Tracy Cotten, owner of Mick’s Automotive, spoke with Lookout about how he acquired the Live Oak vehicle repair shop, starting a green auto shop and the future of the auto mechanic industry.
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Tracy Cotten is the owner of Mick’s Automotive, one of the first green automotive shops in Santa Cruz County. In his early 20s, Cotten went to Northern Arizona University to pursue a mechanical engineering degree but realized that a four-year university wasn’t necessarily his path. Married at the time he left university, Cotten had a love for cars and prior experience in tire shops and gas stations. That led him in 1990 to go to a two-year technical school, where he got his associate degree in automotive science. While in school, Cotten received a scholarship from Toyota. He worked for the automaker for six years.
Cotten grew up in Southern California but thought “moving would bring about that change.” While on vacation, Cotten stopped to visit a friend and his current shop foreman in Santa Cruz. Still on vacation, he submitted his résumé to four Toyota dealerships and received two job offers. That gave him an excuse to leave Los Angeles.
While working for Salinas Toyota, Cotten met Mick Weathers, and when Weathers left, he offered Cotten a job at his auto shop. But shortly after Cotten began working there, Weathers filed for bankruptcy. Using money he had saved up to buy a car, Cotten purchased the business in 1998 and has been running it ever since.
With the advent of self-driving cars, electric and hybrid vehicles, Cotten says the auto repair trade has had to evolve away from primarily working on the mechanical aspects of vehicles to focusing more on the technical aspects. And yet, he says, the industry has “done a horrible job of recruiting new technicians’’ to maintain these vehicles’ complex systems. As cars become more advanced, Cotten says independent shops are closely watching the industry out of concern that automakers could push to restrict who can work on electric and self-driving vehicles to their own dealer networks.
When Cotten isn’t working, he spends his time volunteering with the Rotary Club. Cotten is a member of the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship and also helped to build the U-Con trail that connects Pogonip and Highway 9. Cotten also mountain bikes, hikes, travels and enjoys taking in a Santa Cruz Warriors game.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
- Citrus College: associate degree in automotive sciences
Lookout: Can you expand on how you got involved with Mick’s Automotive?
Tracy Cotten: Mick Weathers was the parts and service director at Toyota Santa Cruz. They let him go and he went and started his own business. During the time he was running this business he started doing consultations for other dealerships. He went to work for the dealership that I worked for, Salinas Toyota. When he left, he said, “Hey, if you’re ever interested, let me know.” I came and interviewed with him. I’d had the experience I needed at that stage and I wanted out of the dealership. I took the job with him and roughly just under a year, he declared bankruptcy. I bought the business from the bankruptcy court and then I just dropped his name and started as Mick’s Automotive. He was one of these old-time Santa Cruz people [who] lived here for a long time, so he was very well-known by the locals.
A bankrupt business is not worth nearly as much [as a going concern]. I had money saved to buy a car and instead of buying a car, I bought a business. When I started it up, I didn’t have any loans. So I just had to make money to pay all the bills.
Lookout: What does a typical day look like for you as an owner?
Cotten: There isn’t. Yesterday, I came in, got some paperwork done, went over my marketing with my one guy who does my website.
I spent 20 minutes talking with him to make sure it’s headed in the right direction, and worked on some procedures a little bit. Then we had our lunch meeting [that] we have [on] Monday. We buy lunch for everybody at the shop and talk about things. Then I left early because I could and my stuff was done. But then today, I’m dressed in my mechanic’s uniform because we’re busy and I’m taking the overflow [and] I’m doing servicing. [Days like those] I do very little paperwork because I am going to service cars.
There is no typical day. I’d say most owners of businesses don’t have a typical day. The hats are constantly switching. I’ve got seven people [in] total with me. We’ve got three mechanics, a shop foreman, service manager and my service consultant, Savannah. One hat can be doing the typical paperwork that come[s] with the job: advertising, bills, payroll and stuff like that. You’re dealing with the insurance agent to make sure you’re properly insured. Then the next day I could be dealing with employees. Then I might do a quick thing on a car or help a mechanic out. We’ve got to take a car on a long test drive, I’ll go do that. It varies day to day and I do what the business dictates to keep a profitable business.
Lookout: Why did you decide to become one of the only green auto shops in Santa Cruz?
Cotten: It was easy, being a mountain [biker], hiking and I stream-fish. You know, the San Lorenzo River, I won’t eat anything out there. So I want to keep stuff as pristine as possible. At that time [I started the business] I didn’t have a kid, but I do now. You want to keep [the environment] for future generations. It was easy for me when I looked up the requirements [to be green]. I was doing 90% of it and when [the California Green Business Network] came and did the [license] inspection, she said I took the least amount of time of any business that they’d done to date. At that time there [were] only 200 or 300 total green businesses in Monterey Bay, now it’s probably 1,000 to 2,000. I get recertified every two or three years, they call me and go, “Hey, we [got to] do your certification,” or a lot of times they just drop in out of the blue.
Lookout: What’s the process of becoming a green auto shop?
Cotten: I can tell you what it is to keep it. The process to become [one] now, I couldn’t tell you. For somebody that’s green, [you’re] making sure you use recycled paper, recycling your paper and not wasting paper. [The] soaps and solvents [we’re] using [are] green, [it’s] not just your hand soaps. LED lighting. Reducing your footprint as much as possible. Helping employees if they can carpool, although that’s not feasible for us [because] all my employees are scattered.
Lookout: What do you love most about your job?
Cotten: There’s a lot, but being a business owner doesn’t mean you get to do it. I love dealing with customers, but that is now Savannah’s job. I love working on cars, but if I’m working on cars all the time, I can’t be running the business. What it does now is the freedom it gives me. I’ve got an 11-year-old with special needs. We’re lucky that she’s high-functioning. So [I’ll] grab her from school, [I’ll] go do something with her. We might go grab [an] early dinner [or] might go for a hike. I’ve become a Rotarian, [and now] I’m able to slowly but surely invest more of my time into Rotary.
Lookout: What do you find your biggest challenges are?
Cotten: My management skills. I think I’m just an OK manager. It’s difficult skills to pick up especially [because] I don’t like being mean. So that’s my biggest challenge, is improving my management skills.
Lookout: What is something that most people misunderstand about your job?
Cotten: [In regards to mechanics] I think a lot of people think it’s a lot easier than perceived. It takes a highly intelligent person to be able to diagnose a modern computer-controlled hybrid, electric or gas-powered vehicle. It’s because [my generation used] to be the last generation of “Hey, what are you doing with your life? Oh, nothing? Become a mechanic.” There’s still that perception out there that anybody can become a mechanic. When I was working on cars, my shop foreman [and now] my technicians have as much education into their field after graduating, if not more, than a doctor or nurse does. [But] that’s just our shop; I require 16 hours every quarter and a lot of times they’re doing an hour seminar [here or an] hour seminar there type thing. So they’re probably doing 80 to 120 hours a year, on a real good year, 120 hours.
Lookout: Do you take people in for internships?
Cotten: I don’t. I wish I could. I’m actually contemplating it right now. I really, really wish I could, I’ve just got a very limiting area where I work. [But] how that works is just like any other internship. [It’s] getting your foot in the door to start learning how the business works. Nowadays the shops that are doing it right, [interns will] follow a master tech around for a couple weeks before they even put a wrench on a car, to see how they’re working on a car. They’ll teach them how to rack a car, how to test-drive, how to listen while you test-drive a car. Then they start them off on the basics: This is what you do when you get a car.
Lookout: What’s the process of becoming a mechanic?
Cotten: In California, you do not need to be certified to work on a car. You need to be certified to do your smog inspection. [For] taxis [and] limousines, [they] need to have a certified brake and lamp inspection done every two or three years, [and] that has to be certified. When I do interviews, I’m going to ask, “Do you have your ASE [Automotive Service Excellence] certification?” The ASE just tells me someone knows how to take a test, but they’re also interested in getting certifications. I’m going to ask about their ongoing education. I’m going to want to see proof because when I go to seminars they give out certificates.
Lookout: What type of person is best suited for this type of job?
Cotten: On the business part, somebody that can learn to accept that they are going [to] make, learn and grow from their mistakes. Somebody that can learn [and] knows that they have to listen to other people. Someone who wants to be educated and is passionate about becoming educated. Some stuff I heard 20 years ago, I am just now implementing. It would be awesome if [you] go and listen to something and implement 100% of what you [learned]. In the beginning, it’s your passion that is going to drive you through a lot of the hard knocks.
Somebody [wanting] to be a mechanic or a technician has to like to get dirty. Working on cars is dirty. Somebody that likes to figure out puzzles but likes to diagnose, be a detective because working on cars is kind of like being a detective. You’ve got to get your information, clues and facts and run with that. The other thing, the mentality of “hey, I’m going to do wrong, but I’m going to learn from my mistakes.” Cars are one of the most technologically advanced items people deal with on a daily basis, and they’re ever-changing. Learning to adapt to this field, as the field changes.
Lookout: How much can someone expected to get paid?
Cotten: On the owner part, it really depends on how they structure their business and whether they run one, two or three [businesses]. There are some owners out there that only make $40,000 to $50,00 a year in true income. You can make well over $100,000 if done right, [maybe] $200,000 , $300,000 or $500,000 depending on [how many shops or] how many technicians. Auto technicians start off probably around $25 an hour and then [it] really goes up from there. A master technician that is good at this job that has seven, eight years plus experience can make upwards of $50, $60 an hour. What a lot of technicians don’t know, or a lot of people in the state of California, [is that for] any job that you have to provide tools for, minimum wage is double. If a technician works for a job and [is] having to provide their tools, they’re supposed to be $30 an hour.
Lookout: Where do you see your industry headed and what kind of jobs might be needed in the future, or disappear as time goes on?
Cotten: The automotive industry has done a horrible job of recruiting new technicians to the field, all around just horrible. Not just horrible in just getting minorities, and women, they’re bad across the field. There’s a big lack of technicians out there. So if somebody becomes very good then they can start demanding a certain amount of pay because it’s hard to find top-notch technicians.
What’s disappearing is more the mechanical part, we’re becoming less mechanics and more technicians. Mechanics pull things apart, put them back together [and] technicians figure out why you need to. The mechanical part is [not] going away because electric cars still have the same suspension, same steering, same door panel. Electric cars wear out control arms fourfold over gas-powered cars. So there is still that mechanical part, but it’s less and less. Electric cars need a lot less maintenance than gas cars, [but] they still need it [and] they still need inspections. All cars need to be inspected. Cars are going to need less and less work as they go more electric, but there’s still going to be a need for them.
What the scare out there is, is self-driving cars. [A] government [mandate on] who can and cannot work on those cars. When you mandate something, then the cost really goes up because less and less people can work on them, so we can charge more. Our industry’s working on not letting that happen, but we’re not organized as a whole because the dealers look at it differently than the independents do. If Ford makes it, then Ford’s going to be able to work on it. But what independent is going to be able to work on it? [Dealers] are going to have their [mechanics and technicians] that are [going] to automatically be certified to work on it. If you only have dealers working on the cars, then your competition goes away and the prices go through the roof.
Lookout: What advice would you give to a new graduate, or someone wanting to switch careers?
Cotten: So [as a] small business owner, [it] is getting a job in the field that you want to start running a business. Try to become a manager if you can, to see if you can cope with what running or managing a business entails. One of my biggest benefits ever is getting into an automotive business group. They used to call them 2020 groups, you get 20 different individuals from 20 different sectors and they have little pow-wows. Mine is automotive-specific. Trying to get into a business group to get advice and learn what these people are going through. Take business-management classes. You go to school to get a business degree and it doesn’t teach you how to run a business, per se. But nowadays, information is so easy to get, you can take online business classes on how to run a business.