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Young Owner Gets it in Gear

Broomfield, Colo.-Having dreamt of owning his own shop for more than 20 years while working as an ASE Master-certified diesel technician in California, Eric Gibson finally pulled the trigger in January of 2017 when he bought Fifth Gear Automotive, an established shop in Broomfield, Colo., with a good reputation that was up for sale.

“When my wife (Erika) and I decided to move to Colorado to be closer to family, She told me ‘It’s now or never,’” Gibson said.

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This January will mark his second year of ownership, and while he said gross profits have remained steady and efficiency has increased, it hasn’t all been blue skies and rainbows.

“There have definitely been some ‘let’s not do that again’ moments,” he said, “but I’ve learned from each one.”

The shop now employs three ASE-certified technicians, a lube Tech and two service advisors, About half of what it had before, but is achieving the same gross profit, Gibson said, attributing the increased efficiency to organization and the cleaning up of long neglected areas in the shop that were affecting output.

For example, he worked with his NAPA rep at University Auto Parts, Matt Rogers, to completely re-organize the shops parts room and clear out old inventory (which he said NAPA took back and credited him for). He also isolated the shop’s Autologic, Autel and Solus scan tools to a specific area for easier access and return; worked with his lube distributor, SC Fuels, to orchestrate the installation of larger lubrication tanks and organize them into vertical stacks for space saving efficiency; and refurbished the front counter, adding more space and installing dual monitors on each computer for his two service advisors.

He also partnered with AutoVitals and instituted digital inspections; each technician now has a tablet at their bay which they use to photograph needed repairs and communicate internally with service advisors.

Overall, though, Gibson said his focus has been upholding the shops excellent reputation and taking care of, not only the existing customer base, but his new ones.

“I bought an independent business because I didn’t want to be a cookie cutter franchise owner. Where’s the fun in that?” Gibson said. “Yes, there were some challenges with customers who were loyal to the previous owner, but we’ve done very well over the past two years retaining most of our customer base.”

A relatively young owner at 40 years old, Gibson has developed a stylish new sign for the business, added some new Colorado-styled metalworks to the waiting area and keeps a Fifth Gear Automotive branded drift Trike in the shop. “I’ve tried to make it my own brand, something that people will come to trust and perhaps even enjoy doing business with,” he said. “I always keep in mind I’m going to see my customers at the grocery store and have empathy for what they’re going through when they come in — it goes a long way. For ‘parking lot’ jobs, such as replacing a brake light for free, I ask myself, ‘What is changing this brake light really worth to me in the long run?.’”

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He relies on NAPA, O’Reilly Auto Parts and World Pac as his main aftermarket suppliers, but since taking over he’s also increased the shops diesel repair footprint and said that 40 percent of his business now comes from diesel maintenance and repair. Because of that, he set up Fifth Gear as an Alliant Power distributor.

“I discovered Alliant Power in 2003 when I was a technician replacing injectors on 7.3 Powerstroke engines. We couldn’t find anybody in the aftermarket back then that was reliable, so we’d always have to buy them OE,” Gibson said. “One day my supplier at the time told me he’d just received some new injectors from Alliant Power and I took a chance on them. I’ve never looked back. I’ve had almost no issues in the 15 years I’ve been using them and every time I have, they’ve taken care of it without issue.”

The shop is an approved diesel emissions testing facility and has a dyno bay, equipped with a Rotary lift and a Mustang Dynamometer, in house. Gibson said one of the challenges he faced while striving to increase his diesel repair business was finding qualified staff.

“I had to go on a recruiting hunt, but I’ve got a good team now,” Gibson said. “Between all of us, there’s not much we can’t fix.”

He sends his technicians to training at NAPA, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Diesel Forward, and also uses AVI On Demand online training. The shop is also involved with Warren Technical Institute, and lets top-performing students come and job shadow his technicians throughout the week. “We’re doing everything we can to find ways to incorporate training into our day-to-day and also do our part to shelter in the next generation of technicians,” Gibson said.

He added that, as the shop continues to work on all makes and models, including luxury foreign imports such as Mercedes-Benz, BMWs and even Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, he’s had to learn how to manage himself for the good of the business, even if that means throwing in the white towel on a job that isn’t profitable, something he’s not “wired” to do.

“I got no quit in me,” he said. “So going from technician to business owner, it’s like now I’ve got one hand under the hood and one on a keyboard. The technician in me wants to solve every problem no matter how much time it takes, but now I have to start thinking about, ‘Is this good for my business?’ It’s taken me about two years to learn where that line is.”

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