Guzman Automotive
From left to right: Jadon Henderson, Erica Guzman, Joe Gonzales, James Guzman, and Joshua Guzman.

Family-owned shop in Texas big on service, rich in history

Feb. 19, 2024
James Guzman’s family repair shop outside of Austin, Texas is blossoming in the same area he picked crops as a kid. The family-run shop emphasizes old-school service, while looking to the future with plans to expand.

This is Part Two of a four-part series. Read Part One here.

Technically speaking, last November is when James Guzman officially opened his first family business, Guzman Automotive, in the Austin suburb of Taylor, Texas on Route 79. The 52-year-old co-owns the business, which provides maintenance and repair for passenger and light commercial vehicles, with his oldest son, Joe Gonzales. Three other family members are on staff as well, fulfilling a goal several years in the making. 

But for the past 11 years, James has worked with family members as owner and operator of a Christian Brothers Automotive franchise in the next town over, Hutto. His other son, Joshua Guzman, and son-in-law, Jadon Henderson, also worked there, as did his daughter, Erica Guzman. Joe, who most recently was chief revenue officer at a commercial vehicle reman operation, had worked as a service manager of other Christian Brothers locations. They were working together, but that wasn’t enough for James. He wanted a place where the family name was on the building, things were run his way, and his children contributed to and benefited from their success.

So far, so good.

The leased 12,000 sq.-ft. building’s doors have only been open a few months, but the shop’s already breaking even. Two more locations should be operating within the next two years.

There’s no telling what the ceiling on the burgeoning business will be—but it’s likely high if Austin remains one of the fastest-growing metro areas. Getting to this point is already a career high, considering where the family started.

Now the family seems to have it all, but as Joe said matter-of-factly, “We come from nothing.”

Route to success

The legacy of Guzmans working side by side along Rt. 79 spans at least six decades, all the way back to the mid-1970s. James’ parents, Jesse and Lyda Guzman, were born in the U.S., but as their grandson Joe explained, they had a “migrant worker mentality” back then. The whole family, no matter the age, did what they could to put food on the table.

“I can remember all the way back to pre-K, my sister and I—who were only 11 months apart and in the same grade—would get off the bus and immediately go across the street and start helping my mom work the fields,” James recalled. At first, this meant following Mom with a bag as she plucked cotton and corn from root and stem, and later doing it himself.

The middle child did this every summer with his six siblings until he was 13. James said his family started picking along Rt. 79 at 5 a.m., working their way east from their home in Round Rock over to Hutto and Taylor. They’d stop at 2 p.m. due to the heat. Each kid would earn $20 a week. When there were no crops to pick, they would search for bottles and cans to recycle for a few cents a pop.

In 1985, James met his future wife, Christina Gonzales. One thing led to another, and when James was 15 and his wife 17, Joe was born.

It wasn’t easy, but they found strength in staying together. In 1993, James landed an assembly line job at the Dell plant in Round Rock, earning $4.50/hour. Joe recalled how even a 15-cent raise would be a reason for celebration.

With hard work, James moved up to a prominent sales management role and a better salary. James oversaw several major accounts, such as NASA and Chicago and New York City public schools. Ironically, the family could now afford to eat out at sit-down restaurants, but as Joe remembers, James was often too busy with work to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

“We haven’t seen him all week, we’re walking out the door. And he says, ‘You guys gotta go without me; I gotta go back to the plant,’” Joe recalled.

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Things were going well until the Great Recession, and James got laid off in 2009. Struggling at a new job and making a fraction of his last Dell salary, James needed a break. His daughter Ashley worked at a local Christian Brothers Automotive, which just so happened to need a hard-working leader to take over the franchise.

That franchise was owned by Jonathan Carr, the son of Christian Brothers founder Mark Carr. They worked out a deal and James was put in charge.

After 12 years of successfully running the business, James wanted to plant his own seeds.

He assembled the family, found a new, blank slate building outside of Christian Brothers’ territory, and started a new chapter on the old, familiar Route 79.

“Service as it should be”

James is fairly confident that where this building stands, as a boy he once used his little fingers to separate cotton blossom from stem. It’s all a bit hazy toiling in the dirt when the mercury hits 100.

The veracity of that is irrelevant. It’s a core component of the Guzman family history.

“They see I used to work the fields here, and now we get to come here and take care of people and make money,” James offered.

The Austin area has doubled in population to about 2.2 million over the past 20 years, so turning a profit here is a far easier proposition than it once was. The shop is ripe for fast growth with Samsung Austin Semiconductor just eight miles away from Guzman Automotive. Samsung has pledged $25 billion to its long-term domestic chip production there. The project will add 2,000 manufacturing jobs.

 

“We wanted to attack those fleet opportunities,” said Joe, who attends local meetings regarding the CHIP Act’s impact on the community. “We’re well aware of the revenue stream of commercial vehicles.” And now is the time to strike.

Read more: Succession plans for generational success

“We want to capture it as quickly as we possibly can, and get it in as early as we can,” James added.

The challenge now will be ensuring the current location holds true to the family shop’s motto: “Service as it should be,” harkening back to how James’ dad was treated when he pulled in for service 40 years ago.

“My dad never got out of his car when he went to a service station,” James recalled. “The service attendant would fill up his car, clean his windshield, check his oil and top it off if he needed it—and check his tire pressure, too.”

The five family members who work at the shop, plus five technicians, are all tasked with providing that same level of old-school customer service. And any new location, which won’t have as much of a family presence, will also be expected to provide the same.

“I feel like if we keep it in the family, which we’re going to, we can give that kind of service that my dad used to receive when I was a kid at a service station,” James said.

To achieve that success, and to leave something to future generations, the family business needs to focus just as much on internal succession and promotion planning as they do on providing old-school service.

The six-bay shop services passenger and commercial vehicles up to 14,000 lbs. and is packed with family, both related by blood and by sweat equity. Joshua is the vice president and Jadon the service manager, while James’ daughter Erica Guzman works up front as the guest service coordinator.

James’ and Joe’s wives helped with administrative work and policies, while his other daughter Ashley designed the company logo and created the website, while Joshua’s wife Courtney assisted with finances and invoices.  Three techs also followed James from his last shop. They’re treated like family, and family like employees.

“Every Friday, we break bread together and we pray together,” said James, who went on to explain how important it is for employees to see and feel that “family atmosphere.” At a chain restaurant, that’s a platitude; here it’s a covenant.

The contracts and policies put everyone on equal ground. From time off to pay, everything is according to the contract signed on day one. James said everyone is treated equally, even when it comes to time off over the holidays, “regardless of what their last name is,” and that is true even over the holidays.

If this rule was broken, “we’d run the risk of alienating our employees,” James said. “And you lose respect that way.”

Read more: Shop profile: Graber's Diesel Repair carries on a legacy

This spirals into lost confidence and mistrust, and if the technician doesn’t quit outright, they could quietly quit, where productivity and attention check out but you still get a paycheck.

“When that happens, then it spills into comebacks,” James warned. “And we all know how that plays out—it turns into negative reviews, and that turns into less customers.”

To prevent that from happening, and essentially spoiling the reputation James spent a lifetime building, the family gets things right from the start.

“We’ve got to perfect what we want the business to look like here in our first shop,” James asserted. To that end, training new employees will be done by the family, and every location will have at least one family member.

That is made easier when an employee literally becomes part of the family, as was the case with Henderson. Before marrying Ashley, Jadon had worked at the Christian Brothers shop for a few years.

“We knew he was hungry, and he still is hungry,” James said. “You find somebody like that. And we can teach the rest.”

He is now being groomed for that role with network and leadership training.

“In two to three years, we’ve got to be able to leave him alone,” James said.

Fatherly advice

Joe, now 36, oversees all the day-to-day operations, leaving his dad to focus on strategy and the financial side. If there’s an issue or problem with a customer or employee, Joe proudly will bear the brunt of it.

“The better I make this thing, the less and less of that he has to do,” Joe said, a lump in his throat as all the sacrifices his father made flashed through his mind.

Armed with a lifetime of business lessons learned simply by watching his dad, Joe, who called James at different times his best friend and role model, is ready to take the mantle.

Chief among these are “looking people in the eye” and “saying what you mean and doing what you say.” Consistency in these areas cemented strong bonds with the Guzmans’ parts vendors as well, who offer the nascent shop the same service and urgency as they did when James was with the much larger previous franchise.

Overcommunicating has also “saved my tail a bunch of times,” Joe added.

Drawing from his grandfather’s experience, Joe recalled a recent time at the shop where a customer thought that all the vehicle’s problems were fixed.

“It was not really covered in the repair, but we took care of it for free anyway,” Joe said.

When asked why he would do that for free, Joe replied “Because it’s the right thing to do. That’s my family’s name on the door, and that means more to me than making a few bucks off you.

“That’s the way Dad has taught us how to do business and that’s what we do,” he added.

If these family legends and lessons can also be learned by the eight (for now) grandchildren, this family that came from nothing will be able to sustain itself for generations to come.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor-in-chief, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch is the editor-in-chief of Fleet Maintenance, where his mission is to provide maintenance management and technicians with the the latest information on the tools and strategies to keep their fleets' commercial vehicles moving.

He is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the B2B journalism space for more than a decade.

Hitch was previously senior editor for FleetOwner, and covers everything related to trucking and commercial vehicle equipment, including breaking news, the latest trends and best practices. He previously wrote about manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest.

Prior to that he was editor for Kent State University's student magazine, The Burr, and a freelancer for Cleveland Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician, where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).

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