By Gerhard Schneibel
When Michael Spears finished high school in Muldrow, Okla., he knew he wouldn’t follow his peers down the conventional paths of college, military or employment. Instead, the young entrepreneur moved to Sandy Springs, where he works long hours with his brother, Cody, to corner the market of cellphone repair.
Customers wait in the lobby of Cell Phone Repair (CPR) on Hilderbrand Drive as if it’s a doctor’s office. Most common problems — water damage, a broken hinge or a cracked screen — can be repaired in 15 minutes.
A TV cameraman who was waiting for some phones to be fixed recently said that when he discovered CPR, he brought in a bucket of 60 phones that were broken while people from the TV station were on assignment.
“You name it, it happens,” said Michael Spears, 20. “Sometimes it’s like ‘What are people even thinking about?’ ”
What Spears is thinking is he has a business that can thrive even in a recession — perhaps more so as people economize by getting phones fixed instead of buying replacements when they break.
CPR does mail-in repairs and data recovery — meaning it can transfer stored numbers from a broken phone onto a new one — and buys, sells and trades phones. The business can work with any phone, regardless of manufacturer or service provider, and even can unlock smart phones locked into one provider, such as the iPhone, which is tied to AT&T.
Spears said he has known his entire life he wanted to go into business, and his father, Kent, became the primary investor in CPR. His father owned a commercial electrical contracting business in Orlando, Fla., before retiring to Oklahoma.
“All throughout my life I always saw my dad doing business deals,” Spears said. “I figured he would kind of walk me through whatever I needed to know instead of going to college first and then starting my life.”
Before opening CPR in May 2006, Spears spent the better part of his senior high school year researching different businesses. He thought about going into construction, but his father advised him against it. The toll that kind of work takes on a body is too much, he said.
After mulling population statistics for various cities and comparing the number of cellphone stores with the number of repair shops, “we noticed Atlanta didn’t have a cellphone repair store, period,” Spears said.
“Next thing you know, it was like ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life.’ ”
Spears talked Cody into moving up from Florida to help out with the business.
“Once we got him up here, we started putting the store together and getting all the parts together,” he said. “A few months in, I realized maybe going to some college wasn’t a bad idea, but my dad had already invested all of this money, so I couldn’t really go back.”
During their first 10 months in business, the brothers often worked from 7 a.m. through 1 a.m. before going to sleep and starting over.
“We were just learning the ins and outs of the business,” Spears said.
Their father moved in with them for 10 months, leaving their mother in Oklahoma and “staying here, making sure we didn’t fall on our face,” Spears said.
“He put up all this money for me, and I wasn’t going to let it fall because he believed in me. And I made it happen,” he said. “Business went up. It went down. It got to where it was hard. Now we’re just even, whether the economy is good or bad.”
Spears plans to expand his business, and his cousin and best friend from high school also work at CPR.
Matthew Rose, his cousin, worked in car sales until six months ago, when the economic downturn forced him to look for other work.
“I knew family was in town and had a business,” he said. “I’m looking forward to expanding. That is a lot of the reason Mike brought me on in the first place, because of my management experience. It’s always good to be around family.”
Finding good employees is difficult, Spears said, because there are no schools or training programs for cellphone repair. They have to be independent: good with computers and electronics, handy and willing to learn.
Maintaining a focus on growing a business during difficult economic times can be trying for a young man who is used to being outdoors and playing sports, Spears said.
“You never get any exercise, you know. You can’t let the stress overcome your thinking about your business. You kind of got to worry about it evenly, or it’ll get you, is what I’ve found. I’m 20 years old, and I’m doing kind of a lot better than a lot of people out there.”