Mechanic Allen Hartley builds a path to entrepreneurship

Hartley Auto Service opened last November, a small business in Pelham

Allen Hartley in his Pelham shop. Photo by Joe De Sciose.

Following years of working, saving, planning and dreaming, Birmingham native Allen Hartley, 45, opened his own independent auto repair shop, Hartley Auto Service, last November. 

One could say auto repair is in Hartley’s blood. He says his maternal grandfather was a mechanic, and his father, Charles Hartley, at one time ran three full-service Gulf Oil stations in the metro area.

 “I grew up at a gas station. I started pumping full-serve gas when I was around 12 or 13, checking tires and that sort of thing,” he says.

And he still remembers the fun he had riding in the station’s wrecker with his dad, he says.

“At home, with bicycles and skateboards, I was the one everybody came to if they needed something done on their bicycle. So I was lucky that I could tell I was mechanically inclined at a pretty early age,” he says.

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Hartley graduated from Erwin High School in 1996 and immediately entered the workforce.

“I cleaned carpets at one time; I painted at one time; but I always went back to automotive. No matter what I did, I always ended up working on cars,” he says.

Hartley started working full time at his parents’ gas stations, which by then, were under the ownership of British Petroleum (BP).

Though the Hartleys’ gas stations maintained their repair shops, the stations now featured convenience stores, too, so Hartley not only fixed cars, he sometimes worked the cash registers inside. Over time, his parents promoted him to manager for one of the stores.

Hartley’s parents had planned to lease their Homewood store to Hartley and continue operating their Vestavia Hills store to fund their retirement.

“The Vestavia location was an unreal location. They pumped over 100,000 gallons a month, so he was still making a decent living there,” Hartley says.

But the neighborhood around the Homewood store had begun to decline and the elder Hartley expressed his fears that Hartley would have difficulties making a living at that location. Hartley says he took his father’s advice and the family sold the Homewood store instead.

“When he did that, it didn’t close the door. There was still opportunity, but I guess I just made up my mind that I wanted to go and try something else,” Hartley says.

So in 2006, he took a job as a “floater” at Havoline Xpress Lube, working under the supervision of a lead mechanic performing oil changes. Hartley excelled and the company eventually promoted him to lead mechanic.

“When I became the one that ran the mechanical shop, it wasn’t but a couple years and I was like, ‘I can do this on my own.’ That was around 2017-2018,” he says.

So, Hartley made a plan. He accepted a job with Express Oil Change to learn the business side of operating a repair shop.

“I felt like I needed that type of training. I knew how to work on cars, but I needed more training to deal with the customers. When somebody comes in for something or comes back for something, I don’t go and get my boss. I have to handle it.”

Hartley says Express Oil Change and Havoline both held monthly and quarterly clinics to keep their technicians up-to-date on skills such as electrical diagnostics, drive line repair or engine repair.

“I remember when I first started to go to them, and I’d been a mechanic for a while, but it was kind of over my head a little bit. A lot of times I didn’t know a lot of what the guy was talking about. But the longer I went, it started hitting and making sense to me,” he says.

Since then, Hartley says he continues to stay knowledgeable about the latest technologies and takes relevant courses online.

 “Even to this day, as long as I’ve been doing this, I’m learning stuff all the time,” he says.

While at Express Oil Change, Hartley says he saved his money, eventually amassing a nest egg of around $40,000.

“When I felt like I was ahead enough, I went in and thanked everybody for everything they had done for me and turned in my two-week notice.”

That was in September of 2022.

He began the hunt for a shop location. But the search stalled many times, he says. “There was zero inventory. I’m looking every day. In the mornings and afternoon. In the evening before I went to bed, I’m looking online trying to find somewhere.”

Auto repair is a lifelong passion for Hartley. Photo by Joe De Sciose.

Hartley eventually spotted a space once occupied by an auto detailing shop at 2961 Pelham Parkway, Suite 103 in Pelham.

Real estate agent Glenn Ponder, director of sales, leasing and development at NAI Chase Commercial in Hoover, says he advised Hartley on what it would take to meet city and county planning and zoning requirements for the space.

“It helps to have a preliminary discussion with city officials to gain an understanding of what their latest requirements are to gain acceptance into the system,” Ponder says.

 “One seemingly simple change of code or zoning discovered after the fact can end up costing the prospective business thousands of dollars in unexpected construction upgrades prior to obtaining a business license,” he says.

Fortunately, the tasks the city outlined for Hartley to pass inspection proved manageable, Ponder says. 

Hartley opened his auto repair shop on Nov. 14, 2022.

His lease is $1,700 a month, he says. And with having to purchase equipment like a lift and a tire machine balance as well as supplies and his business license, Hartley says that as of March, he had spent around $30,000.

Today, Hartley works on any and all types of vehicles and, because of his lower overhead costs, he can beat dealership service charges, he says.

“I’ve been blessed, and I’ve been able to pay my bills,” he says.

Another advantage is that by being independent, he is — unlike the dealership — able to get to know his repeat customers, he says.

But, Hartley says he is keeping an eye out on the digitization of today’s cars and trucks and the growing electric vehicle market. After all, the U.S. Department of Energy says all-electric vehicles require less scheduled maintenance than gas-powered ones.

“I do have some concerns, but I’m ready to change with the times,” says Hartley. “Things are always changing, and you’ve got to be able to adapt. That just means more training. You’ve got to stay up to date on the technology,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Hartley says he finds satisfaction in doing a good job for his clients. “I just try to treat people like I would my mom or my sister,” Hartley says.

Unfortunately, Hartley Auto Service’s launch came about a year after his father’s death. “But I feel like he can see it,” Hartley says.

“My mom talks about it all the time and says he would be just tickled. He would probably come up here and hang out during the day with me sometimes. I’m sure of it.”

Gail Allyn Short and Joe De Sciose are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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