Finding the American Dream

American Dream

Keith Matus started doing body shop work to pay for his education in geology and chemistry in the early 1980s. He didn’t know then that it would be his side job, not his schooling, that would lead him to success in finding the American Dream.

Today, Keith owns Keno’s Collisiontek, a premier auto repair shop in Kenosha, Wis., a Direct Repair Partner and an ERIE business insurance customer with Sparks Insurance. He built the business over the past 30+ years starting with a freelance gig in a closed up junk yard and growing to a full garage with 12 employees. He owns four properties personally—the most recent purchase a property in Florida—and doesn’t owe the bank a dime.

“All around, I feel successful,” he says.

But like most success stories, that success didn’t happen overnight. It meant working hard during whatever hours the jobs required. Sometimes it meant taking a risk, like taking out a loan to grow to the next level. And sometimes it meant putting himself last on payroll.

“Cash flow was rough in the beginning,” he remembers, “but labor costs were also less expensive back then. I never had to borrow money to make payroll. But you sometimes come in last when you’re looking to pay your people.”

So how’d he do it?

He Grew it Slowly
Keith had $800 and only a handful of customers to start his business in 1983. For the first six months, he paid $300 for rent and $500 for parts and worked with just a wood burner for heat.

After that, he’d made enough that he could move into a small shop in town, and within a year, he hired an employee. Keith was at that small shop for about three years before buying a larger property.

“At that point, I was either going to get into it 100 percent or I was going to walk away,” he said.

Customer confidence was low in small shops; he’d have to be bigger to stay in business. Rather than give up, he bought the larger shop known as Keno Body & Paint, Inc. and hired four more employees. He put 10 percent down to buy the property and covered the rest with a loan from the Small Business Association, which he paid off within eight years.

After 10 years there, Keith bought a dealership that had gone out of business and rehabbed the building to the garage he’s in today—Keno’s Collisiontek. Additionally, he expanded into a second venture, Keno Lube & Alignment, to help get customers vehicles back to them in a timely manner.

He Planned Ahead
“I had the mindset that I always wanted to pay Uncle Sam and always wanted to pay the bank,” he explains.

While taxes and benefits for employees can be steep, Keith always made sure to have a reserve that covered those expenses while still growing the business.

“Taxes are a fact of life,” he says. “You just have to deal with it. It’s inevitable that they’re going to go up and it’s a matter of being prepared for it.”

Keith also paid off any debt as quickly possible. He adds, “You never want to get behind on your payments. That will kill a business quickly.”

He Did it His Way
I was shocked when Keith casually mentioned that he only has one hand. When he was 15, he lost his left hand when a model rocket blew up instead of taking off. But it’s the last thing he talks about when it comes to his business and being successful.

“I’m not considered disabled by the state, and I’ve never applied for grants or anything like that,” he says. “I realized that things were stacked against me, especially when jobs in geology and chemistry were nowhere to be found. But if you put your mind to something, you can do it. Take the challenge and make it a game.”

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