Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Kenny Hart was 55 years old when his previous employer at SMI Automotive contacted him to announce his plans for retirement. He wanted to know if Hart was interested in buying the shop. The business had been around since 1969, and the owner knew after previously employing him that SMI would remain in good hands with Hart.
“I know you’ll take good care of my people,” the previous owner had said. That mattered a great deal to him because his employees were loyal – many of whom had been with SMI for 35 years. Hart, who originally went to school to become a financial advisor, found that working in the automotive industry was more to his liking.
“I just couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life doing cold calls to clients regarding investment advice,” Hart says.
He started out in tire stores in college, then moved on to dealerships, then independent stores. Now he owns the largest independent repair shop in the state of Kentucky, which includes 29 service bays. The previous owner managed two body shops, a marine center and a service center. Hart elected to focus solely on the service center, which has re-energized his employees now that there are fewer irons in the fire.
Though Hart initially had reservations about buying a business in his mid-50s, he’s glad he did.
“It’s been a great move for me,” Hart says.
Not that there haven’t been challenges. For starters, he purchased the place right before COVID-19 hit.
“I closed on the deal on Friday, March 20,” Hart says. “I was opening as the new owner on Monday, March 23, and that Sunday night the governor began closing businesses. Talk about a scary feeling.”
Being in the automotive industry, SMI was considered essential so they never had to close. Nevertheless, money was tight for a couple of months. By June and July, however, business was taking off again. Most of their business is built around German imports like Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, though they also work on Asian models like Toyota and Mazda as well as domestic models. They do not work on exotics such as Lamborghini, Ferrari and Bentley.
“What happens is, I work on, say, a BMW for a mother but then her son or daughter has maybe a Honda, a Mustang or a Chevy, and the family has developed a trust in us so they want to know if they can bring their other car in for service,” Hart says. “We try to do all makes and models.”
Hart has had customers follow him from shop to shop for the past 25 years. That’s because he says that people do business with people. They don’t do business with business.
“We treat them all like they are the most important commodity,” says Hart, who is happy that SMI has customers who have been coming in for four to five decades now. “Having that longevity to feed on and grow from is pretty special. Not a lot of companies have been around that long, especially in this industry.”