All great stories start with pizza. This one is no exception.
Well, okay, this one also starts with a company changing its priorities and existing jobs kind of disappearing. So that’s a bit of a bummer. But there is pizza involved, so we’re keeping that opening line.
Confused? Not to worry! You’ve just landed on the first entry of our new series, Shop Stories, where diesel repair shop owners talk about how they got started, what it was like, where they’ve been and where they hope to go.
To kick things off, we sat down (virtually) with Glen Grader and Andrew Pope of Integrity Fleet Services in Washington. They’ve always been generous with their time and willing to share stories and anecdotes about the diesel industry and the world of trailer repair, and we were burning to find out how they got their start.
We did mention this story begins with a company changing things up, and existing employees wondering where to go next. As the old Semisonic song “Closing Time” goes, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
A BIG SHIFT
The company in question was GE, and the change was, well, pretty momentous.
“GE [our employer at the time] was looking to exit the trailer business,” Glen recalls, “and options were not plentiful for either of us to stay with the company once the trailer leasing business was sold or closed.”
After the initial “Oh no” that usually follows a major life shakeup, Glen and Andrew looked over what would be left behind and realized something. GE’s departure left an interesting quandary: about 1500 trailers would remain in the Tacoma, Washington, area under new ownership, but there would no longer be a team of mechanics to maintain them.
“That automatically opened up an opportunity right there,” Glen says. “Those trailers are staying, and they need someone to take care of them.”
If only there were some trailer technicians available to do so…
The guys turned their idea into a plan, but they knew it wasn’t something they could pull off entirely on their own.
Glen and Andrew set their sights on several technicians who had worked with them at GE. It was important to land these guys—they had been working on the trailers right along and knew their jobs. All of them had offers from other businesses (including the one that had bought the Northwest trailer fleet).
The meeting went down at a pizza joint near the old GE branch. Glen made his big pitch. The business would be strictly mobile at first; he’d work out of his home; they had a good customer waiting in the wings, but would have to make good on the work they promised they could do.
“We would use the equipment we had been using with [and purchased from] GE,” Andrew tells us. “The onramp for that wasn’t very steep.”
Five technicians attended that fateful pizza party. While one took a job elsewhere, the other four signed on to what became Integrity Fleet Services.
The switchover, by the way, was seamless for the customer—it was basically a uniform change. On June 30, the four were GE techs; on July 1, they were Integrity techs.
THE CHALLENGES OF STARTING A REPAIR SHOP
We should probably preface the following by pointing out that no part of starting a business is really easy. It always takes time, money, energy…sometimes in great quantities. You’ve got to face down the economy, your own doubts, and the concerns of everyone around you.
In other words, it’s a huge lift.
Glen and Andrew had the dubious pleasure of dealing with all of the above while still functioning at their existing work. They recall a frantic few months where they were winding down the operations of the GE branch and preparing it for transfer to the new owner. Think getting inventory squared away, dealing with employee issues like severance packages—all time-consuming, often exhausting work.
And then they got to go home after a long day and figure out how to move forward with Integrity.
“The bones were there,” Glen says, “but none of the surrounding tissue. I had to get everything in place.”
Since he’d never started a business before, he looked for help—and found it at the Small Business Development Center. The one he found was on the college campus in Tacoma, and he got help developing a business plan, finding an insurance broker, an attorney, an accountant, proper licensing, and more.
(It was all free, by the way. Give the Small Business Administration in your area a try if you’d like help starting something up.)
Next came getting a loan—one of the banks Glen visited liked the business plan he’d written up—and then came the really scary part: emptying his own bank account.
Now, that’s not a pleasant experience at the best of times.
“I was 50 years old when this all came down,” Glen says. “That’s not real old, but it’s close enough to the end of the rainbow to start thinking, ‘Do I really want to dig this deeply into my retirement to do this?’”
It’s a question a lot of us have likely asked ourselves over the years.
What made him pull the trigger?
Honestly, it was stepping back and looking at his prospects. He’d risen steadily through GE and had many years of success there, but he was still too young to really retire comfortably. Getting back out onto the open market with his skills and education, however, would very likely result in “about a 50% haircut,” and he’d be competing with younger, more qualified candidates for all the jobs.
He didn’t want to have to start over at another corporation, so he decided to make his own way.
INTEGRITY GROWS UP
For the first six months, Glen indeed worked from home. Andrew eventually joined them from Indianapolis. After that, they leased their first “shop”—both men laugh at the description, clarifying it was more of a location than a proper shop. But that space, however crude it may have been, allowed them to run a mobile branch and a proper in-shop service.
Andrew remarks that it “took a while” to get to where they hoped to be, where things would roll pretty well without them getting their hands into everything. “I thought it would take 4-5 years to get this culture off the ground and the business built,” he says, “but it took a lot longer.”
How much longer? Try 14-15 years!
The early months and years of a business are usually tough—especially for shop owners. You’ve always got one eye on payroll and what you need to do to make it every week. You’re more actively involved in everything. To get to the other side, to step back and be more strategic instead of reactive, takes a lot of hard work. You’ll learn how to hire people, how to fire people, how to manage people. And in the beginning, you might have one or two really big customers that keep the lights on for you…but you don’t want to tie your fortunes to just one or two fleets.
And you’ll make mistakes—maybe lots of mistakes.
“You have to go through that and learn those lessons,” Glen tells us. “Follow your gut on certain things, but other things you need hard data for.”
And yes, you’ll learn how to differentiate between gut questions and data questions, too.
APPROACHING THE FUTURE WITH INTEGRITY
The next few years are bright for Integrity Fleet Services. Andrew looks forward to expanding and adding locations throughout their area. “So many regions, you need to take an hour or two hours to get to it. If we can open a location in those areas where we can have techs there, to be more efficient…that’s definitely in the future.”
Glen is also looking forward to potential expansion, but he’s also got another idea for his future: retirement. Er, not right away—the job is still fun!—but one day.
Until then, the road ahead is bright—and hopefully filled with pizza.