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Thinking outside the box with Steve Ek

Steve Ek of Ek Automotive located in Chicago, Illinois visits Dave in New York. They talk about thinking outside of the box, the real impact of servicing customers, about what to do when you are doing something uncomfortable, and how there is no such thing as a failure until you quit.





Dave: 00:01 I was 25 years old. I put everything on the line to open this business. The reality is that 50% of small businesses fail within the first five years. To be a successful owner, you need to adopt the mindset that you work for your employees. Enough with theory – I want to hear from somebody who’s been there and done that.


Announcer: 00:21 This is I want to hear your store by Dave Bloom, a podcast that offers real life lessons, education and inspiration for small business owners and employees.


Dave: 00:36 Dave here. Today’s conversation is with Steve Ek, owner of Ek automotive in Chicago. Steve is a very inspirational repair shop owner to me. He is extremely innovative and not afraid to make changes to better himself and his company. Not only does he think outside the box as they say, but he also looks at the box from a different angle that most people would not even think of. Hey, how’s it going? This is Dave and I’m at the Pine Aire studios overlooking the beautiful, great South Bay and I have a very special guest that I’m very excited to bring to you guys today. He’s a very successful repair shop owner in Chicago. He’s a writer, he’s a musician, he’s an athlete. He’s an actor. Mr. Steve of Ek of Ek Automotive in Chicago.


Steve: 01:23 Hello. You know right up until you’d started describing me I was like, wow, I thought I was the guest.


Dave: 01:30 You are the guest.


Steve: 01:30 Oh, he is talking about me.


Dave: 01:35 Steve is a very innovative shop owner. I went last year with Cindy, we went and we visited you out there and I was absolutely blown away by your shop. Blown away by your shop. I’m like, my God, this guy is a freaking genius. I’d like you to kind of describe your feeling about your shop.


Steve: 01:54 So I think the first thing to talk about is what you see when you walk in. You know, not so much the atmosphere and the culture, but the actual what you see. And I’m a huge believer and I’ve, I probably overuse the term conceptual thinking because I’ll go into a restaurant or I’ll go into a department store and I’ll go, I don’t know, how does that fit in my shop? You know, I like that idea. This, it drew me to it. So if it’s drawing me, it’s going to draw other people. How can I take that concept and fit it into my shop? And then it’s always, why does something have to be like it is, what does the book have to be a book when you can put a bunch of them together and now you have a pedestal. Why does anything have to be what it’s supposed to be?


Steve: 02:38 So why does an auto repair shop have to be an auto repair shop? But can it also be an art gallery? So I opened up an art gallery on the second floor and then why does an art gallery have to be a stuffy art gallery, why can’t it be something cool? So I’m like, well, what’s cooler than throwing a couple of garage doors on the second floor? You know, so we could open it up and you have that outside feel to it and call it Salt Air gallery and the salt air because you know, when you think of salt air, you’re at the beach, you’re relaxed, you just step into the gallery and you’re relaxed. It’s almost that the art is secondary to the feeling. We put a bar there, you know because sometimes you want a beverage. Somebody will go up into the gallery and waiting for their car and open up a laptop, and they’ll sit at the bar with a glass of wine, and just like, wow, I never knew that something like this can exist. And my response is, why can’t it, why does everything have to fit in a box? Forget the box. Figure out what the box is first you know people go throw away the box. No, no, no. Figure out what is the box and why does it have to be that way? And once you realize it doesn’t, they can start pushing out the sides of the box. Make anything out of it.


Dave: 03:57 By you being innovative and by you looking for new ideas and doing things differently. How does that play into your employees and the culture that you build in the shop when they see that they work for an owner like this and a shop like this?


Steve: 04:10 So what they see in what, I never have to tell them but they see is, I’m not afraid to make a mistake. I didn’t develop all this, I didn’t create all of this and I didn’t get it right the first, you know, I’ve gone back to the drawing board a bunch of times, but I’ve never failed. I just found a way to have, you know what? I don’t like that. I’m gonna. There’s something about it I don’t like. I keep tweaking so I already have that mindset and that’s extended to the shop where the employees would, they’d come up with an idea or something they want to implement. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake because we don’t get it right the first time. Doesn’t mean we don’t get it right, you know, if some new system or some, some new thing you want to bring in the shop, make life easier, start thinking about other things. I take it one step further and I just go, uh, don’t tell me, show me, run with it. Show me.


Dave: 05:06 So you’re a strong-minded person. You have definite ideas on the way you want to do things. And now one of your people comes to you and says, I have this idea and you in the back of your head are saying, not the way I would do it, I don’t think this is really gonna work. So how do you take that with the person that comes to you with that idea?


Steve: 05:24 Um, that’s a funny one because I never want to discourage. You never, you never want to squash an idea. So you have to walk down the path with them and let them discover that this is maybe not the best, and let them come up with that conclusion. Because if I tell them never going to work, well you know, that’s just squashing your creativity. So I let them discover through conversation. Or sometimes I’ll actually let them do a little bit work towards it to realize it doesn’t work.


Dave: 05:56 And sometimes it does work.


Steve: 05:59 But you know what? And I’m the first one to admit that.


Dave: 06:02 I feel that in business by being innovative, by showing your employees that we’re not stagnant, that we’re willing to go in different directions. We’re willing to try other things. If it fails, we’ll go back and we’ll do another thing. And to have a boss like that encourages people to come to work for you, who are the people that you really want working with you.


Steve: 06:18 Right, right away. And when you start to develop that, people see that going on and go, I want to work for that because they feel that way. You know, it’s almost like you attract them.


Dave: 06:28 One of the things that I read about that I look at in other people’s businesses, and I feel myself because a lot of times I get stuck in some way is how do I keep it exciting? How do I keep the passion going when basically in the end of the day in our business, we’re just fixing people’s broken shit. People aren’t real thrilled when they need breaks put in that truck.


Steve: 06:50 I tell my crew, Hey, you know what you’ve done is by doing these breaks, you’ve, uh, enhanced the quality of that person’s life. They need their car to get their kids to school. They’re going to go on vacation, they’re going to go out to dinner. They need their cars to live their lives and their cars broke and they’re not living their lives. Now their lives are disrupted. And what you’ve done is giving that quality of life back. And yeah, we put brakes in the car, but what did we really do? We gave them the quality of their life back. You know. So that’s how I see past the boredom. Boredom is putting brakes on a car. Purpose is repairing the car to give them their life back. The second I don’t have that drive or purpose, it’s over. Do you know what I mean? I have such a passion that I want to help everybody.


Steve: 07:40 You know, I want to change the world. I know I can. There’s a lot of people in this world that never lived the life they want. They never reached their dreams. They don’t even know how to set up goals. They don’t they exist. They don’t have a purpose, but they didn’t, it wasn’t always like that. They, you know, were young were ambitious and somehow maybe fear, maybe this, maybe they failed at something, but you know, and it brought them down. Uh, because you know, people quit at doing things and what frustrates me is because they quit because they think they failed. And I say no, there’s no such thing as failure. Failure does not exist until you quit.


Dave: 08:27 When I’m feeling really good, when I’m energized, when I’m passionate, the business does better. My life is more enjoyable. People enjoy being around me more. You have those magical things happen where people just come out of nowhere that are the right person at the right time. And it all happens when you really are in that top frame of mind when you’re in that peak state. But we all go through ups and downs and within the last year, probably about eight months ago, I went through one of them real down kind of periods. In the past I’ve been able to say, I’m going to bed earlier, I’ll eat right, I’ll exercise a little bit more and break out of it, but I got stuck in one that was like a little bit even beyond that. That took a lot more effort for me to come out of. So you can’t help other people. You can’t make your shop a better experience. You can’t make it a better experience for your employees if you’re not right yourself.


Steve: 09:12 Correct. Correct.


Speaker 3: 09:14 So give us one of your secrets on what do you do? I mean I listen, I’m hoping that you’re human and that you go through some really shitty times and stuff like that.


Steve: 09:24 I do. I absolutely do.


Dave: 09:25 Give us something man. Give us some to pull us out of the doldrums.


Steve: 09:29 I think first and foremost, the everyday love is you have to exercise. Your health is important. There’s no way you could be great at one thing in life and suck it in others. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t be the most unhealthy complainer about this and that and then crush it in business. I don’t think it works like that. So I think you have to look at yourself first and then you know, you have to eat right. You know, you can’t go out drinking and partying and, and hurting yourself, you know, I mean, yeah, I like a drink, but you definitely have to take care of yourself first. And that’s the every day. And for me, I need to travel. I need to experience other things of life. I need that, that to bring me back to center me. This trip here has been so much, uh, personal growth, so much personal development. And these last five days, I’m going to go back on fire.


Dave: 10:22 Wow, that’s awesome man. But give us something that you’re not comfortable with.


Steve: 10:30 I don’t know a lot about religion, not a real religious person. And somebody came up to me and they said, will you do a talk about faith and in the workplace? So of course, if I can inspire to level talk, but then I’m like, well, what do I know more about faith in the workplace? So, you know, not my best subject. So I met with them. I’m like, I don’t know what you mean. And it’s printed already, right? When they ask you to publicly speak and you say, yeah, and they print your name on the program, you can not back out. Right. I’m not sure what you mean. What’s this? And he kind of gives me the premise and I might go, Oh.


Steve: 11:09 And I went up there and my, how I do it is I’m like, okay, this is what I’m going to talk about, you know, knowledgeable about myself so I can talk about myself. And I go up there and sometimes most of the time when I when I’m about to be uncomfortable, I go up there and I say to myself, Steve – be you. Let you take over, don’t script it. You know the story and just go up there and be yourself. Be genuine. And if you mispronounce a word and you know you did, it was pretty obvious. You know what I say at that point. Man, I wish I could pronounce that word. How do you pronounce that word again? But again, you just make fun of yourself. Right? And, and people will laugh and they’ll go, you know, so it just makes it real, because this is me. I probably mispronounced the word. I probably Ms. Brown, I’ve mispronounced the word the other night and you’re calling me out. I’m like, uh, I’m from Chicago.


Dave: 12:06 Well, you’re from Chicago, you probably said mozzarella.


Speaker 4: 12:11 So I, um, if I get something wrong, you just kind of laugh about it and you say, wow I kinda got that wrong, didn’t I? You know, and you just move on. You be yourself. So when I’m going to do something that I’m not really comfortable, I just tell myself, be yourself.


Dave: 12:27 That’s a great way to do it.


Steve: 12:29 So that’s, I just, I rely on me being me, you know, and not pretending to be somebody else.


Dave: 12:36 Very cool. That’s, that’s pretty inspirational. Our industry as a whole, are pretty archaic in the way they think and a lot of customer service and what they do. Gosh, it’s just not really exactly what would make myself inspired to go to that place and do that. I think that what you do is absolutely amazing and inspiring to me.


Steve: 12:57 Oh, thank you. Thank you. I use the expression I heard one time. You can be in an ocean of sameness or a Lake of difference. I’ll take the Lake of difference every time.


Dave: 13:11 I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I have. I hope that Steve inspires you as much as he inspires me. If you’re ever in Chicago, look up echo automotive and pay them a visit. You will not be disappointed. You can hear our podcasts and find out more information about us on our website, pine air truck.com or on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please subscribe and follow us.



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