeting.
It was Arnie.

"I bet you haven't had two months vacation before," Arnie
said excitedly.

"Ah, no, I don't want two months off," Jake replied,
closing his eyes. "I take..."

"I'll bet you don't give your employees six weeks off and
profit sharing," Arnie cut in.

"That's true, I..."

"Ah ha, and how do you think that makes them feel?" Arnie
asked triumphantly. "Used and abused, I'll wager. Now if
you adopt my..."

"Arnie!" Cementhead exclaimed with exasperation creeping
finally into his voice. "I don't have any employees. This
is a one man shop."

"Oh... My... God..." Arnie whispered in a stunned voice.
"You are a dinosaur, my good man. You need help. You..."

"I have to get to work, Arnie. You take care now, and nice
meeting you," Jake ran the statement off rapidly, and then
hung up.

Just as Jake started walking over to his next job, the
phone rang again. For the first time in many years, he let
it go on answering machine. :)


Bernita said...

So I detect a writing moral in this story?

BernardL said...

Sure, when writing satire, be ready to take the heat. The Arnie Altruist's in my Shop Management Forum were a little peeved at me for this one man shop parable. :) Secondly, I feel the same about writing as I do auto repair shop ownership: if I can't do it my way, I'm not going to be happy. Thanks for reading it and commenting, Bernita.

whydibuy said...

My coworker once worked for a firestone franchise. He got a first hand look at the skyhigh cost structure those kind of places have. And the disturbing ramifications it produces.

He learned that the place needed 24k per month before the owner made a dime. 11k month lease, 5k month franchise fee, insurances 3k, electric bill ran 2500 per month, etc. So from the owners perspective, he was in the hole 24 k on the first of the month.

So mgt pushed for sales. He and the other techs were instructed that every ticket should be 500.00 minimum. Problem is that , as you know I'm sure, is that you can encounter times where you see simple repairs that don't generate the kind of money mgt expects. And if you don't, you get the rath of mgt for not being a team player

After a month of modest sales from him, he was dismissed . At least you, Bernard, aren't required as a condition of your employment, to be a thief for someone else.

BernardL said...

Yep, I worked in a K-Mart Garage back in the middle seventies before coming to Nilson Brothers Garage in 1976. We had a good manager but he constantly was pressured on selling. High overhead is a pressure cooker. Good Lord, my brain would have fried with a break even point of 24k per month. I don't think all big operations cheat the customers but you're right about high overhead making it very appealing to oversell work, whydibuy. After nearly three decades owning my place, I doubt I could work for someone else. :)