Member Stories: Quality Pre-Owned Auto: Lessons from a small business

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When you think of a used car salesperson, “trustworthy” isn’t always the first term that comes to mind. But Brian Smith, owner of Quality Pre-Owned Auto in St. John’s Newfoundland, can’t help but laugh at the slick salesperson stereotype—trust is exactly what’s kept him in business for the last two decades.

We sat down with Brian for an insider’s look at the pre-owned car industry. Just like his approach to business, Brian was honest and candid in our conversation—on everything from the struggles of starting a business, to real advice on how best to navigate buying a used car.

Q: What made you want to start your own business?

A: I got tired of working for someone else! I was in my late 20s and working a lot of hours at a dealership. I had made and saved good money, so I thought, “It’s time to go out and build something on my own.” I’ve loved cars for as long as I can remember. It felt like a natural step to open my own dealership.

Q: What was the scariest part about striking out on your own?

A: It’s hard to walk away from a steady paycheck and job security. You’re putting everything you’ve saved on the line. But, I always tell people that are thinking about starting up their own business—you’ll never regret betting on yourself. The worst thing that’s going to happen is you’ll fall on your face and go back to where you started. Taking a risk is scary—but I had to find that confidence.

Q: What were those early days of starting a business like? How did you grow your customer base?

A: When I was starting out, I shared expenses with a partner that also had a used car business. It worked well for us and our customers—we shared the lot, but had separate businesses.

My business grew in those early days almost entirely due to word of mouth. I was upfront and honest with every customer from the start. I never made a promise I couldn’t keep. My approach was always about being helpful—asking about a customer’s budget, then making sure they were getting what they wanted. I was also clear about my policies right from the start so there were no surprises. It worked—customers came back again and again, and they send their friends to me, too.

Q: Any tips for someone that’s wanting to start their own business?

Confidence in yourself is important, but in the early days, knowing how to manage your money is the most important thing. If you can’t do that, owning your own company is not for you. When you’re making money, you need to put money away—always have it in your head that there’s going to be slow times. It helps to work with a financial expert you can trust. A lot of people that start off in business have a lack of capital. Banks don’t always want to take a risk—I was lucky because EasternEdge Credit Union was different. If you have a solid business plan, good credit and good equity, they will listen to what you have to say.

Q: How has your business evolved since you started?

A: Two years ago, I changed up my business model. I loved the dealership, but it was also a lot of work. Now that I have a family, I don’t want to hustle to keep the car lot full—I want to make my own schedule. It’s why I decided to focus on wholesale to the US market. I sell pre-owned vehicles through auctions to American buyers. I still get to do what I love, but it’s less overhead and more time at home with my family.

Q: Any advice for someone that’s looking to buy a pre-owned car? What’s one thing every buyer should know.

A: If you’re buying a pre-owned car, no matter what, pay a garage for an independent inspection. Always ask for a vehicle history report. You want to know exactly what you’re getting into.

Stay away from impulse buying, too. It’s so easy to get excited on the lot, but always do your research first and read the fine print. You can’t return a car the next day if you don’t like it. Sleep on the decision and take a bit of extra time to think it through. It can’t hurt!