An auto mechanic turned radio personality and Internet entrepreneur: Cary Lockwood is the first star of Funny’s new series interviewing men and women who find creative new ways to jump off the treadmill.
I came across Cary after finding his website, YourAutoNetwork.com. At first glance, it looks like an Angie’s List for car mechanics, except you don’t have to pay for it. On closer inspection, some differences arise: all of the businesses listed are local companies, and unlike Click & Clack’s reader-driven listing, the site offers few consumer reviews. Thinking what a great idea to bring in some side income, I gave him a call. Turns out the story is a lot more complicated.
FaM: Thanks for chatting with us, Cary. Would you tell us how you came to start YourAutoNetwork.com?
Lockwood: I spent 20 years working for General Motors, at the automobile proving grounds here in Arizona. When GM closed that facility, the company asked me to move to Michigan. Well, I grew up in the East, and my wife and I decided we didn’t want to move back in that direction. So I started a repair shop. It did well, because we emphasized customer service and did honest, high-quality work.
One day a friend and local talk show host, Charles Goyette, invited me to do a segment on his radio talk show. I said I’m not very political and might not fit in. He said they had a Saturday show that didn’t talk about much controversy. So I started doing it.
Pretty quick I realized we were getting a lot of calls from people wanting to know where to get their cars serviced and repaired. There’s a huge need, because—well, to tell the truth, people do run into dishonest shops, and that’s left them untrusting and wary.
That’s when I started the auto network.
The radio show, which evolved into Your Auto Network’s Calling All Cars, began to get bigger. It grew from a Q-and-A segment to a twice-weekly show that covers everything automotive, covering everything from fuel and batteries to windshields and tires, from gas-saving strategies to laws affecting car owners.
Meanwhile, the list kept growing, too.
After a while I had an offer to buy the shop. My wife and I decided to sell and go with making Your Auto Network our business.
FaM: How does an automotive shop get on your list?
Lockwood: I seek out the proven performers, but listeners and friends recommend them. I check them out personally, along with doing a lot of research. The shops can be doing any work related to automotive upkeep—repair, bodywork, painting, parts operations, window tinting, tires, and the like—but they have to be locally owned independent businesses, not chains or big-boxes.
I check out their experience, because that’s one of the things that makes a great shop: we have minimum requirements for the number of years they’ve been in business. They have to have an A rating with the Better Business Bureau. Often I’ll call without identifying myself, to see how they answer the phone or whether they shunt you off to an answering machine. Then I observe the shop itself and study the operation.
The standards are high, because my name is on it.
FaM: One of the problems with Angie’s List is there’s no way to tell whether an owner has had all his in-laws, cousins, nephews, and nieces send in glowing reports.
Lockwood: That’s right. And that’s why we don’t have a lot of customer reviews, although we do make it possible for people to comment.
Testimonials are great if they’re fair and honest, but they don’t give enough information about the business. We go there to meet them, and we work hard to make the listings accurate.
FaM: It’s hard for the average consumer to get a good picture of an automotive service outfit. Often it’s by guess and by God.
Lockwood: I’m on the Auto Repair Advisory Committee for the Better Business Bureau. We review and advise about consumer complaints to the BBB. One of the first things I do when we get a case is to check out the company’s BBB rating. It’s unbelievable! People will go to F-rated places!
It’s really important to check out service providers before you do business with them. If you find a good independent shop, you save a lot of money—and you have greater peace of mind.
FaM: Other than the obvious publicity, what benefit do the shop owners derive from making the YourAutoNetwork.com list?
Lockwood: We’re trying to offer benefits that come from the power of collective buying and pricing. For example, we’re now working to get collective pricing on parts and auto supplies. And we’re looking into ways to offer members group health insurance plans.
FaM: Do you charge shops for listing on YourAutoNetwork.com?
Lockwood: Typically, we charge a small fee. Most of the monetization is coming from ad revenues, especially from the radio show. We now own the show’s air time.
FaM: It’s quite a leap from auto engineer to radio talk show host!
Lockwood: Well, I didn’t expect to be on the radio. When I was a kid, I took acting lessons and actually got parts. Then I got picky about what I’d do—decided I only wanted to act in Shakespeare plays—and also, I was very interested in mechanical things.
The show started live, and it’s now recorded. My wife and I do the editing. That helps a lot–it makes me sound a lot better, and also our guests.
One of the things I’m most proud of is the show’s community activities. We started a partnership with the Salvation Army, and network members have joined in a clothing drive. Shops have collections boxes for customers to donate. We sell a car care rewards card to consumers, and for each purchase we donate $4.00 to the Salvation Army, about 13 percent of gross revenues from the card sales.
We first got interested in helping the Salvation Army because of the economic downturn, with so many people out of work and being turned out of their homes. We like the Army’s emphasis on building self-sufficiency. They do more, though, than helping people who are down on their luck financially. In addition to the Family Center, for families who are facing a crisis, they have a shelter for abuse victims, they do drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and they provide care for the elderly.
FaM: These two enterprises—the radio show and the network listings—must be an enormous amount of work.
Lockwood: It really was a lot of work at first. It’s tapering off now, partly because we’ve achieved one of our goals, which was to have coverage for the entire valley. And over time we’ve learned to work more efficiently.
The big challenge is trying to get the data perfect, before it’s published. My wife helps with getting the information accurate, and we both work at proofreading and checking.
FaM: What advice would you offer a Funny about Money reader who might be interested in doing a similar website in another city?
Lockwood: To do it at a level that offers real value to your readers, you need to be very expert in the business you’re reviewing. Not just anyone can do one of these sites on automotive service. You need many years of experience to understand how these businesses work and what makes them successful, from the owner’s and the customers’ points of view.
I’d suggest that if you want to create a really useful consumer service website, you should pick a business that you truly know something about. If you’re an expert, if you know customer service well, and you know how the businesses operate, you may be able to pull it off.
It’s a lot of work, and you have to be fully committed to accuracy, honesty, and fairness.
FaM: Were you at all nervous about selling the shop to become a full-time radio personality?
Lockwood: No, but you have to be confident and hard-working to insure success.
FaM: What steps did you take to ensure that you could make the transition financially?
Lockwood: We never lived over our heads, so that wasn’t an issue. We did things like building our own house—I helped to build it myself. We didn’t want to get tied down with a large mortgage and other debts. We look at things this way: Say we’d like to get new furniture for the living room. It’s going to cost $4,000. So we ask ourselves, “Do we need it today, or are they still going to be making couches in six months?” If the the answer is “yes, living room furniture will still be around,” we save up and pay for it in cash.
FaM: What’s your strategy for retirement?
Lockwood: Hasn’t entered my mind, because we still have more to achieve. We diversify our investments. And besides, enthusiasm keeps you young.