The Story of Ken Mattson (Len’s Automotive)

Nov 2, 2023

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Ken Mattson (Len’s Automotive)

By Nesha Ruther

Len Mattson started Len’s Automotive in the late 1960s. A gas station that ultimately grew into a thriving automotive repair business, Len’s Automotive was the embodiment of a family-run business. Len’s son Ken even found his first job in restocking the gas station’s soda machine.

Over the years, Len’s business and his son grew in tandem. A solitary gas station became one of the premier automotive repair businesses in Bellevue. Ken, now in high school, became the business’ full-time janitor. “I’d go in and scrub the floors on weekends to keep everything clean,” Ken says. “I even took a year off in college and came to work there full time.”

Ken followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps and in college, got a degree in Business Management. When he graduated, Ken came back to Len’s Automotive as a service advisor. In the early 90s, Len began thinking about retirement. He decided to keep the business in the family and give his son an option to continue his legacy.

“I didn’t know going into [the business management degree] that I would end up taking over the business,” Ken says. “I even remember sitting down with my dad and him telling me that it was mine if I wanted to pursue it. I thought long and hard about it and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

While Ken had inherited his father’s knack for business, he was by no means a mechanic. “I never worked on cars, but I grew up in the business, so I learned about it simply from being around it all the time,” Ken says. “And even if I did work on cars, the way things have changed over the years, you really don’t have time to be both a mechanic and run a business. It ended up being a good fit for me, I took over the business side and I hired the service advisors and technicians to do the repair work.”

As the new owner of Len’s Automotive, Ken was committed to preserving his father’s legacy, but one drastic change needed to be made. “Before I bought the business, everything was done manually on handwritten repair orders. There were no computers. I made the transition into the electronic age,” Ken says.

This transition allowed the entire business to become more efficient. Len had always been extremely diligent about bookkeeping, staying up late at night to balance his books by hand, down to the penny. Now, Ken not only digitized those records but made the entire process electronic, ensuring he could be equally as diligent in half the time.

Ken’s ownership also coincided with a vast change in the nature of the vehicles being sold. In the 70s and 80s, crafty teenagers could fix or even assemble their own cars provided they had the correct parts. The rise of electric and smart vehicles meant that was no longer the case. Ken had to adapt his father’s business in order to better service these vehicles. “The biggest thing is training. We require our technicians to have ongoing training, learning about the different complexities of computers every day. They’re constantly learning,” Ken says.

Ken also relies on the network of local automotive repair shops to stay up to date on the ever-changing technology. “We have a good group of other shops, several of whom were actually former employees of my dad’s who decided to go out on their own. I’ve never really looked at them as my competition. We all work together. I treat them as my friends and my co-workers, we share ideas and information. I’ve always seen them as an opportunity to continue to learn and share knowledge and experience so we can all grow and get better.”

Another change in the industry has been the increasing rarity of automotive technicians. Back when Len owned the business, many people had long and fulfilling careers as mechanics. Through the 2000s and 2010s however, this valuable population has steadily decreased. “It’s an ongoing battle to find good technicians, they’re kind of a dying breed. In all honesty, I’m a bit concerned about where the industry is going because we’ve lost our training” Ken says.

Back in the day, family-owned gas stations such as Len’s used to be the major training ground for mechanics. High schoolers would get a job pumping gas in the summer and fall in love with cars. Over time, those gas stations and convenience stores became part of chains, and the large corporations were uninterested in preserving the gas station attendee-to-technician pipeline.

While technicians are critical to the success of any automotive repair business, equally as important are the service advisors. Ken consciously invested time into strengthening these employees in particular, in order to improve customer-facing communication. “[Service Advisers] are the ones at the front counter,” he says. “They’re the go-between for the technician and the customer. They take the initial check-in that the customer does when bringing in a car and relay that to the technicians. Then when the technician does their work, it’s the service advisor’s job to translate that information so the customer can understand.”

As anyone who has ever tried to teach their native language, or gotten math help from a certified genius knows, just because you are good at something does not mean you can successfully communicate the concept to the uninitiated. By building up the service advisor position, Ken allowed technicians to focus on what they’re good at—fixing cars while letting those with the necessary soft skills handle communication.

Ken understood from first-hand experience how important this position is because he worked as one himself when his dad owned the business. “When I first started working at the business full-time, after college; I was basically an advisor. I didn’t know how to work on cars, but I saw that as an advantage, to not be so technically minded. It allowed me to talk to the customer in a language they understood. I could take the information the technicians were giving me and communicate it to the customers in a way that made sense to them,” Ken says.

This deep understanding of his employees’ jobs gave Ken a greater appreciation for all they do. “My first goal is always to make sure I take care of the staff I have. It’s easier to work with the people you have than hire new people. I try to be flexible with [my employees]. Sometimes things come up and we always try to adjust their work hours to help them. We offer retirement benefits and 401k plans, and I just try to get to know them on a friendship level. I’ll come in and talk with the technicians about their kids, their families, what’s going on right now, just focusing on developing that personal relationship,” Ken says.

Any small business owner is going to struggle to find good staff, and Ken acknowledges employees being the greatest challenge he faced over his 30-year ownership of Len’s Automotive. At the same time, however, that commitment to building interpersonal relationships also garnered loyalty from his team. “I was pretty fortunate that most of the time my employees would stay for quite a while,” he says. “There were obviously transitions over the years, but my two lead technicians have been there for 10 years, which in today’s world is pretty darn long. My dad had an advisor who started as a mechanic, he started in the mid-70s and was still working for me after I bought the business. He was there for 35 years.

In the instances where new employees are needed, Ken has found his current staff to be the greatest asset to recruitment. “Over the years when there is a need to bring on new people, it’s mainly done through the existing employees or our parts people. They’re a valuable resource in hiring because they see the other shops and they hear the word out there.”

There is one line Ken will not cross when it comes to hiring, however, and that is poaching employees. “I’m not a believer in going out and stealing an employee from somebody. I just don’t do it. If I hear somebody’s not happy and they’re looking for another option then I have no problem sitting down and having a conversation with them. But I don’t go knocking on other businesses’ doors and saying, ‘Hey do you want to come work for me?’”

One thing that did not change through the passing of the torch, was Len’s ethos. “My goal when I bought the business was to continue the way my dad started it, and one thing he taught me was that if you’re honest with your customers, if you treat them right and fair, you will always have enough business. That was the philosophy of the business when my dad started it, and after 54 years it holds true,” Ken explains.

Len’s commitment to integrity resulted in strong loyalty from his customers, and Ken cultivated that loyalty from customers the same way he did with his employees. While the rise of the internet resulted in the need for some online marketing, the vast majority of Ken’s business came from word of mouth. “My dad never really did any advertising, and while there was some online presence I felt was needed, it was limited. Most of our customers came from word of mouth from the families we had become such good friends with,” he says.

In the same way that Ken is a second-generation owner, Len’s Automotive often has second and even third-generation customers. “For me, it’s always been about relationships. They’re not really my customers, they’re family,” he says.

Ken believes that in order to preserve relationships of any kind, there needs to be communication. Responsible communication has always been something he prided himself on. “I see our job as basically being a car doctor. When you go to a doctor, you trust them to take care of you. You rely on them to provide you with the information so that you can make the best decision. Our goal is the same thing, only with a car. Nowadays, cars are so complicated and with onboard computers, it’s impossible for most people to have even a little understanding of how the cars work. We have to educate them, inform them, tell them the pros and cons, and make recommendations. But the bottom line is their decision.”

This means not pushing for a sale, but simply imparting information that empowers the customer to make the best choice for their vehicle. “I fail if I don’t give them good information so they can make a good decision,” Ken says. This philosophy doesn’t always have revenue front of mind in the short-term but proves itself in the long run. Most people are more likely to pay for repairs and accept the price if they know it is coming from a trusted source.

Ken also realizes that there are as many kinds of car owners as there are vehicles on the road. “A car is an expensive thing, and we have a wide range of customers in terms of how they want to take care of their cars. Some people are in it for the long run, and they want to have a car for 20 or 30 years. Other people don’t really care, they’re in it for the short term so they’re minimizing their out-of-pocket expenses during that short time. Others plan on re-selling it and are willing to pay to keep it in good condition. Any way is fine. That’s not a decision I make for them, but I’m always honest about what makes the most sense for their goals.”

The value in any venture can be found in the product or service it provides, but some businesses, particularly small family-run businesses, have another, less concrete value: their presence in the community. Len built that network of relationships through his ownership, and Ken strengthened and expanded it when he took over. This is not something that can be obtained through a simple fix or quick solution but happens organically through sustained effort. “I don’t know if there was a way we went about getting that [community value], it just kind of happened,” Ken says.

“You go about your day treating customers the way you want to be treated and the relationship builds over time. I wouldn’t say there was a system in place, like ‘how am I going to develop a relationship today?’ It was just living your life and doing what you like to do. You get to know people. They come to rely on you and trust you, and before long, you have customers who have been coming in for so long they would pop into my office, and we’d chat for a while. They would even forget why they were there, like ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got to go, your guys are working on my car,’” Ken says, laughing.

After 30 years of running Len’s Automotive, Ken began to think about selling. “I was getting to the point where I felt the business was on cruise control,” he says. “And I knew that there was more the business could do, things that we needed to pursue. I just didn’t have the drive, I was getting to the point where I felt that for the overall success of the business, it would need somebody fresh to keep pushing it along, and I wasn’t the one.”

In addition to his own individual burnout, Ken’s father began struggling with some health issues. While Ken loved carrying on his father’s legacy, he wanted to be sure to spend time with him while he was still here. “I realized that I needed to spend more time with family. My mom and dad aren’t going to be here forever, and one of the big things my dad regretted while he was working was not spending enough time with me and my sister. We don’t feel bad about it, but he always regretted missing out on a lot of stuff when we were growing up.”

Ken began looking for brokers and immediately connected with Jeffrey Bryan at IBA. “He had experience in the automotive industry, so he was familiar with how things work,” Ken says. “A lot of my decision-making is done by what my gut tells me, and I had a good feeling about IBA. Jeffrey came across really well and I built a good relationship with him.”

The pair had initially discussed selling the business prior to the pandemic, but by happy accident put the operation on hold right before March 2020. In January 2022 they revisited the idea and were able to get a higher price.

It was important to Ken that he found a buyer who would maintain the relationships with customers and employees the same way he had. Ken wanted to convey the philosophy he and his father had practiced; treating everyone who walked through those doors with the utmost respect. “Outside of showing them the numbers, I really sat down with [potential buyers] and explained to them what I’ve done, how I’ve done it, why I do it the way I do, and telling them I’m looking for a buyer that will continue that,” Ken says.

“It’s very important to me. I don’t want to see the business fail. After 50-some years the last thing I want to see is something go wrong with it. It would actually be quite hurtful for me if somebody was to go in there and start ripping off my customers. So, I wanted to get to know the buyers as much as I could and get a sense of who they are and what their beliefs are.”

In December of 2022, a month before our conversation, Ken sold Len’s Automotive. “I went with my gut feeling and picked the buyer I felt the best about,” Ken says. “It’s been awesome. He’s made very few changes. His goal was really to change nothing, and so he’s kept all the employees. It’s been business as usual.”

Ken stayed on for two weeks to ease the transition and still communicates with the new owner, with frequent phone calls and occasionally stopping by to help out and answer questions. He has since put his skills for systems and processes in place, working a part-time job handling the accounting at a single-family home construction business.

Ken credits his organizational skills to his father, who was always meticulous in his record-keeping. This ability would help Ken throughout his career, and he would recommend it to any small business owner thinking of selling. “The more organized you are, the better it is going to come across when you sell. There were multiple times throughout the selling process when Jeffrey would ask me for some information, and he was always surprised that I could get it to him within a day. It’s because, over the years, my process forced me to be organized,” Ken says.

“As an owner, a lot of the business is in your head, and when you make a sale, it becomes hard for the new owner to step in. Questions are going to come up, but if you have that information in a format where someone can find it, having all those ducks in a row, having the processes in place, it makes it easier for the transition to take place.”

For Ken, running the business in a way that aligned with his and his father’s values had always been of the utmost importance. To be able to do that, and still be profitable, is how he knows he achieved the American Dream. “Doing something the way you want to, that makes you happy, and being able to live your beliefs no matter the line of business, that’s the American Dream. To me, it goes back to having a business based on honesty. It feels good to get up every day and go to work knowing that’s how you’re doing things,” Ken says.

“My dad always said, ‘If you’re honest, you’re going to have more than enough business.’ And over 50 years of living and running the business that way, there’s no question. It’s proved itself multiple times.”

From one generation to the next, Ken and Len Mattson prove that an American business is an honest one.

Nesha Ruther

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.