This is copied from an article in the DES MOINES REGISTER
dated Monday, January 26, 1987
Aikin trades banking for school-bus mufflers
By Julia Johnston
Terry Aikin shed his white shirt and tie four years ago to crawl under school busses.
Aikin resigned as a vice president of American Federal Savings and Loan in 1983 and purchased AUTO-JET Muffler Corp., which is the single company in the United States that manufactures only school bus exhaust systems, he says. The configuration of a school bus exhaust system is highly specialized and unlike other vehicles, so that just any muffler shop won't have them, says Aikin.
He purchased the business from Jack Riley, who had started it in 1959. Aikin recalls, "That was a sad story. He was 81 when he sold it to me. He and his wife had run it all those years. He was getting feeble. I'd wanted to buy it for years, since Jack had first mentioned wanting to retire. I had called him every month for three years to see if he would sell. One day he called me. Within 6 months of my purchase, he and his wife passed away. It had kept them going.
"He's Under a Bus"
Since then, Aikin has been fascinated by school bus exhaust systems. Mary Kay Rhodes tells about the time she went with the Aikins to parents' night at summer camp: "We walked across the parking lot and I noticed Terry was missing. I looked around for him and Virginia (Aikin) said, 'Oh, he's under a bus. Every time he sees a school bus he climbs under to look at the muffler.' There was a parked bus in the lot and Terry was - under the bus."
Aikin's business philosophy is to stay small, have quality people and provide them work. "Employees make the business, so recruit and maintain the best available. I can leave AUTO-JET anytime. Everyone does their job and I'm not missed, except Friday to sign paychecks."
Under Aikin's leadership, AUTO-JET's sales have tripled, with a 41 percent increase this year. He hopes he says to match that this year. Aikin and his three sales people "cover 40 states pretty strong and ship to 48 states," all through telephone sales. "But I have no desire to have three times as many employees. We're not going to be a General Motors (Corp). we want to build quality parts and charge for them," he says.
According to a recent industry trade magazine, there are 352,000 school busses in the United States and 7,091 in Iowa. Gasoline-powered busses need a new muffler every 2 years and diesel-powered busses every four to five years, says Aikin.
AUTO-JET has expanded its product line by manufacturing its own parts and now has 12,000 square feet, about five times the original floor space. In 1985 the company moved from Valley Junction in West Des Moines to its present location at 9550 Swanson Blvd. In Clive. In six months, Aikin added to the building and is about to do so again.
Aikin's success came after some poor times. After graduating from Northwest Missouri State University in 1968, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Germany. When he cam home he started looking for a job with about $2 in his pocket. He remembers: "My only shoes - Army shoes - had holes in them. I remember burning my feet through my socks when I walked up the stairs of the Bankers Life Building..
'I was standing in a parking lot of what's now the Ruan Center and saw a bank across the street - Home Federal (now American Federal). I walked in and they must have had a soft spot for a down-and-out military veteran." Aikin worked at the bank for 13 years, finishing as a vice president.
Aikin says going from working with paper and people to dealing with manufactured goods is a big change. He misses working with other people and specialists to help with problems. But he doesn't miss the boards, committees and management groups. "I enjoy controlling the whole picture. If you want to try something, put your money where your mouth is and go for it," he says.
For him, that includes developing and marketing a new product called a pipe shaper. When steel tubing arrives with the ends " dinged out of shape," insert the pipe shaper into the end of the tube, pound, and the tube opening is re-shaped to a perfect circle. The tool is related to the exhaust business and, Aikin says, every garage and school bus station should have one.
"100 Ways to Go Broke"
When he took over AUTO-JET, Aikin says at first he was losing money and didn't know it. " There's 100 ways to go broke. I found out when I was using my own money and there were more bills than money. Now I know in my mind what it takes" to make a profit.
Aikin advises people thinking about buying a business to choose one that can make a profit. "So many people choose one that no matter how hard they work, the profit and the ability to stay in business is beyond their control, such as small auto dealerships or grain farming.
Then, hire professionals like accountants, lawyers and perhaps consultants, no matter how costly, says Aikin. Also, listen to people and learn. " With your own business you tend to be isolated. Salespeople are always welcome here. I've gotten good ideas from them and they've made me a lot of money."
Aikin, who just finished a term as president of the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, says he would not go back to a three-piece suit job despite his 60- to 70-hour work weeks. " There's not a five-minute span in any day that I'm not thinking about AUTO-JET and products. But I enjoy it. There's nothing more exiting than producing a product and having a satisfied customer."