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Making a Dirty Business Green: Selecta Auto Body

By Barbara Quick | Small Business

Vision, creativity, idealism and courage have characterized the road to success for small business owner J.R. Hubbard of San Francisco. And although his business is an auto body shop, that road has, at every turn, been beautifully green.

Growing up in the business—his father managed the first iteration of Selecta Auto Body—J.R. could clearly see everything he wanted to change. The space he inherited, he told Yahoo, was typical of auto repair shops: dark, dirty, dusty—and toxic. “I wanted to have a place that was so different, in a positive way, that it would stand out and separate itself from every other body shop in San Francisco.”

J.R. managed to do more than that: Selecta became the city’s first eco-friendly auto body shop—as well as the world’s first auto body shop that is a Certified B corporation (in other words, judged by the nonprofit B Lab to meet “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency”).

Just out of college, and a bit at loose ends, J.R. got a job with an indoor plant landscaping firm. The short-term gig turned out to be an inspiration when it came to re-branding the family business to reflect his own values, his love for his wife and children and his sense of wanting to be a responsible citizen of Planet Earth. Indoor plants, he’d learned from working with them, not only transform the aesthetics and physical environment of a workspace, but they also boost oxygen levels and help offset carbon dioxide and chemical air pollutants. Could a huge number of plants, he wondered, make for an auto repair shop that not only doesn’t compromise the health of workers and customers but is also a lovely, pleasant place to be?

“I started researching everything I could about business expansion, city codes, new trends—the works,” said J.R., who has been recognized with a certificate of honor by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. “When I put it all together, it simply made sense to push the envelope and be a green business. Take away the marketing aspect of it, and you still have something that makes good business sense. Mitigation and conservation. Not wasting. Using less. Recycling. All this equals a more profitable business—and, when expanding, every penny counts!”

Listen up, you entrepreneurs out there!

There’s a right and wrong way to do things, insists the man who lives two miles away from his job and bicycles to and from work almost every day. “Could I cheat and flush chemicals down the drain and save some money in recycling? Sure I could. Could I cut corners and pocket a couple of extra bucks on my taxes? Of course. How about when I fix a car, as long as it looks good on the outside—can I skip some stuff internally? Why not? The customer will never know. The problem with all this,” says J.R., “is that I would know—and that’s not cool with me.”

By becoming a Certified B corporation, Selecta’s owner in effect asked to have a light shined on his business practices. “It’s because I sincerely want to do it right. Cutting corners gives you anxiety, and you don’t sleep well, and you’re trying to get what you can until you get caught. What a crappy way to live life!” says the father of two boys, who coaches their baseball team. “I want to do what’s right and brag about it. I want to be a role model for those kids when I say, Work hard and it’ll pay off.

I asked J.R. about the challenges he and his office manager—his wife Jackie—faced in building the hugely expensive, eco-friendly shop. “We applied for and got an SBA loan. I begged, borrowed and stole—and then tapped my credit lines and cards to make this all go.”

Doing things right, as it turns out, has been profitable for Selecta. At their old shop, J.R. told us, they were fixing 30 to 35 cars a month and doing about a million dollars a year in business. The new shop has tripled that, doing about 100 cars a month and three million dollars annually. “It will be years before I’m caught up, though—and even a few more years before I’ll be comfortable. I still owe a lot of money—and that won’t change any time soon.”

Given his emergence from the other end of the tunnel, we asked Selecta’s owner to list his four most important pieces of advice about capitalizing a new or expanded business operation. Here they are:

  • You will always need more money than you think, no matter how good your plan is.
  • Make sure you’re ready for being busy, because it can sneak up fast.
  • Don’t bite the hand that feeds you: Treat the people around you better than you treat yourself.
  • Find peace in something: exercise, hiking, biking fishing—something away from your business that doesn’t cost anything. You’ll be broke for a good long while and you’ll need an outlet.

Did becoming a parent, we wondered, have an impact on J.R.’s vision for the sort of business he wanted to own and run? “My kids and my wife are everything to me,” he told us. “Ask anyone who works for me and they’ll tell you what’s the most important thing in the world to me, and that’s my family.” He wanted to have a shop where his two sons could walk around—and his wife could work—and he and they as well as his customers and employees would all be safe.

Are these aspirations reflected in the logo for Selecta Auto Body, which bears a bit of resemblance to Superman’s shield? “The shield and logo are a good story and go with the green values of the business. We took the frame of an old neon sign that was on the building. A good friend and designer came up with the logo to fit in the existing sign. We’ve carried that shape throughout the shop with other signs as well.” It’s even reflected in the way the shop’s 350 indoor plants are pruned. “The shield is actually shaped a little bit like a heart with wings.”

J.R. has taught everyone who works in his shop to fix each car “in just the way you would want someone to fix your mom’s car, if you weren’t there to do it for her.” Hence the heart. He says he’s lucky to have a staff that has taken these values—well, to heart.

“You’re right,” he told us. “You do need super-human powers to navigate being a small business owner, especially in San Francisco—and especially in this industry! It sucks and it’s hard and that’s what it is.”

Conceding that he might well have had an easier time in other cities, building or renovating a new shop, J.R. insists that having his business in San Francisco’s highly regulated environment is well worth the trouble. He doesn’t begrudge the long hours he works, trying to make everyone happy—insurance companies, customers and employees.

He also works hard at being a good dad. “I wish my logo did give me super powers!”

We asked J.R. for his best nugget of advice for other business owners who want to become a Certified B corporation. “Hire a consultant to help you with the process! It will save you a ton of time and stress and they will help you highlight the pluses of your business and also help you change, if need be, your negatives.

“Becoming a B-Corp was huge for us. What having a LEED certified building is for a structure, being a B Corp is for your business. We wanted to make a statement that we’re different—and part of that is being a business that looks out for people. Employees, neighbors, schools, whatever.

“Anyway,” adds J.R., “What if my boys run this place some day? I want to set the tone for them with how they approach life. Don’t just do something. Do it in glorious fashion with a sense of worth, a pride that means so much to you that others will follow. Believe in your dreams and go for them at all costs. If my shop fails, that would be awful. But I went for my dreams and I hope the boys do the same.”

We asked Selecta’s owner about how important is it, in his opinion, for a boss to really care. What does it do to the soul of a business if he or she doesn’t care? “There are too many bad bosses out there,” he told us. “I value the fact that I need these people to help my dreams come true. I need them to be sincere and work as hard as they can for a goal that’s mine. As an employer, I can’t take that for granted, ever. The second you stop loving and looking out for the people who take care of you, that’s when all bets are off We have a symbiotic relationship—and I will always make sure I do my part, and gratefully so. As for the bosses out there that take advantage of people, steal and cheat—well, karma’s a bitch!”

So how, we wondered, does J.R. Hubbard measure success, with so many variables to consider in addition to the bottom line? He paused before answering. “Success for me comes in stages. First it was finding a place to move my shop…check. Then I need to build a beautiful shop…check. Now I need to open and start fixing cars…check. Now let’s refine our processes…working on that. Then will come making money and the rest. Success for me will hopefully come with a vacation, because I’ve been going at this for few years without a break and I’m tired! True success for me will be when everyone is working, getting paid (including me) and the business is just going.”

He paused again. “Right now it’s a bit like a wheel with 16 sides. It started like a square—and rolling a square stinks. You work at it and get it to 8 sides and it rolls better but still is hard. Then 16 sides and now it’s able to roll but it’s not perfect.”

Yahoo took a moment to appreciate the green landscape and the shop’s red and white décor, which made us think for a moment that we were visiting one of San Francisco’s high-tech firms rather than an auto body repair shop in Bernal Heights. “We’ll get there,” J.R. told us, still riffing on the wheel metaphor. “We have financial goals and production goals, but for me, I just want it to roll and I’ll be happy.”

 

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