What’s the secret to 50 successful years of business? For Bob Barks, owner of Complete Car & RV Repair Center in St. Charles, Missouri, it’s combining a passion to help people and treat them fairly with a love for all kinds of vehicles…and learning everything you can from mentors along the way.
“I was a mechanic, bodyman, and frame man for several dealerships before I opened my own shop in 1973,” recalls Barks. “I’ve built race cars, custom buses, custom cars. Now we're into motorhomes, which is really a big market, and we are still doing cars and trucks, too.”
“I love the business…I love fixing vehicles…I just love it. I love every aspect of it.”
And when you talk to him, you know he truly means it.
Barks particularly enjoys the challenge of taking a wrecked vehicle and returning it to its former glory — and then seeing a customer’s reaction and appreciation for a job well done. “That is my thanks. That is my pay, personally, is to return something to pre-accident condition and see the impact it has on the customer.”
It all comes back to a motto that he’s been operating under since the beginning: “Fix the machine and people will appreciate it.”
“I've been open for a long time now,” Barks reminisced. “To think that all the stuff that we've created started with me…it’s mind blowing. My little house turned into a big house. My net worth went from pretty well zero to being in really good shape. And that was all from hard work and people saying ‘thanks.’”
A true team effort
Barks readily acknowledges that he couldn’t have achieved this milestone in his business without the help of good people by his side — which for the past 17 years has included his daughter, Kim Barks, who co-owns the shop alongside him as he trains her to take over operations someday.
“He is the best dad, and my best friend,” says Kim. “I am so proud of his success and all the hard work he’s put into building this business in the last 50 years. I admire his passion and drive to show up every day, and be an expert in his field. He’s always willing to listen and teach me new things, and he has so many great ideas. When we come together as one, we make it happen.”
And the admiration goes both ways.
“I just look at her, and I'm very proud of her,” Barks says, adding that he’s confident Kim is the right person to take over the business. “She just does a great job. She’s got a lot of charisma, people love to talk to her. She’s got a good, level head on her shoulders…she’s a straight shooter. And she’s legitimately interested in the work, in the technology and the business side of things. She’s got good ideas. She went to school and got her degree, too, which impressed me.”
Building relationships that last a lifetime
For Barks, the importance of building relationships and forging real connections with customers can’t be overstated. Customers are the only people who can fire you, after all…no one else. Keep your focus on the customer, he says, and everything else will fall into place.
“That’s something I heard from Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, at a conference once…and it’s stuck with me all these years later.”
He also recalls a conversation he had with one of his earliest mentors before starting his business, sharing another invaluable piece of advice that he’s never forgotten.
“‘What are you going to do, Bob?’” my mentor asked me. “I told him I was going to open a shop and fix all the cars in this county. He kind of laughed and said, ‘Well, I've been doing it for a long time…that's impossible. You will fix a lot of cars. You're good with people. You’re a quick learner. But remember something…what do you buy from a guy you don't like?’ And I said ‘nothing.’ He said, ‘exactly!’”
The way Barks treats his customers is one of the things Kim admires most about her dad…and in her mind, it’s one of the biggest reasons for his success.
“Dad doesn’t just fix the vehicle — he listens and builds a relationship first, and by the time you leave here you forgot all about the vehicle,” she said. “He carries a strong family value into every conversation he has.”
Being there for customers during a “terrible time” after they’ve had an accident is something Barks never takes for granted…and never takes advantage of.
“When you wreck your car, that's your car, right? Or your truck. This is your livelihood. This is how you get the kids to school or get to your job. We have to put you back in that thing as fast as we can, and make it as easy as we can. Instead of saying, well, we should have fixed that the first time…we fix it, we road test it, we run double checks. We do it right the first time.”
No detail goes unnoticed, and his customers certainly appreciate it.
Honesty is key
Always being fair and straightforward is a top priority for Barks, who says honesty and integrity is the key to building a lasting business. “The key really is just to be honest — that’s how you earn people’s confidence, then you’ve got their business for the rest of your life…and the rest of their life. They tell their neighbor. That neighbor tells their neighbor…it’s how small businesses are built.”
A perfect example of how this plays out in Barks’ business: In the spirit of treating all his customers with the utmost respect, he hosts educational clinics for women in his community who are interested in learning more about cars.
“We have an open clinic — we call it an automotive clinic — and we invite all the ladies who want to come in for an open house. I actually take them underneath their car, show them the engine and alternator, the brakes, the muffler, the ball joints, the air conditioning, the tires…everything. Not to make them mechanics or body people…but when they go in to get an estimate, especially in a repair shop, they should be a little bit informed about what's going on.”
Having this knowledge gives people confidence, he says, and it also protects them from unscrupulous businesses who might otherwise try to take advantage of their lack of understanding…something he’s unfortunately seen happen far too often.
“I'd like everybody to be more educated about their cars, and I want people to feel comfortable. I want to show them what we're doing, and I always have. It’s worked this far!”
Words of wisdom
Successful business owner. Amazing dad. Patient teacher. Wise mentor. Epic storyteller.
Bob Barks is all those things and more, says Kim, and he should feel incredibly proud of what he’s accomplished in the last 50 years of business — everyone around him certainly does.
Of the many invaluable lessons her dad has taught her throughout her life, a few have stood out above the rest:
- “Never give up, and keep moving forward no matter what the circumstances.”
- "Be ready to pivot at any time.”
- “Hit the ball every day, and sooner or later you’ll hit a homerun.”