Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The sun has not caught me in bed in fifty years.” The same may be true of Mike Woodie. At 67 years old, the Charlotte, N.C., shop owner is out of bed and making his rounds, visiting two to three of his 14 shops each morning between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. followed by visits to three or four more in the early afternoon.
For 45 years he’s been an expert builder—the largest private shop owner in Charlotte—and an architect of a network of auto repair shops spanning from the Queen City down to the South Carolina border. Some of his personnel have been with him for decades and a handful of his customers can trace their Woodie’s loyalty all the way back to their grandparents. And at 67, he’s still going, actively looking for shop No. 15.
He says early starts and late finishes are par for the course when you’ve been in the service station business for as long as he has—since 1976—though he’s scaled back on the long evenings. “I don’t work so late anymore,” he says in a bit of a Southern drawl. When he’s on-site, he chats with his shop managers, inspects the cleanliness and presentation of the shop, and encourages his employees.
“We still try to maintain a family atmosphere. I try as much as possible to know everybody by name. You know, walk by, shake a hand, pat them on the back, tell them how much we appreciate their hard work because it’s not an easy business,” says Woodie.
Raised in the Shop
In 1963, Woodie’s father purchased his first shop, a two-bay, old-style porcelain Esso gas station. It’s where he got his first taste of the automotive industry, working in the shop until he left for college in the early 1970s. “If you’re in the service station business, I mean, even as a kid you’re there every weekend every afternoon you can get there. You’re cleaning headlights and wiping windshields or doing whatever you can do as a kid,” Woodie says.
He’d return to his father’s Esso Station after completing college in 1976. Four years later, in 1980, his father died, leaving Woodie to take up the mantle. By 1986, Woodie had a firm handle on the business and enlisted his younger brother, a recent college graduate.
Woodie acquired another Exxon Car Care Center—Exxon being the parent company of Esso— where his brother would assume the management role. The brothers then added a third Exxon, with help from the previous owner.
”Exxon had a policy where you could not have more than one location in your name as a dealer, so we got the second one in [my brother’s] name. I picked up a third one where a dealer did not want to be involved in the business, and I paid him to stay on the lease,” Woodie says.
He picked up eight more shops—not all Exxons—over the next decade, running his total to 11, meeting with and buying out local dealers looking to exit the business. Seven were gas and convenience, he recalls. It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that he transitioned from hybrid shops to strictly auto repair.
“The gasoline convenience store market got extremely competitive, and we were aware that we were going to have to invest a lot more money to be able to compete in this marketplace. The return on investment we were doing was better out of the auto repair centers. We decided to just slowly make that conversion as the opportunities arose,” he says.
The ‘Garage Mahal’
Not everything has been an acquisition for Woodie. He’s also used a combination of third-party leasing and grassroots build-outs. One of such, which he affectionately calls the Garage Mahal, is a 20-bay, 12,000-plus square foot repair palace in the affluent Ballantyne neighborhood of Charlotte.
“That’s an exclusive area. My brother was heavily involved in the design and supervising and watching over the contractor on that. It was a huge investment both in property acquisition and in construction. We did it to look more like one of the national park lodges. It has a big, natural cedar porte-cochère drop-off area out front. It’s really top of the line,” Woodie says.
“We wanted it to fit into that community. Obviously, they weren’t overly excited about adding auto repair, so we had to sell ourselves pretty hard both with the building design and the way we operate. So many people still [when they think] auto repair, they see Gomer Pile with his hat on backwards … and greasy engines piled up in the parking lot. You have to work past that image.”
The Woodie Philosophy
Woodie plans to expand operations into South Carolina “within the next couple of years.” His hard work, strategic relationships, and decades of tenacity have positioned him as someone shop owners and brokers call when they’re ready to find an eager buyer.
“We’re always open. We’re always talking to people. And, we’ve reached the size where developers or landowners call us now. We’ve got enough sites, and they know what we look like and how we operate,” he says.
With Woodie’s shops being in existence since the ‘60s—making him a second-generation owner—it’s easy to imagine the same on the other side of the counter. His service writers have been within him long enough to recognize some of the children and grandchildren of people the shop has serviced through the years.
“I’ve got one guy who’s been with me 40 years that’s on the front desk. And I mean, he has customers come in every day, that he’ll laugh and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, you know, I’ll put in your dad’s car seat.’ And this is maybe a third generation customer,” Woodie says.
Even his own boys have entered the business, taking front office positions.
“I’ve got one that works here in the office full time that handles accounting and bookkeeping, and then my older son—he got his CPA and went to work for one of the major accounting firms for three years—he’s basically the CEO, and he’s got his finger and every single thing that’s going,” says Woodie.
Meeting Modern Challenges
Even the best and most industrious shop owners can’t avoid the challenges of the day, and with 160 employees—several of which have been with Woodie for 20-plus years—Woodie knows he has to be on his A-game with ensuring his technicians are happy in a competitive market where techs are a hot commodity. The market for workers isn’t like it was in the closing decades of the 20th century when technicians were home-grown in the shop graduating from high school part-timers who pumped gas and changed oil to full-on mechanics with lengthy careers at a single shop. Today’s technician knows their market value, and the demand for their skill, and shop owners like Woodie have to compete for talent—and he’s willing to do so.
“The market is so tight. I mean, you can have people that apply for a job and then either never show up for the interview or accept the job, [but] their boss just keeps giving them better and better offers … to stay where they’re at. So, it’s challenging,” he says.