Steve Kaiser was nominated by the Junk King leadership team in the Veteran-Owned category for a 2021 Franchise Rock Star Award. He was chosen by Franchise Business Review from among 200 nominations for his outstanding achievements as a Junk King franchise owner in Phoenix, AZ.
What is one of the biggest mistakes you made when you were first starting your business? What was your biggest takeaway from it?
That one is easy. By far the biggest mistake was not doing more due diligence on the one truck that came with the business from the previous owner. The truck that I inherited had the check engine light on, and when I asked the owner about it he just shrugged and said when he takes it in they don’t know what’s causing it. I should have asked to talk to who his mechanic was because I would have found out that this previous owner refused all kinds of normal service on the truck. Within the first year of owning the business I had to put close to $20,000 into that truck to keep it running. At first it was a complete fuel system replacement and then it was a new transmission! I go to the same place for maintenance that the previous owner did so I’ve heard about all the recommendations he received and ignored from the maintenance crew there. So, by far the biggest take away from that mistake is to do more digging and to always keep your trucks well serviced!
Is there a book or podcast you’ve read/listened to that has helped you in starting or building your business?
I really enjoyed the book “Grinding it Out” by Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds as we know it today. I have always wanted to own my own business and what I took away from that book is how often things will go wrong but that you have to keep being persistent and keep looking for ways to survive. And, while owning a business has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally, I take heart in reading Ray’s story and knowing that if you just keep grinding it out you’ll come out on top.
How do you think your military experience has helped you as a business owner?
Without a doubt it has been the best preparation for business ownership. The main reason for that is the leadership training and culture that I learned as an Officer in the Army. The Army teaches its leaders to really and truly take care of their team. Take care of your people and your people will take care of you was a saying that I heard often. This business, like most businesses, succeeds or fails based on the employees. I can’t be on every truck every day, so I have to give authority and some control over to my team to be successful. If I’m hiring good people, I should trust them to do good things. The Army taught me how to delegate effectively, to train them to do what I need them to do, and then trust them to go do it. And, if my team makes a mistake, it’s ok, now it’s a good learning experience. I don’t need my team to get it perfect, I need them to go out there and execute to the best of their current ability and then we will build on that ability to make them better.
I was trained as an officer to give the mission and let your NCO’s execute the mission, I don’t micromanage my teams but I do watch them closely. The other thing the Army taught me was that you need to be with your team and show them you can do the job as well, lead from the front. I like to ride with different team members every once in a while or show up on nasty jobs and just get in there and get dirty with them. The comradery of leaning into a tough job and doing it together builds bonds that truly help a business grow.
What leadership qualities are most important to you and your team?
We have four values for our business that we focus on constantly: Be Honest, Work Hard, Have Fun and Give Back. When I hire I look for these qualities and when I fire (someone) it’s because one of these qualities has not been adequate. We do quarterly peer reviews that are anonymous, and the team’s rate each other on these qualities. For example, a team member would rate a peer on how often they see the attribute of Be Honest.
We break down what we mean by Be Honest by saying things like “Are they always truthful with the customer, team members, managers? Do they do the right thing when no one is looking?” And then the team member would select, “Sometimes, Mostly, or Always”. Those selections are weighted to give us a total score for each team member on their peer review. Then when we get those results back if there are any anomalies myself and the managers can zero in on a couple team members for coaching. My manager’s bonus is also based on their aggregate score of the peer review, which helps them treat team members with respect, and helps me to see how they are viewed by the team.
What are the biggest work-related challenges you faced during the pandemic? What have you done to address them?
Keeping my team safe was the biggest focus. We work in close proximity to each other and we are in people’s homes. Additionally, the challenge of what happens when a member of our small team comes down with COVID or someone they live with (does), how do you handle that. We would mitigate the safety concern by letting the whole team know that if you do not feel good, do not come in. We would pair team members up in the same truck for multiple days instead of rotating team members daily with other team members.
We also had a daily question added to our safety truck walk around that asked and confirmed that no one had a fever or was feeling ill. We also provided lots of PPE at each shop and made sure the team did not have to provide for that out of pocket.