– Story by Tess van Straaten Photography by Don Denton
Cars have been Kevin Jensen’s passion for almost half a century. He started working in the auto repair industry when he was a 16-year-old high school student in Edmonton, and a job just a few years later in Vancouver would change the trajectory of his life.
“I got a job at Big O Tires in Kitsilano when I was 20. I saw how successful some of the franchise owners were and I realized it was a good opportunity,” recounts Kevin. “I worked there for 10 years, working my way up to manager, and I saved to buy my own location.”
Kevin opened his own Big O Tires franchise in downtown Victoria 27 years ago, after driving around the city scouting for the best spot.
“When I moved here, I didn’t know Victoria at all,” he says. “I literally drove up and down every street looking for a location, and this was the only location that would have worked. It’s a destination [business] and we were looking for a destination area close to where people lived and worked.”
In just three years, Kevin’s burgeoning business would become the most successful Big O Tires franchise in the entire province. It went from zero business to $1 million in revenue in three years—becoming the first outlet in British Columbia to reach the $1-million milestone.
“They gave us our million-dollar rings,” says Kevin, who is the current vice-president of Big O Tires Canada and a past president. “With hard work and perseverance and a little bit of luck and a great location and great landlords, we ended up being the biggest store in our franchise group and we’ve kept that level up until today.”
For Kevin, who’s vigilant about training and quality workmanship, the biggest challenge with running the business—especially in the last few years—has been finding experienced employees.
“We spend a lot of money just making sure we’re fully staffed. Right now, I’d say half the people who used to be open six days a week in automotive are now only open five days a week because they don’t have staff to keep open. There’s a shortage of over 500 Red Seal mechanics in British Columbia right now.”
This past year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been new challenges to overcome—from too much business to too little. Before the pandemic, Kevin’s team was servicing about 40 cars a day. That all but dried up overnight in the early days of the crisis.
“It was probably the only time that I felt helpless and had no control over the future of my business,” Kevin admits. “COVID-19 was an obstacle you can’t really hurdle. If they shut down the whole country, there’s not a lot you can do if people are staying home and not driving to work. We were lucky they designated auto repair as an essential.”
By last June, business was booming again—and revving to record growth for the second half of the year.
“We had six record months of almost double the volume,” says Kevin. “We’ve been doing 60 or 70 cars a day, which is incredible, working six days a week and 12 hours a day. That was the biggest challenge.”
To better meet the demand, Big O Tires is expanding to a Pandora and Quadra location, which will mean six more hoists and an additional 20 parking spaces. The Johnson Street location across the road, which was being used as a mechanical repair facility, is also being expanded and will be used as a speed lane for fast flat repairs and quick winter tire changeovers.
“That will give us three locations within a block downtown,” Kevin explains. “That gives us 15 hoists and parking for almost 50 cars.”
The original Quadra location is also being totally revamped, from the ground up. Kevin says they’re investing “quite a bit of money to bring all the shops to the next level.” It could be seen as a big risk or as finding an opportunity amid a crisis.
“Sometimes you just have to take an opportunity and when it comes to the availability of locations and getting a good deal on a lease rate, the opportunities are better in hard times versus when everything is successful. So if you have a few dollars to expand, it makes sense,” Kevin says. “People have a tendency to buy stocks when they’re going up, but really you should be buying when they’re going down.”
With more and more people living in the downtown core and so many auto repair shops moving out of it, Kevin is also banking on demand continuing to be high in the area with so few competitors.
“In the last 20 years, there are probably at least 50 per cent fewer [repair shops] and the population is growing. We’ll probably be the last in the downtown core within two or three years.”
With many accolades over the years—including several Black Press “Best in the City” awards—and rave reviews, Kevin says his biggest mistake was not buying the property all those years ago when his landlord offered it to him for $380,000.
At the age of 64, Kevin is now getting everything set up to pass the lug wrench to his son, TJ, and manager Tony Tummillo, who came to work for him after they worked together for a decade in Kitsilano.
“We’re just a big family,” Kevin says. “That’s what makes our business—our employees and customers.”
Excited about what this year will bring as he drives change and embarks on expansions, Kevin says the secret to success is pretty simple.
“You can do anything you want to do—you just have to try hard enough and put the time in. It’s just a matter of focus and hard work.”