The Alignment Shop in Kamloops, B.C. is a busy AutoPro shop on the busy Trans-Canada Highway. Owner/technician Mark Purdey and his staff handle a steady flow of work, and the business is thriving. But Mark remembers a time when it wasn’t so. His first venture into business ownership didn’t go quite so well.
He started in the auto repair trade in the Vancouver area, the part of the province that B.C. residents refer to as ‘The Coast.’
“I got my ticket in 1978,” says Mark, “and worked for a Honda dealer in Maple Ridge.” Things were going great until that fateful day when a fellow employee came by and said “They’re looking for a guy to open an alignment bay in the back of a tire store.”
“I don’t know why he told me,” says Mark, “because I’d never done an alignment in my life!” Intrigued by the idea, though, he went down to the tire store to check it out, and wound up striking a deal. “I look back sometimes and think, ‘How did all this happen?’”
Like most new ventures, things went well in the beginning. The operation came with a partner – another tech also looking to go on his own. “I didn’t know the guy from Adam,” recalls Mark, “but we started a partnership in 1979.” Business was brisk, and before long they came across a second tire shop that wasn’t doing alignments. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we rent some space in the back of their shop, too. I’ll work here and you can work there.’” They bought some equipment and made the move. Eventually Mark and his partner split up, each keeping one of the shops.
Then in 1981, the owner of Mark’s tire store decided to retire, and approached Mark with the proposition of taking over the entire business. As Mark looked at the tire store numbers and his own sales numbers, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. “Things were looking really good,” he remembers, “and there was a potential for making some real money.”
The deal went through, and that’s when the bottom fell out. B.C. was hit hard by the economic downturn of ’82 and ’83. As interest rates soared and jobs dwindled, people cut back severely on their spending. During the next three years, Mark never once reached the sales figures of the tire shop alone, never mind the combined business.
“It was tough,” he recalls. “I wasn’t a tire guy. I didn’t know much about tires except that they were black and round, and that I knew how to make them wear well.” Mark points to three critical areas that began to take their toll. “I didn’t know how to sell tires, I didn’t know what to inventory, and I was way under-capitalized.” A business needs back-up money to make it through tough times, and for Mark, there just wasn’t any.
“We struggled along for a long time until I finally decided, ‘This is just nuts!’” He went to the previous owner and said, “I can’t do this anymore; just take it back.” The fellow did exactly that, and kept Mark on for another eight months as he trained his two sons to work the store with him.
Mark lost everything; the investment of his time and money, and all the equipment he’d bought. He basically had to turn over the keys and walk away. At one point the owner came up to him and said, “I don’t know how you can do this. Here we are, taking over everything you’ve worked for, and you’re so calm about it. How can you do that?”
The answer lay in Mark’s strong Christian faith. “There’s peace from having a relationship with God that gives you some basis to run your life on, to realize that money and working aren’t the only important things in life,” he says.
Financially, Mark was ruined. Along with the business, he not only lost his house in Maple Ridge, but all the extras including his boat. Then came an offer to start over in the B.C. Interior, and in 1984 Mark relocated to Kamloops. “When I moved here,” he says, “I came with a pickup truck and a box of tools.” The outstanding debts were huge and Mark was forced to declare personal bankruptcy. He realized there was no way he could start over again with such a huge debt hanging over him. It was also the time when Mark got married. His proposal wasn’t exactly traditional, he admits with a laugh. He told his girlfriend, Dorothy, “I’m moving to Kamloops to start a business; are you coming with me?”
Looking back, Mark sees that his financial disaster made things like family, relationships, and his church life come into better focus. He even found a very fulfilling role in the church as a youth sponsor – a position he and his wife have been actively involved in for over 20 years now.
On the job front, a friend who was running a large shop in downtown Kamloops had an extra bay, and offered it to Mark. Scrounging together some money for a used alignment machine, he jumped back into the business and started to rebuild. Mark also recalls the help he got from the local parts suppliers. “Really, I started with nothing,” he says, “The parts suppliers said, ‘Sure, we’ll start an account.’ I don’t know why, when you think about it; but they did, no questions asked.”
Mark paid off his equipment within a few months and after three years had moved into his own building – someone he could hardly have hoped for with his shaky credit history.
“This guy wanted to retire and sell the building, and he was willing to carry a mortgage.” Though it cost a few percentage points in interest, there were no qualifications and no banks involved. The seller even applied a percentage of Mark’s three-year lease to the down payment. Now the building is paid for, which is a bonus. “Not having the mortgage payment is now what helps in the slow times of the year,” he adds.
Mark is a technician at heart and at present he works in the back with Mike, his other technician, letting his service advisor Kelly handle the customers. “I would prefer to work on cars than work on people,” he jokes.
Looking back on his experience, Mark points to some key things that were warning signs. “There are the obvious business reasons, like under-capitalization, poor product knowledge, and not enough management skills.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson he learned, though, was the importance of family; Mark and Dorothy have two teenaged daughters. “It’s tempting to say on a Saturday morning, ‘Well, I’ve got to go to the shop and help pay for it.’” But Mark has learned that you can’t do family stuff and be at the shop at the same time. “It’s a battle to balance things,” he admits, “but it’s important to try.”
As a businessman and a Christian, Mark believes strongly in honesty and integrity in his work. “Your reputation is on the line,” he says, stressing that he’ll go out of his way to make sure there’s no doubt about his integrity – even if it means losing some money on the deal. Is personal integrity the reason why his customer base is so loyal? Mark pauses. “I’d like to think so. But that’s not the issue; the issue is you have to take it home with you at night.”
Many pitfalls in business can be avoided or mitigated by sound business practices and ethical conduct. Unfortunately even when you’re doing everything right, some things – like a troubled economy – can sink all your efforts. Mark Purdey and The Alignment Shop are proof that a phoenix can rise from the ashes. Adversity can be overcome. And, according to Mark, it’s done by hard work, and by holding on to things that matter.