Neighborhood mechanic wants to keep his Detroit community running

Phillip Knight started working on cars at the age of 13, and his father said he had a gift. 

“I remember him saying ‘you just walked up and touched my car, and it started working again’,” Knight recalls. 

As a young, Black teenager in 1990s Detroit, though, Knight’s hobby was sometimes dangerous one.

“The police used to harass us a lot, thinking we were up to something we shouldn't be,” he says. “Now that my hair is gray, they don’t bother me so much.”

Knight persisted with his passion for fixing cars and, after hearing his father bemoan unfair prices mechanics were charging, he opened his own automotive business in 1998. He was just 19 years old.

“I thought to myself, I could do better prices.”

Since then, Knight has been learning how to run his business, KBI Auto, and prides himself on not overcharging customers. He realized early on that he needed to specialize, so he began focusing on brakes and suspension, as well as renting out cars. But the building that houses his shop, located on the west side near Meyers and Lyndon, has stood as a witness to a dramatic decline in the neighborhood around it, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.

“I used to be more of a friendly neighborhood mechanic,” says Knight. “But now, it’s like a war zone over here, it’s a mess.”

“A few people stayed around for a few years, but a lot of people who have moved into the area are transient.”

“We’ve seen a lot of changes.”

It’s taken tenacity to continue his small company, and maintain a customer base, Knight admits, but he says he found his true calling in the business world. 

“I love being a hustler,” he says. “Being a mechanic is a byproduct of what I do, it’s the business side that I enjoy.” 

“It’s always interesting to me to be able to make something out of nothing.”

Knight has done just that. The building he purchased was in rough shape when he started out, and for many years he worked to restore it — running a shop out of it and living in the front section. 

“If you saw the place where we started you would have been scared to walk up to it,” he says. 

Living where he worked did blur some lines, Knight says. 

“It would be Sunday afternoon, and someone would be knocking on the window, wanting repairs,” he says. “They knew I was home because they could see my truck.” 

“It was hard, I would step out of the house with my suit on in the evening and someone would say ‘hey, can you come have a look at this.’ ”

While the lifestyle worked for him when he was young, and single, he says he’s happy he and his wife have moved out. Knight still runs a one-man show though, doing most of the work himself. He’s hired people over the years, and many of his immediate family have helped out, but found it difficult to find employees who can work alongside him and still respect him as an employer. 

“It’s hard to give instructions,” he explains. “I try to be easy going and not so dogmatic, but most people get carried away and take advantage of that.”

Wanting to take on extra crew members is one of the reasons Knight applied for a KIVA loan, a global platform that crowdfunds zero-interest loans to small businesses, two years ago. 

Detroit was the first city in the U.S. to have a locally organized KIVA City program, with the crowdfunding site usually focused on developing nations, and has seen over $400,000 lent to entrepreneurs in the area since it launched in 2011. The impact is doubled by a matching grant program with the Knight Foundation. 

Evan Adams worked with Phil Knight on gathering funding for his KIVA loan. Photo by Katie Alexis Photography.Knight has used the lending platform to support his business twice, the first time in 2016 when he was able to garner a $5,000 loan and this time for a $10,000 loan. 

Loans that size often come down to the wire, says Evan Adams, KIVA program manager at Build Institute.

"[Knight] and I were working together every day on new methods and strategies to promote his campaign and bring more funding into his loan before the deadline," Adams says. "He was completely determined and ultimately successful in fully funding that loan."

"He places a lot of value on the quality of his work as well as being able to provide his customers with very reasonable prices. I actually have taken my car to him at least a couple times and referred him to others. The work was great."

Much of the funding came from Knight's personal network, and with it, he has been able to upgrade an onsite vehicle, put a new roof on his building, and plans to expand his payroll to find the right assistant. Knight says the funding has especially helped as the business faces financial losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We closed for nearly three months,” says Knight. “No one could tell you what was going on and I didn’t want to take any chances — my wife has respiratory issues.”

Lenders also offering to pause repayments is something else that’s been beneficial, Knight says. 

“Some of the loans that I had, they contacted me and gave me time,” he says. “That was big.” 

Knight says it was stressful reopening in June, navigating mask requirements and appointments, but he says most people have been supportive and respectful. Now, with his eye on the future, Knight wants to expand his rental fleet to five vehicles and have two cars for sale at any time, and hopes in 10 years to double those numbers. He wants to keep things manageable.

“I am a simple, small business,” he says. “I am not trying to have a lot of people I have to deal with.”

“It’s a challenge finding the right customer,” he says. “I would rather earn less money and work with the people I want to work with.”

Despite the challenges and changes he’s seen, Knight doesn’t intend to go anywhere anytime soon. He knows the importance of staying power. 

“My future goal for the business is to be a stable neighborhood business that will be able to help people that are struggling to be able to get back and forth to jobs, provide jobs or training, and help other entrepreneurs,” Knight says.

This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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