When he had enough of doing it somebody else’s way, this local entrepreneur stepped out and built the auto shop he always wanted to lead. Five years later, customers have rewarded him with loyalty and a steady word-of-mouth.
He almost went into the restaurant business. After 30 years of working in auto shops, dealerships, car sales and management, Jack Shields was burned out. He’d worked with the best, he’d worked with the worst, and he’d had enough of doing it somebody else’s way. And if it wasn’t going to be auto work, he figured it might as well be food.
“It finally came to a point where I couldn’t do this business working for somebody else anymore,” he says. “I had to do it my way, or I had to get out of this business.”
So, he did. Unemployed and ready to move on, Shields drove by a building in Crystal Lake and saw his opportunity. He quickly had a handshake deal on the place; within 90 days he had a full business plan, financing and everything else he needed to open the doors.
Jax Auto & Tire, 5220 S. Illinois Route 31 in Crystal Lake, officially opened on Monday, April 18, 2016, with the very first customer requesting an oil change. For five years now, Shields has built a loyal following upon his simple philosophy, one that was born in his childhood and was reinforced over decades in the industry: Honesty with the customer, fairness to the employee and integrity behind every action.
“You cannot earn trust if you have to remember what you told somebody,” he says. “If you’re honest, you never have to remember because you already know the answers. The customers pick up and know when you’re being honest with them, and they know when you’re not being honest.”
As a full-service auto shop, Jax Auto & Tire can handle most any job a customer brings in. As an added incentive, the shop offers what Shields says is the best brake deal in town: An everyday price of $272 for installation of brake pads and rotors.
It’s late on a Tuesday morning when Shields calls to update a customer. Her college-age daughter is eager to return to school, but the car needs a few fixes.
“OK, so give me the particulars,” he says over the phone. “Where is she going with this car, when, how, why, where, who? And how long is she going to be down there? Couple of months until she comes back? Oh, OK.
There are two things we need to do now and there’s one thing we need to do when she gets back.”
Shields explains the situation, mentions the costs and promises the daughter can be leaving by 3 p.m.
“Do you know how thankful she was, because her daughter wants to get on the road today?” Shields says, just after the call. “It’s just being honest. Your shops with no integrity would have told her, ‘Lady, you can’t let your daughter drive to St. Louis today.’ That’s what high-pressure shops do. So, that’s the difference here.”
The difference is apparent right away in the front lobby. Shields personally greets customers as they walk in. He invites them to relax while their car is getting serviced. Sets of chairs and a couple of computers are free to use. Arcade games line the walls and fill a side room. There’s free coffee and popcorn, too. A courtesy shuttle takes people back to work or home. It’s all part of the “culture of comfort” Shields developed over years of seeing how other shops work.
“If you ask someone what they most hate, doctors, dentists and auto technicians are tops,” he says. “I’ve made a culture where, the second you walk in, you know you’ve walked into something different.”
He wants to ensure each customer walks away feeling they were treated fairly, got a good deal and want to return.
For everything Shields has invested in the customer experience, he’s also paid close attention to the needs of his employees, in part because he believes the two go hand-in-hand. For his three full-time and several part-time workers, Shields has committed to providing a quality work environment. Each one is ASE certified, a mark that reflects their commitment to continual training and excellent service.
Last year, Shields took an extra step and cut Saturday hours, in an effort to provide additional rest for a job that’s physically demanding in conditions that aren’t always ideal.
And, whatever you do, don’t call them mechanics.
“We’re technicians. A mechanic is a guy who can turn bolts,” says Shields. “These technicians are investing thousands of dollars in their tools, which they pay for out of their pockets. A lot of times their schooling and training all came out of their pockets. Today’s cars are all technical. So, I find that calling them mechanics is very old-school. These guys truly are technicians. Call it what you want, but I think it’s respect for the profession.”
Shields traces many of his closest-held philosophies to the auto shop his father once ran in Palatine. By the age of 16, Shields was working on cars and helping with behind-the-scenes work, like inventory and accounting. But after his father sold the shop in the 1990s, it was those lessons about honesty and integrity that stuck fastest.
“Since the day I was 16 years old, that’s how I’ve lived and that’s what I’ve built here,” says Shields, whose father now works part-time at Jax Auto. “I had to do my thing. Too many times my integrity was being compromised. If my integrity is being compromised, it’s wrong for me. And people love that. I’m a harsh reality for a lot of people because they’re not used to somebody being so brutally honest with them.”
And he still remembers the moment when someone else’s way finally clashed head-on.
“I sold cars and I used to have a sales manager who would sit us down and say, ‘When you’re selling cars, you don’t sell steak; you sell the sizzle,’” recalls Shields. “And my rebuttal to that always used to be, ‘What if somebody can’t afford the sizzle? They just need steak.’ They need transportation to go back and forth. You want me to sell CD players and moonroofs to a single mother who has three kids and just needs to go back and forth? Oh, I used to get grief for that. And I told myself: In the automotive business, if anybody ever told me that line we were done.”
Sure enough, around 2009 Shields was with a different firm when a consultant came in. “He brought up that line,” recalls Shields. “And I got up, picked up my books and everything. I said, ‘I think we’re done here, guys.’ They said, ‘Whoa, we’re not going anywhere. Sit down.’ I said, ‘Nope, I’m done.’”
After that, Shields began seriously crafting his vision for a better auto shop. The timing wasn’t right to go on his own, he says, but after a few years it finally became do or die.
In celebration of Jax Auto & Tire’s fifth anniversary, Shields is hosting an open house on May 8. He plans to offer giveaways, with prizes like a 65-inch ultra-HD TV, a PlayStation 5 and tickets to sporting events. A local animal shelter will be on site, and at 3 p.m. Shields will host an automotive boot camp to show off some of the basics of good car maintenance. Since early April, he’s also been entering customers into a drawing for several giveaways. “It’s basically a way of giving back to the community,” he says. “The community helped build us, so we’re going to give back.”
Having built the business from scratch, Shields is aware how much every positive customer experience matters. It’s quality service that keeps customers happy, but it’s word-of-mouth that brings new people in the door.
“That is your most rewarding, but it’s also the toughest,” he says. “That’s earned. That’s not just opening your doors. That’s earned. And that’s the hardest part. You have to earn that reputation.”