Passion to profit: Mechanic trades college for hands-on career

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For the DRC
Abby Jones/For the DRC
Jon Miller examines parts under the hood of a vehicle in his shop at Pioneer Automotive in Denton.

EDITOR’S NOTE

Politicians have waged a fierce debate to win over working-class voters. Income inequality has become a major issue. With that in mind, the Denton Record-Chronicle and the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism teamed up to explore the lives of blue-collar workers in Denton County. The stories in this series were written by UNT journalism students under the direction of professor George Getschow. The eighth story in this series runs today.

— Scott K. Parks

Jon Miller looks over the shoulder of “Tom, the new guy” fiddling under the hood of a BMW sedan. On a leisurely fall morning, Miller trains Tom in between greeting and assisting clients at the front desk. Drew, the customer service manager, is out on jury duty. The clatter of equipment blends with the pop-punk music echoing from the shop’s radio.

“Tom and I were actually neighbors growing up,” Miller remarks, his close-shaven beard framing a welcoming smile and his name embroidered on his quintessential, deep cerulean mechanic’s shirt. “I’m running out of people I know to hire.”

Anyone driving by Pioneer Automotive in Denton, in its cookie-cutter metal structure on the side of Teasley Lane, might assume nothing sets it apart from myriad other independently owned auto repair shops in Denton.

That’s because they don’t know Miller. He appears to be your everyday, all-American auto technician as he wipes off his hands and arms with a rag dangling from his jeans pocket. It might surprise people he is a prosperous entrepreneur, having owned Pioneer since its launch in May 2009.

Another catch: Miller started his business without a college degree.

Miller’s interest in cars originated when he was 16 years old. Growing up, he watched his father tinker with older cars as a pastime. He soon discovered he was “mechanically minded” and had a knack for fixing things. What was a hobby for his father became a full-blown passion to him.

At 18, Miller began working in auto repair shops. He took up general education classes at North Central Texas College and intended to major in business management. Instead, he felt bored, unfulfilled and stressed as he juggled the college work with his jobs. He chose to withdraw to satisfy his love for working on cars.

However, while he drifted from one shop to another, Miller faced a frustrating reality: As much as he adored working on cars, he resented how the shops did business.

“Pretty much the whole industry is on a commission scale, so it’s hard to have a consistent living for your family. And a system in which mechanics work on commission doesn’t breed honesty,” he said.

Miller said he has tried to create a company that values honesty and quality service. Putting mechanics on a commission, he said, made them more interested in up-selling customers than serving their real needs.

Instead of selling the customers “a bunch of garbage they don’t need,” Miller, now in his 30s, wanted to open a shop where some of the best mechanics in North Texas would want to work on salary instead of a commission-based compensation system.

With the help of his business partner and high school friend Bryan McEntire, Pioneer Automotive was born.

And Miller’s dream came alive.

McEntire was working as a pilot when he received a call from Miller inviting him to become business partners. Tired of being away from home and unsatisfied with his income, McEntire gladly accepted the request to join forces, and the two have remained cooperative and compatible business partners ever since.

While Miller says he does most of the handiwork, he and McEntire share many responsibilities with little conflict.

Something that makes paying on salary easier is the fact that Miller runs only a six-man team.

“We’re very, very, very efficient,” he asserts.

And they have to be — Pioneer works on an average of 400 cars a month, Miller said.

As far as running a business, Miller credits his knowledge to his parents — a mother who’s a certified public accountant and a father who’s a database administrator. Together, they taught him just about everything he knows about business and about the freedom that comes with owning one.

He chooses his co-workers, clients, technology and equipment without any corporate influence, a freedom that keeps him excited and inspired.

Miller likes to hire people who, like him, grew up in Denton or technicians he worked with at other repair shops. It helps him trust his employees and feel like he’s just hanging out with friends through the long days at work. Frequent laughter can be heard along with the buzz and rattle of shop tools.

Each of Miller’s employees work about 50 hours a week. One way he rewards them is with an annual staff retreat to a scenic location in the Texas Hill Country or on the beaches of Cancun, Mexico.

“They say, ‘Don’t go into business with your friends.’ But I have really good friends,” Miller said.

Along with the good times, however, come the hardships any small-business owner faces.

“You’re always nervous,” he says. “You never know when the economy’s gonna come down. There’s big businesses controlling everything. The election could affect things ... [Trump and Clinton] both promised things that would be beneficial to me, but can they keep the promise?”

In addition to his business, Miller also has a family to nurture — a wife and two sons. When he’s not in the shop, he involves himself in their activities.

“I devote all my time outside of the shop to my kids,” he said. His wife does the same when she’s not working as a lunch-room monitor in their children’s elementary school.

Miller says he often feels overworked, but he says a frequent sense of accomplishment makes up for his exhaustion.

He hopes to grow his business with the idea that one or both of his sons might join him some day.

“I’m hoping to buy the entire property,” he said recently while roaming between the seven buildings scattered across the land he rents. Equipped with a storm cellar, mother-in-law house and attic apartment (inhabited by Drew, the customer service manager), Miller wants to purchase the property within the next couple of years and lease out the buildings he doesn’t need for extra income.

Right now he uses two buildings as shops, and you might see him or his employees cruising between them via golf cart on the grassy plot. Zoning laws ensure that Pioneer is the only auto repair shop in this part of the city.

“It’s almost like a bit of country livin’, minus the road and the store,” Miller said, gesturing to the Sprouts Farmers Market and the cars zipping by on Teasley Lane.

Miller is at peace with his blue-collar life.

“I’m fine with [the term ‘blue collar’],” he said, adding that he wishes more people were interested in car repair. “It’s very hard to find employees right now in this industry that have experience and have good hands.”

“Good hands” is Miller’s term for talented repair technicians driven to work hard in a salary system — employees who will generate positive reviews from customers.

“The first thing I do when I come in the morning is check reviews,” Miller says while scrolling through one 5-star review after another on a ratings page. “[Our customers] don’t feel like they’ve been taken advantage of.”

Hardships in the small business test Miller daily, but he says making customers happy makes it all worthwhile.

“I see there’s 159 positive reviews,” he says. “To be appreciated and recognized for the good work you’re doing is the payoff.”


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