Founded: Leane and her husband, Mike, bought the existing shop in 2001
Leane Reelfs never imagined she’d one day own an auto repair shop. Sure, her husband, Mike, had worked for the original owner for a decade. But Leane, who’d previously worked in food service and in publishing, knew making the transition from employee (and employee’s wife) to small business owners could be tricky. Turns out, they were up for the challenge.
Today, Mike focuses on the service in the back of the Mountain View, CA-based shop. Leane manages all aspects of the front – from customer service to marketing to accounting. She’s an ASE Certified Service Advisor, too. More importantly, she’s known for providing a warm, friendly “Leane Experience,” making her Silicon Valley customers feel heard, valued and appreciated.
Leane, you didn’t plan to become a small business owner. Did your earlier professional experience give you a foundation for entrepreneurship?
Unexpectedly, I think it did. I left the food service industry because I was tired of smelling like food all the time. I started working for a publishing group. One day, I was putting labels on a brochure when the manager asked me to cover the phones. I ended up as the receptionist. Eventually I was given more and more tasks including bookkeeping, inventory management, even public relations. Those are all skills I use today to run the shop. I still wear a lot of different hats!
Have you had to get through any tough times since you’ve owned Helming’s?
We bought the business on Friday 13th in July, 2001. At the time, we were located in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Things were going crazy back then. Everyone wanted to be in the 94301 zip code – it was hot. Then 9/11 happened. People lost jobs, companies closed. A year later, our revenue was down by 60%. We had to fire our service writer, and neither of us had any experience with hiring or firing.
For the first several years we owned the business, I was focused on taking care of our two young kids and volunteering in the school and in the community. But after we'd gone through several different service writers and were still barely getting paid, I thought, "I have to get a job!" After a good deal of soul searching, I realized I had a job, and it was Helming's Auto Repair. It was time for me to dig in and get to work.
You’re known for providing “The Leane Experience.” Tell us what that means.
It’s all about connecting with people. I’m genuinely interested in talking to our customers about their kids, what’s going on our community, all kinds of things. It comes naturally to me – I really love the touchpoints I have with our customers.
What’s been your experience as a woman business owner in a typically male-dominated industry?
I really like it. Having a woman owner puts some people at ease – they come to us because they want to work with me. But not everyone feels that way. Plenty of people assume Mike makes all the decisions, and I’ve had to prove myself at times.
One time, a woman sales rep called and asked for Mike. When I said she could talk to me, she said, no, I need to speak with an owner. I explained I was the owner, and she said, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting the secretary to be an owner!” I exploded, and I used some pretty colorful language.
Do you think you approach running a business any differently than your male counterparts?
I believe it’s really important to share industry best-practices for things like marketing, tools and advertising. Maybe some guys have trouble with this, but I don’t. I think competition is irrelevant. We have such a wealth of information in our industry network, and we can all save time and money by sharing recommendations and trying something new.
I was recently at a monthly association meeting for shop owners. I mentioned what a pain it is to go to another shop to have cars with newly installed computers programmed. One of the guys from a neighboring shop said, "We use this guy who comes right to you and programs the computer onsite. Here's his info." Talk about using your network! That was a really valuable piece of information.
Is there anything you wished you’d done differently along the way?
I’ve made tons of mistakes over the years, like paying $900 every month to advertise in the Yellow Pages before I realized they were phasing out! I used to say I wish I hadn’t made any mistakes, but the truth is, I’ve learned from every single one.
Before you go
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I’ve been self-employed for most of my career as content specialist, so I know how much discipline and determination it takes to run your own business. As QB Community Content Chief, I love sharing the stories of people committed to doing things their way. I hope you’ll join our community and share your inspiring story!