Brothers Josh and Mark Nottingham are different sides of the same coin. Casual and effusive, Josh, 35, is the personality at the forefront of the family’s Indianapolis-based company-ministry. Thoughtful and measured, Mark, 32, provides the operational expertise that serves as the backbone for the almost 40-year-old Missionary Auto and Truck Service (MATS) International. Together, they steer a company that is changing the way people in ministry — and across the PCA — are buying cars.
Parallel Journeys, Unexpected Destination
Although the brothers grew up around cars, a career in the industry was on neither of their radars. When they were teenagers, their father, Mike, employed his sons at a Ford dealership he owned and operated in Richmond, Ind. In 1983, Mike became a supplier for MATS, a small organization started in 1977 by a man named Chuck Schroth to provide affordable vehicles for missionaries. Twelve years later, Mike succeeded Schroth as the company chairman.
Meanwhile, the two brothers were charting parallel paths, both with the intention of a career in ministry. After each graduated from business school — Josh from Purdue in 1999 and Mark from Penn State in 2003 — both served for a season with Young Life and then went on to earn degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago.
During seminary, however, Josh determined that full-time ministry was not in his cards, so he moved to Indianapolis and took a government job. He hated it from the get-go, so when his dad — who was thinking of stepping down as MATS’ president — asked if he’d like to take over company leadership in 2006, he jumped at the opportunity.
Working alongside Mike, who had transitioned into the role of trustee, Josh brought his business school know-how to the table and began treating the company less like a “mom and pop” shop and more like a serious business. They started reaching out to a broader audience, not just to those on the traditional mission field but also to stateside missionaries such as those on staff with Young Life, Cru, and RUF.
“Six months in, we realized this MATS thing could really be something,” Josh says.
By this time, the company had tripled its sales from about five per month to more like 15 per month. To sustain this growth, Josh began expanding his staff, first by recruiting Mark, who had also recently graduated from Trinity, to come on board as the company’s first director of operations, and then hiring a few salespeople, mostly folks from Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) where Josh served as an elder and Mark as a deacon.
Meanwhile, Mike sold his dealership in Richmond and, with proceeds from the sale, created Covenant Auto Sales, complete with a service and detailing shop, which MATS used as its official dealership. Through Covenant, MATS was able to cut out the “middleman,” shifting from brokering with other dealerships to becoming its own dealer, ultimately cutting out extra costs for the buyer and freeing the company to purchase cars from all across the country.
During the past eight years, MATS has matured to a business with 300 sales a year — both domestically and internationally — and a staff of 10, nine of whom attend Indianapolis-area PCA churches.
“We tend to hire people we know,” Josh says. “We tend to know people in the PCA.”
A Crazy Model
Here’s how it works. Individuals in ministry need to buy a car, but they’re not sure where to turn. MATS comes alongside them, helps them find the right car, and then goes and gets it for them, hopefully at a slight discount.
“Twenty years ago, people would go to their local dealer and just buy whatever happened to be there,” Josh explains. “Now people know they can be more specific than that because they can shop off the Internet. The downside is that you don’t know what you’re looking at, who you can trust. … If you compare us to the nicest of the nice dealers, I like to think we’re going to have the same quality, at less price. … If you compare us to the [dealer at the bottom], [we’re] probably not going to beat that price, but [we] can nine times out of 10 beat them in terms of quality.”
Mark admits that what they’re doing is a bit on the edge: finding cars for prospective customers, purchasing them in advance, and trusting customers to be good to their word.
“The model that MATS uses isn’t really sustainable in the car industry,” he says. “Not only is it a model that doesn’t pay like the traditional car business pays, but it’s a model that’s only sustainable because of the type of person we’re working with. … Most car dealers would look at the process and say, ‘That’s crazy!’”
But almost without exception, if MATS customers say they’re going to purchase a car, they’re going to purchase a car. Because the focus is ultimately on the customer and not the bottom line, MATS has earned a reputation as a trustworthy friend who just happens to be a car dealer.
“If every pastor or ministry worker had a knowledgeable person in the car industry that they really trusted, MATS could cease to exist,” Mark says. “The goal of MATS is that every ministry person could have a friend in the car industry.”
From Next Door to Berlin
About 10 percent of the company’s business is in international sales — finding a car for a Mission to the World (MTW) missionary coming off the mission field or importing a car to someone on the mission field (usually Africa).
“Some people know [what they want]; some don’t know,” says Josh. “A lot of these folks have been in the field for 25 years. What do they know about a Ford Focus? Nothing.”
Just before Jay and Holly Eastman, MTW missionaries in Berlin, Germany, came back to the States for a furlough year, they immediately contacted MATS. Having been out of the country for eight years, “we didn’t know what we were doing,” Eastman admits. “We needed a lot of help.”
Because the family would be putting a lot of miles on their car during the course of the year, dependability was at the top of the Eastmans’ list. MATS found them a reliable minivan that it delivered right to the family’s door.
“It was not so much them trying to sell us a car as them working with us to help determine what was best for us,” Eastman says. “We decided to trust the [MATS salesman]. It was a very good decision. … We didn’t have to put more money into the car. We didn’t lose any time or stress, which is very important during a transition.”
Most of the company’s sales, however, are to those in ministry in the U.S., particularly to those in campus ministries. Not so much in the denomination more broadly.
“News of what we do travels a little bit more organically in the campus ministry or missions worlds,” Mark explains.
“Those worlds tend to be more connected to each other” Josh adds.
This upcoming year, they’re trying to reach out to more pastors by connecting with individual presbyteries and having a presence at General Assembly.
Although neither of the brothers ended up in traditional ministry, they’re doing something they say they enjoy even more.
“Most believers in a business context are going to have to take one hat off — [the ministry hat] — and put another hat on — [the business hat],” says Mark, who recently transitioned out as director of operations into the role of trustee. “We get to wear both.”
“This isn’t rocket science,” says Josh. “Most people want to buy a car from somebody they can trust. So we hire people we can trust — people with our worldview. … [A] lot of people have come to work for us and have taken striking pay cuts, us included. But they don’t want to be anywhere else. … [T]hey really want to help people.”
To learn how you can purchase a car through MATS, visit www.mats.org.