Mike Cowans is on a roll that started almost 20 years ago with an auto body vocational course and has accelerated to dizzying speeds in the last couple of years.
Cowans owns Big Mike’s Automotive and Collision on Norton Avenue in Barberton, where he’s leading an expansion from one building to three at the former Wallace Lincoln Mercury dealership.
His business has more than tripled its revenues — from around $500,000 in 2018 to $1.9 million in 2020. Along the way, Big Mike’s has expanded beyond body and paint work to include mechanical services.
Cowans is confident more growth is on the way. In a few years, he said, Big Mike’s probably will have to open another location to keep up with new business. The growth, he said, has come at the most challenging time imaginable.
“COVID has been the biggest obstacle we could face and, in the midst of it, we’re expanding,” Cowans, 35, said Tuesday.
His business is currently under one roof at the old dealership. That’s not enough space — not even close.
By late summer, Big Mike’s body shop operations will move to an 18,000-square-foot warehouse to accommodate business from insurance companies. The building has been vacant for years.
“We are going to bring it back to life,” he said.
Another building will handle detailing and the third, vehicle mechanics.
Cowans’ business started small, with car renovations in a garage. It was the start of a lifelong pursuit.
“This vision started when I was 15, 16 years old,” he said.
He took the auto body vocational route at Garfield High School in Akron. A teacher helped him get a job at a local dealership, where he learned auto detailing and some primer work.
“I loved it,” Cowans said. “As an inner-city kid, you have many directions you could go. For me, this changed my life … it was all about cars at that point.”
What started with body work in a garage expanded to his first location in 2006, a small operation in Akron. At the time, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service, driving a tractor-trailer.
In his spare time, he and two employees worked on the vehicles, building a reputation for quality work. The location in Akron eventually couldn’t contain the growth.
About six years ago, Cowans said, Big Mike’s got its first insurance job, and that started a period of furious expansion. It jump-started his business to new levels and has grown to become the bulk of Big Mike’s collision work, now making up 75% of it.
“The insurance company inspected the job and said, ‘You should form an LLC [limited liability company],’ ” he said.
He did, in 2017, and started advertising and promoting the company on social media.
“We didn’t expect it would take off as fast as it has,” he said.
The company has also landed Amazon as a major customer, repairing damaged company-owned vehicles from its new Akron location at the former Rolling Acres Mall site.
At one point, Big Mike’s worked on a Lamborghini Murciélago that had a scratch down the side. Only 4,099 Murciélago were built in nine years of production.
Cowans, said social media and community involvement are key aspects of his business that have created awareness of the Big Mike’s brand. They’re also a fun part of the operation, he said.
“I feel like aside from the quality of our work, it’s the most important part,” he said.
Every year, Cowans and his 22 employees host events for Christmas and Thanksgiving. The Meet Santa Claus event drew more than 200 children last year, and the Halloween Haunted House scared about 150 families.
There are Friday golf putting events at work, too, with Cowans and employees squaring off for bragging rights.
Another community event, the company’s biggest, is held in August for children 5 to 13, pitting teams against each other in sports and games. Last year, the event drew about 350 children.
“It’s a way for us to get kids together, to let them know there are other avenues,” he said.
Cowans said his business has grown; his role has evolved from an owner who performed hands-on work every day to an owner managing a booming business that he hopes to franchise one day.
“The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in this business is finding the right people for the right job,” he said. “…Everything used to bottleneck through me.”
With Big Mike’s current and future expansion, he knew that was an unsustainable work model. The stress was too much for the long run – especially with his 10-year plan.
Within a decade, he wants to have another two locations as large or larger than the Barberton site, with at least 100 employees. He hopes to still have the time to roll up his sleeves when he wants to try his hand at the work that got him started.
“Hopefully, I can still get boots on the ground,” he said.
He’s also added golf to his activities — work and golf.
But it’s the business that still drives him, and he doesn’t anticipate ever letting go of the wheel.
“This is my baby,” he said. “This is my child, and you don’t let anybody take your child.”
Leave a message for Alan Ashworth at 330-996-3859 or email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.
At a glance
Name: Big Mike’s Automotive and Collision.
Owner: Mike Cowans
Address: 571 Norton Ave., Barberton
Email: [email protected]
About the series
Throughout the month of February, the Beacon Journal is profiling Black-owned businesses in Summit County. Read more of these profiles at https://bit.ly/3jb0h1e. The Beacon Journal will continue to highlight minority-owned businesses as part of its ongoing regular coverage.
Have a suggestion for a business to feature? Email us at [email protected]