Erich Bockelie and Kevin Owens are the owners of KC Martin Transmissions and KC Martin Automotive, two shops in Lynnwood, Washington. The general repair shop is operated by Kevin; Erich runs the transmission shop. Both are within a couple miles of each other.
These days it’s no surprise to find transmission shops handling general repairs. Many started expanding their service models over the last 10 years or so. But Kirby Martin, the original owner, opened KC Martin back in 1948 as a full-service auto repair shop. They didn’t open the transmission shop until about 40 years later.
Kirby sold his business to two of his employees in 1970. Erich came to work there in 1980.
In 1985, one of the owners retired, and Erich and five other employees purchased his share of the business. Over time, some of the partners retired — three passed away — and the partners who were left bought the others’ shares. During that time, Kevin bought in, and today, he and Erich are the two owners left at KC Martin.
Before joining KC Martin, Erich had been working at an AAMCO center, so he started building their presence as a transmission shop. “Kirby was originally a transmission guy, but his shop wasn’t set up properly to handle transmission work,” explains Erich. “Most of the time they’d just install a used transmission.”
The transmission business grew so quickly that the owners decided to open the transmission shop in 1986.
Even though they have two separate shops, the transmission shop will handle some general repair work. These days about 35% to 40% of their work is general repair.
“We’d be working on people’s cars, and they’d ask, ‘Can you fix the rest of my car? We really like who you are,’” explains Erich. That was back in the late ’90s when transmission work was slowing, so he agreed.
They also handle a fair amount of wholesale work for other shops in the area. “We have two dealerships, 10 car lots, and maybe 10 or 12 other shops around here that send us transmission work,” says Erich.
“When it comes to wholesale work, I generally never see the car owner. The shop can bring the car or just the transmission. Or they can bring the car and let me road test it to make sure they’re going in the right direction.
“If they bring me the vehicle, I sell them the transmission at a wholesale price. They can charge whatever they want. If I do the entire job, I warranty the entire job. If I do just the transmission and there’s a problem, they become part of the program.”
But maybe the real reason for their success is their business philosophy: “It’s really about the relationships you build. It doesn’t matter who it’s with; it could be your employees, your customers, your vendors… it doesn’t matter. That’s how business is done properly. It doesn’t matter if you’re fixing transmissions or selling lollypops.”
Sounds like a good way to look at business. Not much wonder that KC Martin stays so busy all year long. (And no, they don’t sell lolly pops in the slow season.)
The value of an active community life is one we’ve discussed many times in GEARS . For Erich, it’s become a way of life. “For the last 14 years, I’ve been a member of Rotary,” explains Erich. “Best thing I ever did… mostly because it made me a better person.
“When you’re a Rotarian, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about the group… what the group does for the world and the different community programs they support. I’m able to do things with the Rotary that I could never do as an individual. It’s very rewarding and it makes you better than you were before, because it provides you with a better view of what’s going on around you.”
For example, “A person comes in the door looking a little shoddy… a little beat. You might look at this person and think, ‘This guy doesn’t have any money. He’s not going to fix his car.’
“Now, I see someone come in the door looking like that, I realize he didn’t get there by accident. Something’s happened in his life that made things worse. So I try to learn his story… to see where he’s at… and if there’s something I can do. Can I make this person’s life better?
“Sometimes he needs his car repaired. Then again, maybe he shouldn’t get that car repaired: Maybe he needs to stomp on that one and get a different car. Sometimes I can find a car through my Rotary friends, put him in it, and Rotary helps pay for it.
“It’s amazing the people that I’ve looked at like that who turned into my best customers just because I treated them with respect. And I might not have been able to pick that up without the experiences I’ve had through Rotary.
“It’s really about involving yourself in people and in the community, and realizing that you aren’t there just to make a buck. If you do it right, the dollars just come in… it’s just not that hard.”
So what kind of things are they doing for the community? “We have a program coming up on August 21 where we’re taking 41 students, from two different elementary schools, who are below the poverty line. We’re taking them to JCPenney to buy them a wardrobe for the year.” In addition to helping out, KC Martin donated some of the money to finance this program.
“I’ll also be taking part in Washington Kids in Transition, where we’ll be packing lunches for homeless kids who often have a very long bus ride to and from school.”
Notice that these are both programs to help support children; hardly potential customers, at least not in the near future. But, as Erich points out, this isn’t about building business: It’s about doing what’s right.
If that improves his image in the community, great, but that isn’t why he does it. On the other hand, maybe that’s part of the reason that so many people bring their cars to KC Martin.
GROWING THEIR OWN…
One of the biggest difficulties many shops face today is finding new technicians. The dearth of new technicians has become so critical that’s it’s been a focus for ATRA’s What’s Working program. But Erich may have cracked the code when it comes to finding a stream of good, potential technicians to join KC Martin.
“I’m on the advisory committee for the Lake Washington Institute of Technology and the Shoreline Community College,” says Erich. “I bring students from Shoreline here to my shop; they have to have a job to get through the program.
“So, currently, we have two students here: one at the general repair shop and one at the trans shop. And, as they’re going through their programs, I make sure they get a hands-on approach to what they’re learning in school.”
Not everyone who comes through the school programs is a good fit. “I’ve gone through some guys who just don’t have it,” says Erich. But working with the school gives him a chance to interact with the students, to weed out the ones who wouldn’t fit in his shop’s culture.
Then again, many of them do work well at KC Martin. “Three of the guys working here came through the Shoreline program. The third one isn’t a full -time employee yet because he’s still going to school. But he will be once he graduates; he’s awesome.”
So, while other shops are struggling to find qualified help, Erich has an ongoing flow of strong candidates lining up for the opportunity to work at KC Martin. According to Erich, it’s a business strategy that makes good sense.
“My guys are aging out; they’re getting up there, like I am. You need to have someone to fill in. And the easiest way to do that is to get involved with the school system.
“The best thing is to get in on the advisory council because you get to meet everybody. When the NATEF certification comes along, I go over and I take my time… I meet everyone. And I go over and teach classes once in a while. Or I’ll bring a class here when they’re learning transmissions or differentials. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
It’s obviously working well for Erich, because he has a good staff who’ve helped him maintain a sterling reputation in their community.
…AND KEEPING THEM
The importance of a working channel for new technicians can’t be overstated, but it’s really only half the equation. The other half is keeping employees, and for that, Erich could easily write a book.
“We have about 29 employees working in the two shops,” says Erich. “They’ve been with us for an average of about 12 years.” A long time in any business.
“I’ve got the cleanup kid from back in the ’90s,” says Erich. “He’s 42 now. In fact, the oldest employee here at KC Martin started as a cleanup kid. That’s Terry, at the general repair shop. I think he’s 56. He started when he was 16; this is the only job he’s ever had.”
One of the reasons Erich and Kevin are so successful at keeping employees is that they pay a fair wage. “The average wage here is enough to buy a house in the Seattle area — which… good luck!” Erich laughs. “Most of them are older, so they were able to do that a while ago.
“We offer a 401k, we have healthcare — I didn’t need Obamacare; we had coverage before that came out.”
At KC Martin, all of the employees are paid hourly, not piecemeal. Some shop owners would disagree; they prefer to pay by the job to help create an incentive. But Erich takes a different approach.
“If you aren’t making me any money, I’ll know. You’ll just won’t get a raise unless you pick up your game. But if you’re doing a good job, you’re always getting paid, even if it’s February, when it’s supposed to be slow — although it hasn’t been for a few years now — but you still get paid properly.
“The other thing it allows — and this is something most people don’t realize — is that everyone can work as a team. When something comes up and you have to brainstorm, everyone wants to help. They all want to be part of the team, because they want everyone else to be better, too.
“Because your job doesn’t just depend on the car you’re working on getting done: It depends on us, as a group, getting everything done. It’s a better way of doing things. Everyone gets along better.”
Of course, it helps that Erich is there, working with his employees every day. He sets the attitude and the work ethic for his shop, and his employees are happy to follow his lead.
Lately, Erich has noticed that time is moving on, as it does for all of us. He’s already planning for the day when he’s ready to retire. He and his wife, Jeanette, bought Kitty B Lavender Farm, an operating farm about 50 miles from the shop, where they grow lavender plants. “It’ll probably show up on the cover of the Washington State tourism magazine this summer,” says Erich. “It’s where I hope to retire one day.”
Not too soon, we hope. But when that day comes, we wish Erich a long and sweet-smelling retirement.