BY LEAH MARXHAUSEN | PHOTOS BY SENT FROM HEAVEN PHOTOGRAPHY
ANDREW SEXTON HAS BEEN WORKING on cars since he was a child. Growing up, he worked on his family’s vehicles out of an old barn alongside his dad to keep them running. When he graduated high school and had to decide what career path to take, the choice was obvious. He liked working on cars and he was good at it.
After high school, he spent time working as a Sears service advisor before getting a job as a dealership technician. Bouncing around from dealership to dealership, Sexton tried to find one that would offer enough hours for him to make a living. Eventually, he hit a standstill.
“I got to a point where I was spending more money to go to work than I was making,” says Sexton.
Sexton wasn’t making a living working at dealerships, so it was clear he needed to make a change. Thanks to encouragement from his wife, Sexton opened ATS Automotive in 2009.
“[My wife] supported me while we put a little bit of money into savings. We then took $2,000 out of savings and bought a lift,” says Sexton. “Then I just tried to be here in the shop as often as possible. I was here from 7, 8 o'clock in the morning to midnight, seven days a week for almost a year and a half. I barely spent any time with my wife, but she supported us. I basically went home, slept, took a shower, and came right back to work every day.”
At the time, Sexton’s wife had a successful career as a customer service representative. She was able to develop positive professional relationships with her customers and directed them to the shop whenever she could, helping ATS Automotive gain its first customers.
“She was working for a cell phone company, so every day she was meeting 50 people or more,” says Sexton. “A lot of people, especially companies, liked working with her. By knowing people who had large companies she got us fleet work, but also got us their own personal cars. After that, it was up to me to make sure that I took care of them.”
LEARNING HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS
For months, Sexton worked long hours, patiently waiting for things to pick up.
“It was probably six months before we really started getting busier,” says Sexton. “There were a lot of times when I was just twiddling my thumbs. You don't want to miss a customer. I had some people that want work done at 8 o'clock in the morning and then I had people some fleet customers that we would pick up at 5 o'clock and then I would work on them overnight.”
Although Sexton had worked on cars his whole life, he didn’t know much about the financial side of owning a business. By attending the Automotive Training Institute, Sexton was able to close these gaps and learn how to better run his business.
“When I started my own shop, I didn't know any of the financials of it,” says Sexton. “I just knew you can’t sell the parts for the same price again, but you don't understand what dollar amount you’re supposed to mark up to. And, why you do that, and how you pick out your shop rate. There were a lot of things that they taught us at the Automotive Training Institute on the financial side, and that was the most helpful. And a lot of the other stuff, as far as dealing with employees, helped set me up for the future.”
As the shop grew busier, Sexton needed to grow its team. What began as a one-man show has now grown to 22 employees. As a result of this growth, Sexton’s wife, who had been working at the shop full-time since 2017, is now able to go back to her career.
“For the last six years she has worked fulltime for the shop,” says Sexton. “The shop was my dream. She's helped me and now she wants to go back and build her career again.”
FOCUSING ON AUTO REPAIR
After more than a decade in business, Sexton saw an opportunity to refine his offerings. While ATS Automotive once offered towing services, Sexton decided to shift its focus entirely to auto repair. By ending towing services, Sexton can move the auto shop into a second building and grow the business.
“We're focusing back on the shop again, and on what I truly love doing — working on cars,” says Sexton. “I see a lot of growth in the future here. We've been stifled by not having a ton of bays; honestly, we've had more techs than bays at times. That made it difficult to get work done, especially with parts shortages. Being able to expand the shop gives us the ability to get more cars and get them out quicker.”
As ATS Automotive prepares for growth, Sexton must have a team of technicians ready to grow with him. Sexton makes sure he has employees on his team who are excited to learn and motivated.
“I would say the most important trait is a willingness to learn,” says Sexton. “Our industry is changing so rapidly that if people aren't still willing to learn, that's a sign that you're not going to be able to grow any further.”
TEAM TRAINING AND NETWORKING
One way Sexton has helped his team grow is by bringing them to the VISION Hi-Tech Training & Expo every year for the past decade.
“I think it's a great opportunity for the guys to see different classes and things that they can specialize in,” says Sexton. “One of the best things is being able to spend time together but also being able to network with other techs, shop owners, and service advisors — people who are in the industry and are excited to learn and grow. It gets everybody in the mood to come back again the next year.”
Sexton plans to continue to bring his team to VISION each year to help them stay on top of changes in the industry and better themselves.
“I’m always willing to try and grow the industry and help others,” says Sexton. “If we help other people raise themselves up, it helps everyone.”