No one can argue the tenacity of Monty Python’s Black Knight character. Regardless of the apparent hopelessness of his situation, he stood his ground, determined to triumph!

When it comes to surviving adversity and ultimately thriving in the forest of automotive repair and maintenance, the good Sir Knight serves as gallant inspiration for shop owner Kathleen Jarosik of Xpertech Auto repair, Inc. in Englewood, Florida.

Despite an inauspicious entry into the world of shop ownership, in October of 2018 the Auto Care Association and its Women in Auto Care group presented Kathleen with its Female Shop Owner of the Year Award.

Englewood itself might be a metaphor for how Xpertech’s ultimate success finally arrived for Kathleen. Englewood, you see, straddles two separate counties – Sarasota and Charlotte. With a population of just over 16,000 residents, Englewood is neither a city, village nor town. It is a Census Designated Place (CDP), created by the U.S. Census Bureau for statistical purposes only. Ultimately, Englewood is comprised of two separate pieces of a puzzle.

Englewood has yet another dual personality. Being located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, with its clean beaches and clear water, Englewood is the winter home of folks from states all along the I-75 corridor, as far north as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. According to Kathleen, “come summertime, as much as forty percent of the population (and the shop’s clients) head back home,” allowing the shop to focus on the repair and maintenance needs of the locals.

In case you haven’t already guessed, Xpertech’s typical client is, shall we say – older? It’s not a joke to say that on any given workday, there might be three Buick LeSabres, a couple Buick Centurys and Crown Vics in the lot waiting for attention. That clientele, however, plays to another of Kathleen’s strengths and secrets to success – caring.

Back in the early 2000s, Kathleen, her then-husband Dean and two-year-old daughter were living in the Fort Lauderdale area. Dean was at the top of his game, having a successful career working as a Master Technician for shops all over the area. Kathleen was working in the business sector in various accounting and administrative roles. As with so many successful technicians, Dean started thinking about working for himself and started looking for a shop to call his own. Kathleen and Dean agreed that finding a shop in Fort Lauderdale was out of the question. The market was already oversaturated with auto repair shops and prices were too high. They decided that a smaller town, with a better school system and where they could be bigger fish in a smaller sea, might be best for their success and their young family.

So, in 2003, across from the east coast of Florida, to the west coast they went. After a few scouting expeditions looking for land on which to build, they got a lead on buying an existing, if a little too-big, auto repair business; but ultimately, that deal fell through. Then, through the grapevine, they heard of another nearby shop – that was NOT for sale but might be a better fit for them.

In business since 1979, was Emel’s Auto Service. The shop not only had no technology for diagnosing and repairing vehicles, it didn’t even have a credit card terminal. The current (near retirement) shop owners thought Dean and Kathleen were a good fit to carry on the torch they had lit in their community. Kathleen and Dean agreed and were happy to buy an existing business, rather than having to reinvent the wheel for themselves. So, Dean stayed on and began working for the current shop owners. Kathleen returned to Fort Lauderdale at her old job and with their daughter for a long three months. They bought out the current shop owners, who ultimately retired and moved away to Illinois. (The old owners stop by almost every year to visit and see what changes have been made).

Dean and Kathleen were now excited and energetic shop owners. Brick scan tool in hand, Dean worked as the shop’s lead tech; Kathleen as the proverbial “bookkeeper,” making sure everyone else got paid. “At that point, I’m not even sure I could spell carburetor,” laughed Kathleen. Soon, a second daughter came along, and the business and family were both doing well… until 2009.

That’s about the time when Kathleen’s arms were (figuratively) cut off.

In Kathleen’s own words, “anytime partners are going through a split, whether it’s a divorce or a business split, it gets ugly, it’s always ugly - even when its amicable, its ugly. It was a couple of months into the process before we were finally able to agree to do whatever was best for the kids.”

At the time, their older daughter was in second grade and the younger in preschool. The grade school was directly across the street from the shop. Dean was still at the top of his game and could get a job using his wrenches at any door he chose to walk through. Kathleen would have to start over, probably in another place, working for someone else in order to make ends meet. Staying at the shop would allow her the flexibility to continue working and caring and doing all the things a Mom needs to do for her daughters. So, Kathleen and Dean did what they knew they had to do.

They knuckled down and hammered out a price at which Kathleen could purchase Dean’s share of the business. Dean, of course, thought the price was much too low – while Kathleen thought the price way too high, thus leaving both parties uncomfortable. But, isn’t that what it takes to arrive at the perfect deal?

“This was never a case of ‘winning’ the business as part of a divorce settlement. I have paid and paid – and paid Dean, faithfully. As it turns out, it was probably better for Dean, as well. He didn’t really want to be a business owner – he just didn’t like working for somebody else. And, that was a source of a lot of the tension leading to the divorce. Sometimes, working together causes pitfalls that can’t be helped. You share the same day, the same stories and the same friends in the same small town; and if you are not careful, you end up getting divorced. That’s what happened to us.”

Newly divorced, Dean moved on to work at a local Chevrolet dealership, and he fully shares in custody of the children. Years later, folks at the children’s schools didn’t even realize that Kathleen and Dean are divorced.

Today, daughter Delaney, age seventeen, attends a performing arts magnet high school in Sarasota. Delaney is a contemporary dance major – not a “car” kid – and has no current desire to run an auto repair shop. In fact, at one point Delaney was not completely sure of the difference between a battery and a transmission.

Paige, age thirteen, is now a freshman in high school. Paige might be considered a little bit of a gearhead. She’s done oil changes and brake jobs at the shop, and with encouragement might even be capable of running the shop, though she currently prefers culinary arts. As a toddler, Paige wandered the shop and “borrowed” screwdrivers and other shiny tools from the techs’ toolboxes at night. The techs were warned to lock up their tools, or else.

Kathleen has embarked upon a sharp learning curve for running all aspects of an automotive repair business. Like the determined knight, Kathleen stood on her own two feet and jumped kicking and yelling into the business. “I took over the shop out of necessity; I had no choice, so I stood up and did what I had to do so that I could raise my children,” declared Kathleen. That of course meant working more than forty hours a week and becoming a slave to her business. As former husband Dean quickly earned management status at the dealership, he encouraged Kathleen to take some similar courses on running a business, dealing with employees, etc.

NAPA became a big supporter and helpful resource with its training courses and programs. In fact, it was NAPA that nominated Kathleen for the Female Shop Owner of the Year Award. Kathleen hired her own business coach. An early task from her coach was to hold a successful Women’s Car Care Clinic event. Through Internet research, Kathleen found a shop in Vermont that seemed to know a lot about such events. That shop turned out to be female-owned and mentored her through the task of hosting the clinic. The shop owner also introduced Kathleen to the Women in Car Care group.

“I was blown away at other women shop owners in the group, I think there were seven of them in attendance at the time. I received mentorship and got inspired by other women in the industry and their accomplishments. I remember feeling like an imposter – but they lit the fire in me from the little pilot light that I had. That has been my motivation since then.”

“I’m out to prove that running a business profitably can be done honestly and you can make friends along the way. And, I don’t ever consider having any competition. I treat all other local shop owners as friends; friends that I am willing to help. I share what I know and have even volunteered my time at other shops helping them learn their SMS. Now, here I am - from a tiny little town, being bestowed a national honor. While working with one of the local business groups, I was pegged as being kind of a ‘big deal’ around here. Today, there is a plaque on my desk that says just that.”

Today, Kathleen’s shop is a NAPA Gold AutoCare Center and is painted in the appropriate color scheme. It is approximately 4000 sq. ft. and has four lifts, with one being a Hunter alignment rack. Due to its only 14 ft. ceilings, they are limited to how high larger vehicles can be lifted. “Using an outside lift is not very practical because the salty seawater air from the Gulf is so hard on exposed metal,” noted Kathleen.

The other notable “piece of equipment” is a large, comfy brown couch in the waiting area. What’s up with the couch? Knowing, and caring about her clients, Kathleen spent five months of sitting, getting onto – and getting off of – couches from all over until she found the “perfect” couch for her clientele, specifically, a couch that is hip &knee replacement-friendly for her “older” clients.

Two years ago, as part of her business plan, Kathleen set out to hire the best diagnostician around for Xpertech Auto Care; so, she did just that. Kathleen hired her former husband Dean (who is now remarried) to be the shop’s lead technician (not as a shareholder or officer of the business). Like Englewood itself, Kathleen and Dean have become adjoining pieces of the puzzle, once again contributing to Xpertechs’ success.

Today, the shop operates with three technicians: Dean – lead Technician and ASE Master Tech. Dean is the “Car Whisperer” when it comes to drivability diagnosis and electrical repairs. Chad –who has been with Xpertech for six years, is an ASE Master Tech and self-proclaimed Ford guy. Chad has also been dubbed an honorary BMW specialist (Chad hates working on BMWs). Eric – Xpertech’s newest hire (January) is another Ford guy and excels at performing preventive maintenance services.

In the front office, you will find CSR, Erika. Erika has a “spitfire” personality and is “just fun to talk to” according to coworkers and clients alike. Erika has previously worked for GM and AutoZone. Jamie – has worked for Xpertech for four years and currently holds the title of Amazing Director of WOW. According to Kathleen, Jamie takes care of everything – everything, in a most amazing fashion.

Xpertech also has two parttime high school students as employees. Tyler cleans-up and helps around the shop and has been showing a keen interest in some of the repair work. Chloe works up front providing hand-written thank-you notes to clients, is a shuttle driver and helps all around the office.

Kathleen is very proactive in industry efforts to recruit and retain future technicians. For her own part, Kathleen is stepping up by addressing many of the issues that prevent students from choosing or staying in technical careers. At Xpertech, the shop owns and provides most of the expensive diagnostic scan tools. New techs are offered a monthly tool credit/ allowance. Benefits include a 3% IRA contribution, 100%-paid health care premiums, short- and long-term disability benefits through AFLAC, paid vacations and paid holidays. The shop is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

Most of the activity in the front of the shop centers around the big brown couch. Business happens there. Clients relax on the couch during write-up and staff sits next to them while explaining required and suggested services. And, conversations happen there. Lots of conversations – and those conversations lead to relationships. Spending time talking with and caring about their clients is the key to Kathleen and Xpertech’s success. “Can I help you put your feet up? Would you like a snack or some water?” These are the questions that lead to clients sharing their stories and their lives with the staff (family) of Xpertech. During Girl Scout Cookie season, clients receive a free box of cookies with each paid service. Around Mother’s Day, Xpertech partners with local business to give away a free spa day to a lucky client. Many clients stop by from time to time just to talk and share a cup of coffee or a joke. The waiting area even offers a very popular book-exchange library even. Kathleen inspires her staff to be upbeat, friendly and sarcastic with clients – and they all appreciate the good humor. Despite this politically correct world we live in, the women of Xpertech enjoy having their older, male clients stop in just to flirt and get a hug. All in all, it’s an atmosphere refreshingly different from your typical auto repair shop.

In the back shop, there’s not much gravy work to be done. With so many older clients, the shop sees many cars with over 100,000 miles and still-functioning, original brake pads. Their seasonal clients from up north typically have drivability concerns or the MIL is illuminated. “Off-season,” the local clientele is good about having preventive maintenance services performed, along with tire repairs and replacement. Of course, the shop is in Florida, so air conditioning work is always profitable. In fact, Kathleen made sure that Xpertech is one of the first shops around with a R1234yf refrigerant machine. She has been actively soliciting local collision shops for that work and Xpertech will be more than prepared when any newer vehicle comes in for retail A/C work.

What’s next? Kathleen is leaning toward Xpertech becoming hybrid and electric vehicle repair specialists. “There’s no other shop like that in the area, so why not me? We are already starting to see some hybrids and hybrid-electrics for minor issues already. And, Dean is no stranger to hybrids. He learned to work on Chevy Volts, including changing out the batteries, while working at the Chevy dealership,” said Kathleen.

In the meantime, the business is still growing, despite not utilizing any elaborate marketing campaigns. “We still grow our business primarily through word-of-mouth. We do direct (print) marketing to existing clients, including a snailmail newsletter. Our clients even complain if I don’t run pictures of my children often enough in the newsletter,” Kathleen remarked. Of course, Kathleen and Xpertech partner with all the local charities, promoting goodwill throughout the community.

So, our brave knight carries on. Losing one arm (again, figuratively) through divorce and the other through losing half of the business (and her business partner), Kathleen stands on her feet and remains tall as Female Shop Owner of the Year.

What will happen in October, when the next Female Shop Owner of the Year awarded is presented? Be willing to bet a King’s ransom that Kathleen will be mentoring her successor.