How do philosophy and ice hockey lead to a career as an automotive services shop owner and technician? Simon Ward has blended skills learned in both areas with his lifelong interest in auto racing. I asked Simon how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.
In the beginning…
Growing up in Oakwood, Ohio, Simon Ward’s father exposed him to auto racing at an early age. “My dad took me to the race track for the first time when I was two weeks old…a Formula One race in Detroit”.
His grandfather liked to fix things, including cars, and often Simon helped.
Later his father got into amateur racing with Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). “I was right there learning the pits, torqueing tires, learning how to make adjustments, change tire pressures, stuff like that”.
Cars weren’t Simon’s only interest. He played in the band and spent a lot of time traveling with his club ice hockey team.
How did philosophy enter Simon’s life?
After graduating from high school, Simon enrolled at the University of Colorado as an open major. “I actually didn’t know what I wanted to be”. After taking some courses, philosophy and psychology made sense to him. “At 18 years old, philosophy was a great thing to think about”.
As a result of his years playing ice hockey, Simon got a job at an ice rink, driving and maintaining the Zamboni. He also became a referee and managed the referees. “Long days, high energy, taking it as it comes, being a referee, managing all those people…I learned a lot like that”.
After graduation, Simon got a desk job. He lasted three months. “Driving to work watching the sun rise, driving home watching the sun set, sitting in a cubicle all day long, just wasn’t for me”.
Did Simon stay in Colorado?
Since Simon hated his job, he decided to return to Dayton. Using his contacts in Dayton, he found a job with a landscaping company, driving and maintaining the mowers. “That’s where I started learning how to turn wrenches”.
Simon also enrolled at Sinclair College, Dayton, Ohio, in the Automotive Technology program. “My motivation was that I wanted to go racing”. Sinclair gave him the opportunity to begin building his racecar.
Simon wasn’t sure where he wanted to go, but he kept earning his automotive certifications until “I realized, wait a minute, this might be a little more of a financial opportunity than landscaping, might have a better chance of a career path”.
With that in mind, Simon left landscaping and got a job at Preferred Fleet Services (PFS), a subcontractor maintaining trucks for the US Post Office. “That’s where I turned into a mechanic”.
What did Simon do when he finished at Sinclair?
“I got my master’s certification with National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) (ASE Certified Master Technician)…I had the top score in the country, so I won the Technician of the Future Award … a big stepping stone”.
Although he’d learned a lot at PFS, the work felt like the “same truck over and over again – because it’s the Post Office”. Simon switched to John Pierce Auto Care, Fairborn, Ohio, as the lead technician diagnosing drivability issues. The job expanded his experience exponentially. “I had the fundamentals and this gave me the opportunity – all makes, all models…they gave me the hard stuff, the stuff that no one else could figure out, the stuff that no one else wanted to figure out…is it an engine issue, transmission issue, brake issue, electrical, is it mechanical, and make a diagnosis and go from there… I started realizing maybe I could do this a little deeper”.
Drivability diagnosis made Simon appreciate his background in philosophy, particularly logic systems. “These are logical beasts that we deal with: if A, then B. You have to follow logical paths to diagnose these things and I’ve found that training is invaluable in this industry”.
“It costs a lot to go racing. There’s two ways to do it: either you pay someone to do it or you do it yourself. I didn’t have the money to pay someone, so I learned how to do it myself…My racecar was not the most expensive investment. You have to get there, stay there, have all the tools there, service the car there, have all the spare parts, have all the infrastructure to support anyone who comes with you, so there’s a lot of investment that goes into that…it’s an educational opportunity to see how much it takes to get from this idea to actually driving down the track”.
In addition Simon began doing side work in his garage. “That’s when the business idea started really getting flowing”.
How did Simon move from working for someone else to opening his own shop?
Through SCCA Simon met the owner of a shop that supported multiple amateur drivers. After several conversations, the owner asked Simon to take over the company. It was an attractive idea. Simon began to review the opportunity, hiring a lawyer and accountant for the due diligence.
Simon continued to work at John Pierce Auto Care and do side jobs on cars in his garage. One day he contacted the owner of A-Dayton Transmission about a transmission issue. That contact lead to more conversations. As Simon was reviewing the racecar shop opportunity, he began to think, “What if this doesn’t work out, what if I did something else?” Consequently, Simon directed his due diligence team to analyze a possible purchase of A-Dayton, too.
Both the owner of the racecar business and the owner of A-Dayton called Simon on the same day and said, “Let’s do this, make this happen”. Simon chose the racecar opportunity.
He spent the next nine months traveling with the owner to racetracks “to work on cars and deal with really experienced drivers… that have the expendable income to race these fun cars”. Every weekend the two of them would go to a racetrack to support three drivers who were “paying between $8,000-$10,000 a weekend to show up and have that car ready to go”.
After nine months, Simon recognized that the racecar business wasn’t what he wanted. He’d had professional conversations with the owner of A-Dayton during that period, but nothing more. Shortly after the racecar opportunity faded, the owner of A-Dayton “contacted me back and said I’m interested, I’ve dropped my price”. Simon thought, “Now he’s serious”.
In order to structure the deal, Simon relied on his lawyer, accountant and others with broader business background. “I understood the business side of it to a certain extent, I understood cars very well. Find money – it was time for me to reach other people who knew a lot more about that than I did”. In 2014 Simon finalized his purchase of A-Dayton Automotive & Transmission Services.
Has Simon’s experience with A-Dayton Automotive met his expectations?
In Simon’s original business plan, he expected:
- He would run the office while he worked on cars
- The services did not include transmission work
Those expectations quickly changed. He learned it was tough to run the office and work on cars at the same time. “I originally thought I was going to be out here, answer the phones, go back to work on cars. No… I was the only person here for the first two weeks…and I didn’t get anything done. The phone would ring, I would answer it, run back into the shop, turn a few wrenches, run back, answer the phone, order some parts”. Now he helps his technicians diagnose drivability issues and relies on their expertise to do the work.
Although A-Dayton had dealt solely with “American made automatic transmissions”, Simon’s business plan was “from day one we were a full service shop” with no transmission work.
Three weeks after the purchase, the prior A-Dayton owner asked to return. “He wanted to make sure that I learned the customers, learned the business”. Simon hired him on a part-time basis to work on transmissions for the first year. The prior owner’s presence “brought all the fleet service he had coming to him, all the contacts that he had out there, the other shops that would recommend work to him – that brought that all back into play and really helped build the business for that first initial year”.
In addition to teaching Simon the business, Simon also learned about transmissions – “how to build them, how they fail, how to diagnose them and I also learned that a lot of people don’t like them, including a lot of other shops, so we get a lot of work from other shops…Transmissions paid the bills for the first year”.
The prior owner bowed out after a year. Now Simon is running the business with two technicians and himself. Although it hasn’t always been smooth, Simon has learned from his mistakes and transitioned from being a technician to being a business owner.
- This business has similarities to refereeing ice hockey games. You have to “see what’s going on, keep your eyes open, see everything that’s happening”
- “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of stress, it’s a lot of responsibility. These guys got to get paid, they have families and everything else that has to ride on this stuff, too, the investors have to get paid, you have to pay the debt and you have to pay everything else and at the end maybe I’d like to make a little money, too”
- Since a lot of trial and error goes into the first three years, a good support structure of family and friends is very important
- “It’s not the industry it used to be”. Automotive technicians have to have computer literacy, logic skills, and problem solving ability. “You’re not just the greasy dirty guy under the car…I spend a lot more time at the computer instead of under the car”
- Dealing with customers has exceeded his expectations. “I’ve always been hiding under the hood or driving the Zamboni…I really enjoy being up here and actually interacting with all the people…it’s probably been the most enjoyable aspect of it for me”
- “I like the challenge…I like the hard stuff, give me a car that people can’t figure out. When we solve the problem, it’s a mutual happiness in the shop”.