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UTI Automotive Instructor Jim Lahaise's Insight on Opening an Auto Shop

"You can’t just graduate from UTI and expect to open a business and have it work."

 

Jim Lahaise is a staple around the UTI Norwood campus. He’s been working there since 2006 — as an instructor, then as an education manager and Ford FACT program manager. His sharp Boston accent and gregarious personality are just two of the reasons people know him around campus.

Jim has been married for 23 years and has two kids; one graduated from high school just recently. The other is a junior in high school. He tries to eat a kiwi every day.

Jim owns his own business — a Toyota-specific auto shop called Advanced Automotive Repair, which he started in 2005, just one year before he began working at UTI. He didn’t stop working there or sell it when he started at UTI though. Instead, he is a self-professed workaholic, working 75 to 90 hours a week between the two gigs, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves Toyotas. “I could diagnose them in my sleep,” he laughs.

There’s a part-time person who helps him with some of the admin work for his shop but he does all the car work himself. He spends mornings at the shop working, then heads over to UTI around noon and stays until 9 or so. Sometimes he heads back to his garage afterward and works into the night. He often finds himself skipping lunch, mostly because of how busy he is. He’ll finally eat around 3 or 4, or when he stops long enough to notice he’s hungry.

Jim’s been working on cars for 27 years now and he knew from the beginning he wanted to eventually open up his own business. He knew that 60 percent of auto related businesses in his area fail within the first six months. He didn’t want to be part of that statistic, so he worked in a dealership for a while to get experience and recommends anyone who wants to open their own shop, work in the field before jumping into business for themselves.

“I wanted to know that I’d be able to do all the jobs,” he says. You can’t pick and choose jobs when you first start out. You have to know how to do everything. For this reason he says newbies should put in their dues in the field.

When he started his business, he was Toyota-factory trained, which meant he could do the same work as the dealership — including working with Toyota parts — but charge less. Non-dealership competitors were likely working with aftermarket parts.

Part of the reason he wanted to be his own shop owner was because he wanted to be in charge of his own finances. As far as setting growth goals, he said “I just take it day by day.” He admits it’s not the best business approach, but because his shop is just a part-time thing, he views it as a secondary side income. He’d like to get to the point where he can hire someone to manage it all and hire techs to do the work. 

When he knew opening his shop was in his near future, he rented a storage unit and started slowly buying the tools he’d need to start. Because he worked in the dealership, he pretty much knew what he’d need for equipment.

Right before he opened his shop, he took out a low-interest business loan for $18,000. He put three or four thousand into advertising, the rest into the location, parts and equipment. Jim says that initial output for advertising was all he’s ever had to do, thanks to loyal customers and word of mouth.

Customers ultimately only care about two things: honesty and that you’re doing the job right the first time. “People are willing to spend money with you if they trust you will do the job correctly,” he says. No one’s coming back to a shop if they end up broken down on the side of the road because the tech did the job wrong.

Jim says he was profitable after just one year. His most profitable services are brake, timing belt and exhaust jobs. His least profitable are tire work and oil changes.

Jim doesn’t take a salary or take a share of the profits. He simply takes what he needs and pretty much leaves it all in the business. He wants to make sure he has enough in the account at all times just in case he has a week when he needs to cover the cost of a large parts order. His overhead is minimal as he doesn’t have any employees right now, other than a retired friend who helps with admin work.

He does pay for a computer system, Genesis 4, which he says makes the difference between a hobby and a business. He initially spent about $5,000 on the software system and training, and spends about $300 a quarter for upkeep. “I’d be lost without it,” Jim says. It tracks inventory, repair orders and search history. It also links with QuickBooks making end-of-the-year tax information accessible by a single click. Jim says it takes a lot to keep it going (both money and time) but that it’s worth it.

Jim had no idea when he started things that the accounting would take so much time. He says for every hour he spends in the shop, he spends an hour in the office — ordering parts, doing write ups and paying invoices, etc. “It caught me off guard,” he admits of the administrative work.

When you express interest in opening your own shop, everyone around you — your family, your best friends, your spouse, your coworkers — is going to tell you not to do it. They’ll try to talk you out of it. They’ll give you all kinds of reasons: It’s too hard. It’s not going to work. There are already too many shops in your city. There are a million reasons why it won’t work. “Don’t listen to them,” Jim states. If you have a passion to do it and you’re goal-oriented, find a way to make it happen. “I proved so many people wrong.”

That said, make sure you know what you’re doing and don’t dive in until you’re ready. “You can’t just graduate from UTI and expect to open a business and have it work.” He encourages those new to the business to work at a dealership or established shop for five to seven years. Once you can do everything, you can start your own shop. You need to be able to do more than brake jobs as customers want to take their car to one place for everything.

As education manager at UTI, Jim’s job is to make sure everything runs smoothly. He helps hire the instructors and makes sure they are properly trained. He’s also responsible for the curriculum updates, scheduling, and training for the Ford Fact program. The education manager “has their hands in everything” he says.

Jim loves to know he’s making a difference. He likes it when in meetings, someone will ask him for his advice. And then when they implement it, it works. He’s good at diagnosing problems, on cars and within the school curriculum. He enjoys talking to people.

And just like everyone else... he hates all the paperwork involved.

When asked about a student who has surprised him, he said that students are always surprising him. It’s what makes the job fun. There are certain students you think aren’t going to make it through the program and suddenly they’re graduating and thriving. He loves this part of the job. Last fall there was a couple of very timid students who were in the program. They got with the right people and instructors and totally turned around to become some of the smartest kids who’ve ever gone through the school.

Every day there is some sort of small surprise.

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