When a person walks through the door of Greg’s Champion Auto in Mankato, they are met with a friendly greeting amidst a living room atmosphere of plush couches and chairs, complimentary drinks and magazines on the coffee table.
“A guy walked in here recently and did a double take,” owner Greg Bednar recalled. “The guy said, ‘Is this an auto repair place?’ We said, ‘yes it is,’ and he said, ‘not what I expected.’
It’s one example of how owner Bednar strives to set himself apart from competitors in the auto repair business. This spring, he was recognized as Encore Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Development Center. The annual award is given to people who started and grew a business after the age of 50.
“I was 53 years old when I bought the shop,” Bednar said. “Quite a few people have stopped and said congratulations.”
Prior to opening the auto repair shop in 2010, Bednar had a decades-long career in telecommunications, software development and more recently, professional fundraising at South Central College and Minnesota State University.
But throughout his life, his passion has been cars. Growing up working on them with his dad and brothers, he discovered he had a mechanical aptitude for fixing them. In his office there is a giant framed photograph of a 1972 Dodge Charger that he drives in drag races during the summer months around Minnesota and Iowa, a hobby he immediately fell in love with when he first raced 20 years ago.
In 2010, Dan Robinson, owner of Dan’s Champion Auto, approached Bednar at a fundraiser for South Central College. Robinson wanted to retire and suggested Bednar buy the shop from him.
“That really put a bee in my bonnet,” Bednar said. “I’ve toyed with the idea of wanting to own my own business several times. The older I got the more I realized, I can do that.”
When Greg’s Champion Auto first opened at the same location at 55 Star St in Mankato, business was slow. For most of the day, Bednar and his two mechanics at the time sat around looking at each other or watching television.
Bednar was determined to turn that around, and it began with a magazine article he read about the top 10 independent auto repair shops in the country, one of which was in Roseville. He called Rich Fearing, the owner of Village Auto Works and asked him one question; what was Fearing doing that Bednar wasn’t and could he come up and shadow him? Fearing told him to come on up for a day.
“So I went up and shadowed him for a day and he opened up his books,” Bednar said. “He bared his soul.”
Fearing was a member of a 20 Group, where like-minded business owners get together and examine their best practices, deciphering what approaches work and what doesn’t. When Bednar returned to Mankato, he applied and was accepted to one of the premier organizations in the country called the Bottom Line Impact Groups.
“We would get together every four months and we would share best practices and open our books,” Bednar said. “We basically did an audit on each other’s operation. My promotion and my advertising was kind of a patchwork of things. They said to stop all that. There’s one thing that works and it works like magic and that’s direct mail. So I threw all in based on their input.”
He started mailing coupons, rotating throughout different parts of Mankato. Pretty soon people began showing up with the coupons. The next step was ensuring that those people would be repeat customers. Working with the 20 Group helped him to crunch and interpret the numbers. When he learned that 70 percent of his customers were women, he hired a designer to help revamp the reception area, including reception desks and back lighting sourced from a spa.
“It was right around Thanksgiving of 2016 when we finished,” Bednar said. “When I bought the place this was just a big white box with some fairly comfortable seating, but you couldn’t make eye contact with your customers the way it was configured.”
Bednar also focused on honesty and ethics, hiring people who also held those attributes and clearly explaining what repairs are needed, and what repairs can wait. That’s a big reason Ryan MacPherson, a professor at Bethany Lutheran College, is a loyal and repeat customer.
“I like to know what isn’t working and what should we do about it,” MacPherson said. “Sometimes there’s more than one option, you can repair all of it or part of it, so they’re always patient and they talk it through with me. They’re willing go slow down and explain things. The thing with Greg that always impresses me is that he’s cheerful and the people who work with him, you can tell they have admiration and respect for him.”
As Bednar refurbished the shop and acquired customers, his staff grew to eight full time and several part time employees. He learned the best way to acquire and retain talent, especially when auto mechanics of today have morphed into what he says is 70 percent mechanic and 30 percent computer tech as cars are made with built-in computers. He didn’t want the type of employee that would work for two years and leave, so he offers benefits like health care, a 401K, paid days off and vacation time; the kind of benefit package found in larger companies. But Bednar knew if he wanted career technicians, he had to treat them as career employees.
After nine years at the helm and rapid growth, Bednar said he’s finally reached a level of balance and sustainability, all while keeping the customers and his own employees happy.
“Now we’re growing at a nice healthy seven to eight percent a year and that’s a sustainable business.”