As a minister, Mike Miller has dedicated his life to trying to make the world a better place. Three decades ago, he founded Dare to Live in an effort to prevent teen suicides. Eight years ago, realizing that car trouble could lead to a lost job and a raft of other problems for people with few financial resources, he started the Carpenter’s Garage, a nonprofit mechanic shop for the poor.
Then, earlier this year, Miller decided to take what he’d learned from the nonprofit sector into the for-profit world. That was the origin of My Auto Repair Center, a 10-bay, $500,000 garage that opened its doors in March. But Miller – who got his start in an abusive home in Detroit and has no training in car repair – thought that even in the for-profit world he wanted to try a different approach.
“At Carpenter’s Garage, 93 percent of our work is done at a 50 percent discount,” he said. “[What] about normal-income people who don’t qualify for a discount? I came up with the idea of a membership-only garage that would make this possible.”
As Miller explained it, his membership-only model is similar to the Costco model. My Auto Repair Center members pay a one-time $100 fee to enroll, then a $50 membership fee each year. In exchange, they get 24-hour roadside assistance, and a significant discount on parts and labor.
Here’s how Miller said a typical garage structures its rates: Mechanics bill $90 an hour or more for their time, and the shop depends on a 100 percent markup on parts to pay the bills. At My Auto Repair Center, mechanics bill $60 per hour, and parts are only marked up by 25 percent – but you have to be a member to benefit.
Ultimately, the business will need to recruit about 5,000 people for the math to pencil out, Miller said. At that point, enrollment fees and annual dues will cover the cost of building and the future costs of maintaining the garage’s physical infrastructure, while repair rates and part fees will be enough to cover day-to-day business expenses.
Miller also hopes to make enough of a profit from My Auto Repair Center to eventually build a youth center where Clark County teenagers can hang out in a drug-free environment.
So far, about 500 drivers have signed up. Miller wants more members, but said he’s growing slowly on purpose so he can keep up with demand.
“On any given day, about 275 cars break down in Clark County. The problem is, if all 275 cars show up at once, it will take weeks to fix them,” he said. “I can only absorb about 50 new members per week.”
But the garage is still able to stay busy, because My Auto Repair Center shares its space – and its staff – with the Carpenter’s Garage nonprofit.
“The technicians do not know if they are working on a for-profit car, or helping a poor person we are serving for nothing,” Miller explained. “Our motto is: We work on everybody’s car like it belongs to their mother.”
The values that have guided his life from young adulthood also guide how he treats his staff, Miller noted.
“My technicians not only get great wages, but I give them a 401(k) retirement plan,” he said.
In addition, the shop contributes a dollar per hour worked to help mechanics with tool purchases – up to $160 per month in pre-tax money. At many shops, mechanics pay the full $75,000 to $100,000 necessary to build a complete toolbox out of their own pockets, he said.
For all of the time he has put into his business, Miller said he has not paid himself a dime in personal income – and he has no plans for that to change.
Over the years, he has made a living as a minister, motivational speaker, firefighter, paramedic, published author, fire department chaplain and through property development.
“I’m 61, and I figure I’ve got one major push left in me,” he said. “I want to start this garage, build this youth center, and change the lives of kids in Clark County.”