Mark Carr, CEO of Christian Brothers Automotive, had an encounter with God which he described as being like the Uncle Sam poster, calling out “I want you!” It was one of many conversations he had with God over the past 40 years that led to the creation and growth of the most successful automotive repair franchise in the country.
It is an amazing journey for a man who barely made it out of high school. He worked as a bartender, toilet cleaner, and ditch digger, and did just about everything known to man in terms of lousy work. Leaving the small tourist town in upstate New York where he grew up, he went to Rochester and applied at Eastman Kodak—the place where you go to work and have job security for the rest of your life. When he was told there weren’t any openings, he took a job collecting garbage. After all, he had experience with lousy work.
Eventually, Kodak called, and he thought he was set for life. But after five years he discovered there was no opportunity for him to get ahead, so he quit. With no job prospects, he scanned through the want ads of two newspapers, The Houston Chronicle and the Rochester Times. The want ads section in the Chronicle was thicker, so with $4000 in his pocket, he packed up his 1977 Corvette with everything he owned and drove to Houston to start a new life.
“All those want ads in Houston and I couldn’t get a job.” Mark said. I finally dropped to my knees and prayed, ‘God, my life is a mess. I don’t know what to do with it anymore. Just take it.’ That was when I turned my life over to God.” Mark Carr
God’s Plan Unfolding
Three days later, Mark got a job selling photographic murals. Although he did well, eventually, he became an order-taker and once again he was on his knees. “God, would you bring me a business opportunity? You designed me differently than this. I am bored.” The next day, a friend in his Sunday school class approached Mark and asked if he would partner with him to start a car repair shop. God had answered his prayers.
He bought a piece of land, built a building, and started Christian Brothers Automotive with his friend. Too afraid to work in his new business full time, Mark kept a full-time job, but was not doing well financially. “I had two kids, and I couldn’t make enough to provide for my family.” He said, “I was about to lose my house. I had two cars in the garage that were worth less than I owed on them. I couldn’t even afford a Happy Meal for my son.”
Mark sought guidance from his grandfather, a man he admired and respected. Mark recalls his advice. “God gave you that business. Why don’t you just go run it?” Mark had a hundred reasons, not to go all in with his new business but the biggest was fear of failure. “I felt like it was my last straw. If I went over there and I failed, I would be finished.” But Mark took his grandfather’s advice, and in 1989, he went to work at Christian Brothers Automotive full time.
It was difficult at first, because there wasn’t a place for Mark at the automotive shop. “I had a guy running the store who was an incredible mechanic. I essentially demoted him to working in the shop as a mechanic while I worked up front. Within 90 days, our business increased thirty percent. I took it as God’s verification that I was supposed to be there, because I really hadn’t been there long enough to make a difference. It wasn’t long before we were so busy that I asked my mechanic to come back inside and be our service manager. He did, and he is still with me today, 30 years later.”
"From there, things went incredibly well. Mark paid off the land and building, was completely out of debt and making more money than he ever dreamed of, when God tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I want you to open another store.” Mark Carr
The Birth of a Franchise
Mark leveraged the first store to start the second and it did as well in the first year as the first store did in its 10th year. Again, he was approached by a friend from church who asked Mark if he would help him start a third shop. Right out of the box, the same thing happened as with the second store. It had the same success in the first year as the first store had in its 10th. Without knowing it, he’d started a franchise by replicating a model of success.
That success model was built on Christ’s principle of loving one another. “I made a list of 20 things people hate about getting their car fixed, and I determined how I could solve every one of those problems. We looked at service from the customer’s perspective and treated them the way we would want to be treated.”
The company grew to six locations as friends and family wanted to be a part of it. Mark cross-collateralized each of the locations to fund the next and had reached the end of his ability to fund the growth by himself. There was a lot of interest in the franchise, but no money to grow. Once again, Mark was on his knees, and, with a line borrowed from Jerry McGuire, he asked God to “show me the money!” God responded with a series of miracles.
The first answer to Mark’s prayers was a Houston-based venture capital firm. They provided the capital to grow to 21 stores, and Christian Brothers Automotive thrived until it reached a significant turning point. In order to buy out the VC firm’s interest in the company, Mark had to come up with a substantial amount of cash in a very short period of time. It was an impossible situation. Knowing nothing is impossible for God, again Mark was on his knees asking God for provision. Mark explained the predicament to a friend who said, “My Uncle Dave is a successful business man in Michigan. Let me call to see if he can help you out.” Coincidently, “Uncle Dave” Giffin happened to be in Houston a week or two later, and he and Mark met. They talked for about an hour about everything but business. Mark didn’t ask him for money. He hadn’t told him his need. When “Uncle Dave” got up to leave he said, “I know integrity when I see it. I’m in [for the exact amount of money Mark needed].” They shook hands on a deal.
It wasn’t long before a third miracle was needed in order to completely buy out the VC firm. Once again, God provided. Mark met a local orthodontist, Dr. John Freeman, and they had almost the exact same meeting. They didn’t talk business. Mark didn’t ask for money, but at the conclusion, Dr. Freeman indicated he wanted to make an investment to re-purchase the stock. Once again, it was a very short time horizon, and they shook hands to agree on the deal. God provided through these men.
Treating others as you want to be treated
From the beginning, Christian Brothers Automotive followed a simple principle of treating others as you want to be treated. This principle was extended to their franchisees and is reflected in their unique partnership model with their franchise owners.
Josh Wall is a vice president and responsible for guiding families through the franchise development process. Josh explained how Christian Brothers cares for its franchisees.
“We designed a model that is unlike other traditional models. A typical franchise agreement requires the franchisee to remit a royalty as a percent of sales off the top, before all other expenses are paid. In our model, which has been in place since 1996, the franchisee pays us last. When a customer comes in and we serve them, first we pay the team, the rent, the utilities, our suppliers and a modest $60,000 salary plus health insurance for the franchisee and their family. When a profit is left, it is split 50/50. The model has helped us to truly be in the trenches with them and support their success. We have wonderful families who are investing their life savings in a business called Christian Brothers Automotive. We want to treat them how we would want to be treated.”
Christian Brothers Automotive also breaks the mold of automotive repair businesses by being closed on weekends so their employees can spend time with their families. Mark explained. “We value family, and it is important to support our employees. We do whatever we can to limit the inconvenience of being closed on weekends, including offering our customers rides to and from work. Our customers understand these values,which is why the business has been successful in spite of limiting hours of operation to Monday through Friday.”
Over the years, the home office has grown to 50 people. They begin each week with corporate prayer time, thanking the Lord for what He has given and asking for the needs of each other, the franchisees and their families. They end each week in communion with each other with one department in turn serving breakfast for the others. Josh explains, “We have to spend time together, in fellowship and to care for each other. It is the only way we can serve our franchisees.”
Today, Christian Brothers Automotive has 130 stores in 18 states and is growing to 136 by year end. Mark Carr
What is more remarkable is that in over 18 years of franchising, not a single store has closed. This success is due to an intentional seven-step process of selecting new franchisees. Josh explained. “Our franchisees are the lifeblood of our business. We spend time trying to determine who they are, what is important to them, what they are trying to achieve. We see if the answers to those basic questions line up with where we want our ideal franchise partners to be. At their core, they need to love and serve Jesus Christ and treat others as they want to be treated.”
Growing with God
As they continue to grow, the team at Christian Brothers is working exceptionally hard at growing smaller in the relational touch points with franchisees. As they add new locations at a rate of 14 to 17 per year, they have to be very intentional in what they do. They constantly seek more ways to communicate more regularly so they continue to provide the training and support franchisees need to be successful.
As he looks to the future, Mark emphasizes that he always has to be sensitive that it is God’s business and not his. “He has had to take it back from me three or four times when my pride has gotten in the way, and that has always been painful. This business isn’t about me. However many stores He wants me to open, I will. If He wants me to open 500 stores, I will. If He wants me to stop next week, I am good with that, too. But I love what I do, so I hope I don’t have to do something else. I am His to do whatever He wants to do with me.”