Some great stories begin with pizza. In true San Diego fashion, this one begins with tacos.
Well, okay. The tacos come in at the end of Act 1.
Anyway. Everyone loves a good origin story, right? That’s why we began our Shop Stories series, 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. Today, we’re focusing on Dave and Jan Kettle of Quality Mobile Fleet Services in sunny (sometimes) San Diego, California. They had a great presentation at Diesel Connect (which we’ll no doubt cover eventually), revealing they did not come from technical backgrounds.
The audience was fascinated, and so were we. The Kettles were happy to hop on a call with us and share their tale—so grab a snack and put your feet up. It’s a good one!
A NEW BUSINESS
By the time our story begins, Dave Kettle had been in sales for quite a while.
Covering all his territory meant he spent about 250 days per year on the road. He knew he needed a change when he walked into a hotel in Phoenix and they greeted him by name.
“I decided, I’m gonna get out of this game and spend more time at home,” he told us, “and get a regular job.”
Fleet services offered an intriguing possibility. Dave’s time on the road meant he drove a lot of fleet cars; when something went wrong with them, he’d have to call a fleet services company for help. Simple, right?
“They sucked so badly,” he said. And if he was having a bad time with all these companies, so were other people. Which meant there was room on the market for…oh….some quality mobile fleet services.
(See what we did there?)
The Kettles attended training and got a small place, and got their mechanics hired. As things developed, it was mostly Dave steering the SS Quality Mobile; Jan remained at her job as COO at a manufacturer. About a week before opening, however, Jan turned to her husband and said, “You’re a nightmare at this whole business operating thing.” She’d been asking more pointed questions about how he intended to run the business. Upon hearing some of his answers, she took one for the team and quit her job to run the daily ops at Quality Mobile Fleet Services.
The vast majority of diesel repair shop owners were once techs themselves. The lack of diesel in the Kettles’ background might be seen as a hindrance by some, but in fact it worked out well. What they lacked in diesel they made up for in business sense, and they could hire people who knew the diesel side of the business. That’s what happened with their original head technician, Mitch.
They had tacos with him after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. “You’re not a mechanic?” Mitch asked as they discussed the business. “GREAT. Then I don’t have to re-train you on how things should get done!”
Mitch was free to be a mechanic. He taught the Kettles a lot about diesel, and Dave taught him much about running a business—to the point where Mitch has since started his own operation.
A QUALITY WORK ENVIRONMENT
If you work a full-time job, you’re probably spending an average of 40+ hours a week with your colleagues. That’s a lot of time. Like…a lot. That’s why it was important to the Kettles that the shop have a welcoming, friendly atmosphere and employees who can communicate their issues with the owners and each other.
There’s that word again—communicate. Dave said his techs have no problem calling each other for assistance. They’ll also bring up issues at work, Jan told us, “so we can make adjustments and make changes.”
An intriguing aspect of their hiring process is the working interview. Promising applicants come in and basically work with the team for a half-day (yes, they get paid!). They ride along with the lead technician, who may have them do work (or not); they see the environment the team works in.
Jan also emphasized the most important trait they look for in an employee: “They have to be team-oriented,” she said. “We very much preach that it takes all of us to be successful, from the person who answers the phone to our service writers, to our parts person, to our technicians, all the way to Dave and myself and everything in between. We all have to work as a team.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL…WELL, SORTA
The Kettles opened Quality Mobile Fleet Services in 2019. You know what happened the year after that: COVID-19.
The pandemic radically upended the way long-established companies did business—what kind of impact did it have on a brand-new operation?
As it turned out, things didn’t suffer on the business end. Jan and Dave had no trouble sourcing more work—there was plenty of that to go around. No, their difficulties came from getting parts and the ports/border closing (“That kind of hurt”) and figuring out how to work around the restrictions the pandemic brought to their employees. Those of you who are or who know working parents are probably aware of some of the challenges these restrictions brought: school closures meant kids were at home, and someone had to be there to watch them…
We’re not great at science, but it’s very hard to be at work and at home with your kids.
The Kettles worked with and around schedules as much as they could. “We never closed,” Dave says, “We just slowed down. When our technician availability went down, we had to find new ways to do things.”
“WE’VE MADE IT” MOMENTS
When did Dave and Jan know they’d made it?
Quality Mobile Fleet Services does some work for the federal government. “Somebody who doesn’t use us as much called D.C. and said, ‘We have a leaky radiator pipe. What should we do?’” The person picking up the phone in D.C., whom the Kettles don’t know and had never talked to, said, “Call Quality Mobile Fleet Services. They’re right down the road from you. They’ll take care of that.”
Now that is one heck of a good review.
Jan has her own “made it” moment: They were referred a customer with 140 units. “We could never have handled this kind of customer early on,” she said. “To get the referral, and know we can handle all their vehicles…”
That’s when you know you’re not a teeny-tiny operation anymore!
WORKING IN CALIFORNIA
California has lots of regulations around…well…everything. How everyone feels about those regulations and whether they’re good or bad is a topic for another blog (probably on another website). But the state has been making so many waves around diesel in particular, we felt obligated to ask…well, how’s it going?
The Kettles watch the same news reports we do. “It can feel like, ‘Hey, they’re anti-us,’” Dave said. But the shop also has a lot of government contracts—federal, state, and city—and that work isn’t going anywhere at the moment. So they focus on the now.
“Those are goals, when the government talks about 12-15 years in the future. They may happen, they may not happen…but today we have to focus on getting the job done,” he said. “And we may have to plan to move with them, if they choose hydrogen, propane, natural gas, whatever.”
ON LIFE & WORK IN AMERICA’S FINEST CITY
Because our writer is a San Diegan herself, we were legally obligated to ask the Kettles if their techs worked when the weather was less than perfect.
The answer is yes, yes they do. Trucks don’t stop breaking down just because the marine layer hasn’t burned off. They’ve even got a picture of one of their techs working on a vehicle in the snow (!!) outside Alpine, a place in the county that gets Real Weather.
(A thousand San Diegans just screamed in terror.)
“The tech we sent out there didn’t even have a coat,” Dave said. “We had to send a coat out to him.”
In just over four years, Quality Mobile Fleet Services has gone from 3,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet and continued to grow despite the pandemic. It seems like the blue San Diego sky is the limit—so what’s next?
We’ve noticed something a little different about the Kettles, maybe due to their backgrounds: they’re good at spotting opportunities. If Dave sees a lot of Hinos around town, his first thought isn’t, Wow, look at all those Hinos; it’s We should target market those Hinos. They’re also ready to pivot, if the need arises—their guys can work on anything or be trained to work on anything, and if some ruling comes down from on high slapping diesel aside, well, they’re happy to work on cars, or hydrogen powertrains, or anything else.
No matter what’s on the horizon, we’re sure Quality Mobile Fleet Services is on the up and up—even during the occasional rain. 😉