Tom Dombrock never anticipated a career in the auto repair industry.
"Auto repair wasn't even on the map. Not even close," the Richfield resident said. "It's nothing I ever thought that I would do."
Over the last twelve months, Dombrock assumed co-ownership of Honest-1 Auto Care, a new shop in Burnsville that opened up in late March. It's an unexpected turn of events for Dombrock, whose work life has centered on sales and custoemr service. Over the years he's worked in printing, county fair promotions, radio and finally fireplace sales — one of the most lucrative positions Dombrock ever held.
As a salesman, Dombrock broke practically every rule in the playbook — and broke the company's sales records in the process. The key lies in his soft sales approach, he said, that is more akin to a consultation than a pitch.
"I put myself in that person's shoes. I will never recommend something that I wouldn't do myself, but by the same token, if it's the most expensive thing on the menu and I think that's the right thing for the customer, that is what I recommend," Dombrock said. "Never lie to a customer because if you lie you're going to get caught at it and you're going to lose that customer and 10 or 15 of their friends. And I don't push people — ever."
The company's annual sales grew from $500,000 to $5 million, in part because of Dombrock's efforts, he said. Nevertheless, the corporate parent in Houston bailed out of the fireplace business and eliminated Dombrock's division. He was out of a job, but not for long. Another company heard of Dombrock through one of his former vendors and picked him up immediately. Again, Dombrock did well. All went smoothly until the market collapsed in 2008.
"They relied so heavily on the contractor market that when it collapsed they were really hurting. We lost about two-thirds of our staff in a massive layoff, and the layoffs kept coming," Dombrock said.
For a few years, the company held out, but in the end it was sold to a competitor and Dombrock lost his job. The date was March 31, 2011. About two weeks later his brother-in-law Fred Haynes, an IT executive, called with a business proposition. He was looking to invest in some type of franchise and needed a business partner. Dombrock decided to go for it.
At the time, neither partner had even considered auto repair.
"Personally, I've had so many bad experiences with auto repair that I didn't want to be one of those kinds of people," Dombrock said. "I have five sisters and many times they've called me about their cars and it was clear that they were being cheated."
Dombrock did a 180 after encountering the Honest-1 chain at a convention last April.
"I thought, what if you could take my approach to customer service and apply it to auto repair? Then the national sales person from Honest-1 came over and he was sort of saying the same things that I was thinking," Dombrock recalled.
Impressed, Dombrock and Haynes decided to fly down to the company's headquarters in Arizona to find out more. The two decided to sign on with Honest-1. They established their corporation at the end of July 2011 and began looking for a suitable location.
"What we were primarily looking for was an area that can support a shop like this and fits into our target market and Burnsville really is perfect," Dombrock said. "The demographics in this area really fit in just about perfectly."
Dombrock and Haynes closed on the garage on County Road 42 about a month ago. After some touch ups and a little renovation, they opened for business on March 29.
Honest-1 is a general service shop, offering primarily oil changes, brake checks, and other basic services — but two things distinguish the garage from competitors. The tastefully appointed lobby is comfortable and has a fully-stocked play area for children, a coffee maker with French vanilla capuccino and free wi-fi. In short, Dombrock's operation makes a concerted effort to appeal to women.
"Somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of customers — people making the decisions — are women, even if you don't see them in the shop. They might have their husband or boyfriend bring the car in for them, but they're the ones making the decision," Dombrock said. "So we want to make it comfortable for them."
The shop also makes an effort to minimize their clients' environmental foot print by using eco-friendly cleaners, re-refining waste oil and offering a lengthy inspection on each car.
"The impression is that most cars a notoriously non-eco friendly, but cars are a fact of life. We're not going to get rid of them anytime soon," Dombrock said. "So we try to make sure that people are driving their car in such a way that people are going to get the best possible gas mileage, and as few pollutants as possible will be going into the atmosphere."
In the future, Dombrock and Haynes hope to open several other locations in the Twin Cities area in the years to come. But first they want to get their footing at the Burnsville location.
"I'm not even going to think about that right now. We have to make sure our model is working. Once we have that we can expand to a new location," Dombrock said.