When you ask Dave Norwood why his business succeeds, he’ll tell you it’s because everyone at the shop makes a point to be friendly. Technicians – even if they are swamped – will look up and say hello to customers as they walk past the work bays.

“A lot of other places aren’t like that,” Dave said. “I always preach to my guys that when they come in contact with a customer, that they at least acknowledge them; ask how they are doing. They don’t have to talk to them for half an hour but acknowledge them and give them a smile. That’s been huge because the employees at many places just don’t seem to care. They just seem to want to do their job and that’s it. It’s a personal touch and our customers love it.”

I believe Dave, but I also believe there’s a little more to the story of a shop that has continued to expand in size and services since he took it over in 1989.

If you are a fan of old Gary Cooper westerns, you probably noticed that the movie star was always soft spoken but always got the job done by the end of the film. That’s who I thought of as I interviewed my old friend Dave, owner of Butler’s Muffler & Auto Repair, Leavenworth, Kan. Dave’s not the type to brag, but when you look at his accomplishments over the years, you realize that he’s the type of guy who continues to work hard at improving his business.

Always a car guy, Dave was hired by Ira Butler in 1977 while Dave was attending high school. The former two-bay Sinclair station, built in the 1950s, had been turned into a muffler shop during the heyday of the exhaust business, and Dave’s love for cars and a strong work ethic made him fit right in. It seemed only natural that when Ira decided to retire in 1989 that Dave was the perfect candidate to buy the shop – and he did.

Keeping up with the industry

Although Dave may mention that he is a high school graduate, he may not add that he’s been active attending automotive management and technical seminars for his entire career. Those classes include presentations by the Automotive Service Association, Automotive Training Institute, Carquest and even local business seminars.

His shop’s service menu continued to expand over the years into undercar services and later complete general repair with emphasis on preventive maintenance.

The brick and mortar has had its share of makeovers as well. Dave explained that the old service-station building was demolished in 1993 and was replaced with a new four bay operation. Two years ago, a used-car lot, which blocked the view of his shop from the main highway, closed its doors.

“I always dreamed of having that property because I could put a real nice digital sign out on the main street,” he said. So, he bought it, leveled the car lot office building, repaved the whole lot and added four more bays to his shop.  “We actually a have a little more parking space than we need. I’m still doing some research on that. We are close to Fort Leavenworth, and some of the military people didn’t even know we were here until other soldiers recommended us for vehicle repairs,” he said.

That happens often at the military base, he said. “Soldiers continue to come and go, and newcomers always ask, ‘Where’s a good place to take my car?’ When they do, they are often referred to Butler’s Muffler & Auto Repair. We have a great reputation out there. It also helps that we are a AAA-approved shop, so we also get a lot of travelers coming off the highway when they have a car problem.”

The shop has the capability to service large trucks and trailers since two bays have taller overhead doors.

“We do work on some larger trucks. We service a lot of larger trailers too. We repack wheel bearings and fix the brakes on them. We have a lot of people who are into horses around here, and then we have folks with boats, and we have lawn companies that have a lot of trailers we service.”

Exhaust work has dropped significantly over the years, but Dave still likes to handle those jobs. While Dave has noted that he is forcing himself to take a bigger part in the front office, he also helps with other repairs when time permits.

He’s able to do that thanks to Jan Rhoper, the shop’s office manager, who has been handling that segment of the business for 25 years.

“She’s been so good over the years, allowing me to work in the shop, watching my back. She takes care of all the payroll and the book work and brings to my attention everything that needs to be dealt with.”

Priorities

David and his wife Lori have three grandkids who he love’s dearly and he wants to spend as much time with them when he can, and he wonders whether he should keep expanding.

“It is a battle. Do I want to take on more responsibility and get back in debt again? But I still have a real passion for doing this.”

Sometimes you learn from experience, he said. In 1997 Dave built a shop on the south end of town and put one of his men in charge to manage it. At that time Dave still carried a heavy load in the bays fixing cars and didn’t have much time for the other shop. In 2009, he sold it to that manager who runs a good business.

“I learned by that experience that the government takes a lot of your money because of the capital gains tax, so I might have to do something different. When it comes time for me to slow down, it’s going to be a tough decision. Unfortunately, with my personality, while I still own this place, I probably will be here. With that in mind I will probably just have to sell it.

Continual education

Dave has taken Automotive Technical Institute classes for three years and his coach Chubby Frederick has encouraged him to stay in the front of the shop more.”

Dave is also a member of the Main Street Program in town – a seven-week entrepreneurial program he is attending on Thursday nights. The classes are conducted by Wichita State University and are designed to help small businesses be more profitable, so they stay in business.

“I try to go to every training event I can get my hands on,” he said. “ASA is great and so have the seminars put on by the local Carquest store. They have a lot of training.” He added that all of his technicians hold ASE certifications.

Dave and Jan are active in the community with Dave being a member of the Chamber of Commerce and Jan the secretary of the local Kiwanis.

Long-term customers

Keeping customers is just part of the job, Dave notes. “You know, we’re not the cheapest in town, but we stand behind our work a 100%. If you have a problem we get right on it when they come back. There are some shops that do a little cheaper work and they have cars just all piled up, where we can get you out in a couple days if it is really major work. Most of our work is same-day service.”

The shop has an hourly labor rate just shy of $90 and the average ticket is $460.

“My service writer Tanner Reinhold, has been really good at selling maintenance. “We make a point of looking over all the cars thoroughly. We’re not afraid to let customers know when anything is wrong with their car. But we’re not pushy at all. We let you know if there is something that needs to be fixed right away or can wait if money is a little tight.

Future technicians

As I noted, Dave has always been the quiet type unless he has something to say. “I guess I have gotten to be a little more talkative,” he said. “You just learn that with age I guess. I have come out of my shell a little bit. I went over to see the vo-tech students who wanted to get into auto repair. I told them about my shop and the future of auto repair and visited with the kids. “I was as nervous as can be, but it came out really good. Some of them were really interested and some of them were there just to be there. Some asked a lot of questions and it made me remember when I was back in school.”

Dave noted that one of the biggest hurdles shops have with technicians right out of school is their work ethic. “Some don’t understand how important it is to show up on time to work every day. He said that trade schools need to stress what it takes for them to be in the work force. He had two students who didn’t work out. “They think they can walk in messing with their cell phones, walking in five minutes late, and think that is OK. Some want to start diagnosing vehicles instead of basic maintenance and learning how to use their tools.”

Shop owners should be open to sharing in the training of young ones themselves, he said. Jon Carnoali and Rodney Hayes are our main diagnostic techs and help the rest of us to learn as much as them.

Justin Wisdom joined the shop after being in the workforce for about a year and Dave put him in the bay next to Paul Matzeder so he could act as a mentor.
“Paul is very experienced in suspension and brakes. Paul has been with me for 19 or 20 years and he is very good at working with Justin.  Justin is very conscientious with his work. I am sure he’s going to be a real keeper.”