Joe Sessel and Konr Williams co-own The Car Lounge, a Topeka business more than two years old that has taken on an unusual tagline.
“Our agreed marketing was to be the best car shop that no one had ever heard of,” Sessel said.
“And it’s worked,” Williams added.
The two men laugh and interrupt each other’s sentences, their relationship clearly comfortable and easy. They met when Williams showed up to rent one of the homes that Sessel owns as part of his real estate investment business.
“One day he was over fixing something that was broken at the house. I was in the garage,” Williams said. “We hadn’t even moved in yet, there was nothing in the house. But I had moved my car into the garage. I was pulling the engine on my Firebird getting ready to replace it, and Joe walked in and asked what I was doing. I kind of explained it to him, and he mentioned that he always wanted to open a car shop.”
The idea laid quietly with the two for a couple of years. Williams was just 21 at the time — he’s 24 now — and Sessel joked that he normally would be concerned about renting a house to someone that age. But he not only rented a house with him, in 2015, they went into business together.
“As soon as I met him, I was like, man, I have got to get this guy into a business,” Sessel said. “He is motivated and talented.”
Williams lays claim to being the “real car guy” in the business, but he’s teaching Sessel, who works at Goodyear and running his real estate business, all about cars.
As part of his side business looking at area properties, Sessel stumbled across the 1901 S. Kansas Ave. location where the Car Lounge is located.
“The guy who owned this property put it on the market. I had just happened to be in a good place financially, so I called Konr and I said, ‘Want to start a car business?’”
Williams took over the story. “I was sitting at work when he called me. I used to be an IT guy. I did network administration and server programming. I hated that world. I made good money, but I hated that world. I didn’t like sitting at a desk eight hours a day. It was a great job. I loved the company I worked for but it wasn’t me.”
They both kept full-time jobs — Sessel still has his — when they opened up as a car repair shop with 5 to 9 p.m. hours.
Sessel was active in the few months as they renovated the garage, which had been a paint and body shop and sported thick paint spray over every surface. They installed two car lifts in the four-bay garage and went to work.
“At the ripe old age of 23, Konr retired from full-time IT work,” Sessel said, “and opened his own business. Which is like a 100 percent success story if it stops there.”
Like Sessel, who wants to shape all of his businesses by offering people exceptional value and building relationships, Williams was determined to make his shops different than others.
“When I got into this with Joe, my big thing was I wanted to change the way shops operate and dealerships operate,” he said. “For lack of a better term, I hate dealing with those people who are very pushy and they’re only in it for a buck. I saw that as wrong in my mind. Personally, I’d take my car to go get it fixed if I didn’t have time to do it myself, and they’d tell me the price and I couldn’t do it. I would just leave and wait to fix it myself.”
Williams said that most shops have a “flat rate,” which means there’s an estimate in a book about how long it takes to do a particular project.
“The book says it’s going to take six hours; if it only takes you two hours to finish, they’re still going to get paid for the six hours,” he said.
But at The Car Lounge, the prices are based primarily on the actual work time. It was a gamble, and Williams said he worried that he wouldn’t make enough to keep the shop afloat.
“There is a downside to that for us and we lose some money because of it, but at the same time, we grow our customer base because they see the value in our work,” he said.
For at least a year after he quit IT to work full-time in the shop, Williams ran the store alone, often working 100 hours a week. The business was at that tipping point — crazy busy but not making quite enough to add employees.
Then finally, Williams knew it was time to do something. He recruited John Husman, who used to work at a local auto parts store. In fact, Husman had been Williams’ boss when he was a teenager working in that chain auto store.
Now, Husman works as the other main mechanic in the shop.
Just recently, they added Matt Murphy, a recent graduate from the McPherson College automotive restoration school, and a lifelong friend of Williams. Murphy, who would like to do automotive restoration work full time but didn’t want to relocate to the coasts, where most of those jobs were, was attracted by the possibility of building a Midwest business. While he does restoration, he’s also doing collision paint and body work for the business as that grows. The business has grown through word of mouth, and they’re booked two to three weeks out, Williams said. Other than a Facebook page, which sports all five-star ratings, they don’t advertise.
They’ve built a team, and it was important to Sessel and Williams that they bring the right people on board, who would align with their philosophy of business.
“Me and Konr aligned very quickly right at the beginning on the way we wanted to be, as in not the go for the quick buck and maximize profit, but instead to make this a business that took care of people and that would be a long-term growth strategy that would win and make us feel good about it,” Sessel said.
The store also has dealt with a serious crime problem. They’ve had two cars stolen, one from in front where they sell vehicles and another from their fenced back lot. Numerous times they’ve had batteries stolen, which can be sold for scrap for about $5. That ticks all four men off because the thieves typically cut the battery wires instead of unhooking them, making it difficult to fix.
They’ve put up floodlights and security cameras, but stopping the thieves has been frustrating.
But despite the difficulties, Williams clearly loves what he’s doing.
“Just the day to day working with these people and getting to do what I love everyday,” he said of what he enjoys. “I love working on cars, and if I wasn’t doing this I would be at my house working on my own cars or somebody else’s cars.”