Accountant wife, mechanic husband share business

EVERETT — It isn’t unheard of for a woman to own and run an auto repair shop, but it is uncommon, especially if that woman hadn’t worked in the automotive industry before she purchased it. But for Shelley Kerr, stepping out of her comfort zone turned out to be a good thing, even if it happened during a challenging time.

Kerr and her husband, Dave, purchased ONB Automotive in downtown Everett in the fall of 2010.

“I’ve been doing accounting for 30 years,” Shelley Kerr said. “I was a stay-at-home mom but still wanted to work so I brought in clients and worked from my house.”

Dave Kerr was in the auto repair trade at the time. He was a friend of ONB Automotive owner Marc Owenby as well as his employee. Kerr often joked that when Owenby retired, he would buy the business.

All was going great for the Kerrs. Shelley Kerr was doing well with her home accounting business and Dave Kerr was happy working at ONB. That was when an unexpected challenge hit the family.

“Dave was coaching indoor arena football for high schoolers,” Shelley Kerr remembered. “They were playing a game and he was on the field as a coach.”

Dave Kerr was caught up in a tackle involving three players and took a serious blow to the head. He went to the hospital with a concussion that evening but was discharged, seemingly OK.

“That was in April,” Shelley Kerr said. “Then in July, he woke up one morning and he couldn’t see and he was really dizzy.”

Dave Kerr was rushed to the hospital, where he was told he had had a stroke. But it wasn’t what people would typically think of as a stroke. It was related to the injury he had suffered on the football field. For three months, he was totally blind and suffered terrible headaches. After a few months, he regained some sight but was left with a permanent disability.

Kerr refused let his disability stand in his way, his wife said. He went to the Seattle School for the Blind for training. The institution found special computer programs to help him adapt at work. Within three months of returning to the shop, Kerr was back at his job full time.

Then, two months after Kerr’s full-time return, Owenby announced his retirement. This was the Kerrs’ chance. If they wanted to buy the business, as Dave Kerr had long dreamed, it had to be now. And Shelley Kerr would need to come in and take care of the office. It meant a big career shift for her, but she happily agreed, and the purchase was completed in October 2010.

Kerr admitted she faced a steep learning curve. It took her time to learn automotive terminology and how the business functions day to day. She had to get comfortable with the shop’s specialized automotive software and figure out how it would pair up with her accounting software.

“For the first month I was pulling my hair out,” she said. “But by the second month I was getting faster. If I hadn’t had that accounting background, it would have really been tough.”

But small-business advertising was something she was not at all familiar with. Owenby had relied on ads in the Yellow Pages and some trade publications. Kerr strongly suspected this was not where the majority of today’s customers were getting their information and she wanted to spend her own advertising dollars where they would have the most impact.

“I just didn’t have a clue,” she said. “I really felt lost.”

To quickly learn the things she needed to know to be an effective business owner, Kerr enrolled in the Small Business Accelerator program at Everett Community College. It’s designed to assist small-business owners in growing their business using the latest and most effective technologies and methods.

The first things she did after enrolling in the course was to include a step in the check-in process to find out where customers were learning about ONB Automotive. The ongoing study confirmed Kerr’s suspicions.

“It was all Internet and word-of-mouth,” Kerr said. “In the last six months, it has been mostly Internet.”

She created a new website for ONB Automotive and set up a Facebook page. The company also uses the Internet to send service reminders to customers.

Kerr took a weekend seminar on how to give customers everything they need without hurting the business’s bottom line. With all of the competition around Snohomish County, the Kerrs are adamant about how they want their customers treated. They believe in top customer care, especially since they now know the importance of word-of-mouth referrals.

They also put an emphasis on customer education. It surprised Shelley Kerr to learn how many new customers weren’t aware that regular maintenance is the best way to avoid costly repairs.

Another surprise was how well she was able to work with her husband.

“As much as I was worried about it, that has been the easiest transition,” she said. “He doesn’t know my job and I don’t know his, so there is that mutual respect.”

The Kerrs were also able to agree on a three-year plan for the business. The original plan called for updated computers, equipment and software. They wanted to add another service bay and make sure ONB’s employees had the ongoing education they needed to do their jobs well.

“We’ve now met those goals,” Shelley Kerr said.

The couple plan to sit down soon to discuss their next three-year plan. Kerr wants to have that plan take her very driven and determined husband off of the front service desk so he can focus on being an owner.

Shelley Kerr also has suggestions for women thinking about stepping back into the office, especially in an ownership capacity, after time at home. If possible, start part time and build to full time, she said. Don’t burn out. Flexibility is really helpful, too.

She also believes that the best time to step up and make these changes in your life is when the kids are leaving home, especially if someone has been a stay-at-home mom.

“It’s a good time to start your career now,” Shelley Kerr said. “It keeps you from getting bored.”

And working with family is not a bad thing. Not only does she get along great with her husband at work, her high-school-age son also comes in to help after school. That means the family still spends time together, even when they have to work late. It’s the best of both worlds.

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