When you walk into Caro Motorsports, it looks like a big operation. Epoxied floors, wall to wall four wheelers, motorcycles, and dirtbikes with enough jackets, pants, goggles, helmets, and accessories to satisfy any speed junkie. Surrounding the showroom are multiple service garages, complete with a dyno and a machine shop.
So it might seem odd that Full Steam, a business focused on small businesses, would be spotlighting a business like this, because it’s easy to think that because a business starts being successful, it stops being small.
Caro Motorsports is both. Opening in 2011 with only three employees, it’s been able to hire seven more full time employees with additional part-time workers, and undergone five building expansions.
With this kind of successful growth, one might expect our conversation to be about sales, advertising, profit/loss margins and other business-heavy topics.
But for about an hour, Jaclyn, Mary, Phil and Austin talked to me about people and told me stories. These are people who are just as excited about people as they are about engines, and this is a business that’s been able to hold onto its personality and desire to help people as it’s grown.
"Make sure you talk to Austin. He used to be a fur trapper, he’s got state records in archery - he has the best stories.” I take my camera and sneak into the machinist garage, where four or five men are walking around in their Caro Motorsports uniforms with their names embroidered on the front. “Are you Austin?” I ask the guy with “Austin” on his uniform.
I am dumb.
He seem cautious at first and I don’t blame him - having a stranger walk into your work and ask if he can take your picture can be...weird.
I ask him about his fur trapping and he laughs. “I used to get $50 for one raccoon,” he says.
While most high school kids are working in fast food or grocery stores, Austin would set traps and wake up early in the morning, riding around on a moped with a trailer (and no brakes) and check traps. “There were a few times I’d be making around $1000 a month.” As he’s talking, I see his hand are covered in grease. “Can I take a picture of your hands?”
I’m continuing the weirdness.
I ask him to hold them out, I take a shot, and for me, it’s the best picture of the day because this is what running and working in a small business in a small town is about. It’s waking up early, working hard at things other people wouldn’t do, and not being afraid to get your hands dirty.
While I'm hanging out in the shop, I meet a machinist named Phil .
“Hey, Phil, I’m Phil.” I try to open with my best dad jokes.
He says, “Look like we’re going to have our fill of Phils.” This is going to be fun.
During our lengthy, pun-laden back and forth, Phil is putting things into an old toolbox and says, “This was going to get sold in a garage sale. Can you believe that?” The toolbox looks worn but in good condition. It’s metal with a leather handle, and there are numbers scratched into it on the outside with a yellowed calendar from 1930 stuck to the inside of the lid. “This was my grandfather’s. He was a machinist, too.” Phil has only been at Caro Motorsports for about a year and half, but he’s been a machinist with a specialty in crank grinding for over 40 years. With multiple lifetimes of experience under his belt, Phil is the kind of guy people will come from all across the state to see.
It’s one thing to know customers by name, but it’s on a whole other level for customers to seek out a business because of an employee’s reputation.
As he’s closing up the toolbox, I take his picture and I’m thinking about how I walked into a machine shop expecting to talk about, well, machinist things, but ended up talking about fur trapping and an almost-lost-forever heirloom toolbox.
From a customer perspective, we tend to limit employees into the roles they play for us - "She is the person that brings me my food" or "He is the person that sells me my car." But the best businesses are full of real people, and real people are full of stories.
I walk into the storefront, and talk to Jaclyn and Mary, who are in charge of customer service.
"What part of your job do you love?" I ask.
I'm going to be honest here, when I ask people in retail this question, I get nervous because of the answers I can get:
"That's a hard one..." followed by some nervous mumbling until I change the question.
"We get an hour for lunch."
"The weekends?" with a chuckle that's not there to mask the truth, but only make it less uncomfortable.
But I forge ahead and ask Mary anyway.
She says, without missing a beat, "We help make people happy." She explains that the people that come into their store are there because riding a motorcycle on the highway, racing a dirtbike on the weekends, or rolling through the woods on a four-wheeler are the things that make them happy, and so being a good salesperson or machinist helps customers enjoy the things they enjoy the most.
Jaclyn, who is also working behind the counter, is cleaning a helmet and overhears our conversation.
"I would agree," she says, "because these things make us happy, too. Everyone here rides, we're at the same races, we get excited about the same things." She says that everyone in the area who loves motorcyles, motocross, and four-wheelers know each other, that brings them together, and that carries over into the customer experience at Caro Motorsports. "They come in and tell us stories about their rides and we understand because we ride."
"We're a family here. The customers and us," Mary says.
I tell her that's an uncommon description in a workplace, let alone in a retail setting.
When I go in a buy a pair of pants, I give the lady at Kohl's some money, she gives me my pants, we agree that this relationship really isn't going anywhere, and then we part ways.
I think I talked to Jaclyn and Mary for about 45 minutes, and we never broached the topic of profits/losses, gross sales, or advertising.
While those things are necessary to the life of the business, I walked away from the conversation feeling like they were more concerned with creating a place where people could walk in, tell a story, buy something, and walk out happier.