Chicago-area resident Brian Moak is working to change the perception that the car-service industry and LGBTQ individuals do not mix.
A year ago, he rebranded Duxler Complete Auto Care, the company he bought from his father, and renamed it HEART Certified Auto Care, with the aims of promoting tolerance, respect and diversity as well as creating a comfortable, accepting environment for both his employees and customers.
"The real message is that everyone is celebrated here," Moak told Windy City Times. "When we named the company 'HEART,' it's because we are a heart-led company," he said, adding that HEART is an acronym for 'Helping Everyone Achieve Reliable Transportation.'"
In addition to the company's values, HEART's business model is also transparency-driven, Moak said: Mechanics take photos of what they're working on and provide easy-to-understand explanations to customers. HEART also has a fleet of 23 loaner vehicles, a shuttle service for pickups and drop-offs within 10 miles, and a two-year warranty on repairs.
"Most people don't understand what's wrong with their car; most people are not mechanics. They are buying your word, your reputation, they're buying your level of service. But really, they're buying you. That's a huge level of vulnerability," Moak said.
With three locations in Evanston, Wilmette and Northbrook, Moak said he wants to take his vision nationwide and expand to 100 or more franchise locations in 10 years.
"The biggest challenge is getting the brand going," he said. "The good news is our foundation is exceptional and we're stronger than we've ever been, so we're primed and ready to do this."
Moak said his company is in a unique position to do this: HEART has over 15,000 active customers, a "99 percent approval rating and 94 percent customer retention rate," along with an average employee tenure of 13 years.
"There are other brands that have been out there for a long time—and I'm not using hyperbole, but none of which have individual store performance at the level we have," Moak said, adding the typical customer retention rate in the car care industry is only 40 percent.
With these numbers in mind, Moak has high standards for franchisees.
"I'm looking for someone who's very driven, who has an incredible sense of empathy, high values, a strong work ethic, creativity."
Despite his ambitious plans and unique values, this is nothing new for the family; Moak bought the company from his father in 2009, and those values were present even before he took over.
"I'm grateful for the foundation [my father] taught me and the things I learned from him, and that plays a huge role in taking what I wanted to create to the next level," Moak said.
For Moak, the next level meant being one of the few LGBT-owned car care shops around.
"My friends' impressions is that if you're gay, it's just as hard or it could be even harder [than for women], because if you're a more effeminate man …you have someone who's talking down to you, with a little bit of disrespect, sarcasm, passive aggressiveness and maybe even patronizing youthat happens all the time."
He added: "If you feel intimidated to get your car repaired, imagine what it would feel like to go to work every day in that environment."
Brian came out at 21, while he was a junior in college.
"My dad had a company meeting while I wasn't there and flat out said, 'My son came out of the closethe's gay. The gay jokes have to stop while he's around,'" Moak said.
A year later, Moak graduated and returned to Duxler as a salesperson.
"The environment hadn't changed that much. That made me work harder and smarter, it made me work more hours than anyone else, it made me work to prove that I was as capable or better than anyone, regardless of the fact that I was gay," Moak said.
He purposefully won people over, one at a time, on both a personal and professional level.
"When you grow up closeted, you learn to be a chameleon. You learn how to pull different dimensions of your personality out in different situations to excel in that environment," Moak said.
By the time he was 27, he was general manager of one of the stores and bought the company from his fathersomething that wasn't supposed to happen until he was 40.
"I personally have two customers: the one who comes in the front door as my consumer, and the one who checks in through the back door, at the time clock," Moak said. "They both have to buy what I'm selling, and I have to give both of them the best possible experience anywhere."