Don Seader was tired of putting out fires. After more than a decade of hands-on management, he was starting to think about what would happen to his business, World Wide Automotive Service in Bloomington, Ind., once he was out of the shop.
What worried Seader was that any time he left, even for just a week, sales would drop—sometimes by as much as 50 percent.
“I’ve seen it a lot where a person dedicates their life to their auto repair business and then something happens to them, they’re forced to retire and they end up with little to show for all their hard work,” Seader says. “I wanted to give myself options.”
Seader realized he needed to step away from his overflowing schedule and work on making his business self-sustaining. To do that, he implemented a series of marketing, staffing and management changes designed to allow him to step back from the shop. Several years later, the shop’s sales remain steady if Seader steps out, and, more importantly, Seader is more confident than ever in his business’s staying power.
Staking a Claim
Seader has worked in the auto service industry for the majority of his adult life, and after moving his family to Bloomington so he could attend graduate school at Indiana University, he eventually realized running his own shop was his passion. Seader and his wife, Melinda, opened World Wide Automotive Service in 1995. In 2009, he moved the business into a new facility, which he designed and owned outright.
—Don Seader, Owner, World Wide Automotive Service
“My biggest fear was that I would get to retirement age and I would be in a crummy, 50-year-old building in an industrial section of town,” he says. “All I would have to sell for it is my business’ name and old equipment.”
The Seaders’ choice to buy land and build their own facility—creating a real estate investment beyond their business investment—became one of the first steps toward a retirement plan. It was also a brand-building step.
The new building is located on a major road in town and features a number of green initiatives, including geothermal heating, solar photovoltaic awnings, radiant heat, high-efficiency lighting and cool roof technology. Appraised at $1.2 million, it’s given Seader a valuable asset upon retirement.
“We decided to put up a building that’s an icon,” he says. “It’s something that we’re proud of and that’s an asset.”
Although the new shop was profitable from the start, Seader was there around the clock, writing all the service for four technicians and billing 30 hours a week fixing cars.
He realized there was no way he would be able to step away while handling nearly every aspect of the business. So, Seader hired a service advisor shortly after moving into the new facility. That hire was followed by an additional technician, which brought the staff to five techs and four support employees in the front office. By the end of 2013, Seader hopes to hire another service writer, who would also act as a general manager.
Melinda is the marketing and community outreach specialist and has started formalizing the human resources responsibilities, including writing employee manuals and setting up a system for annual employee reviews. Those processes continue to evolve.
“Some folks may think writing a formal job description for a technician isn’t necessary,” she says. “But it’s frustrating to an employee not to know exactly what’s expected of him.”
Seader says he has also moved much of the day-to-day work that he used to be involved in, such as wrenching on vehicles, to other employees.
“The best shop owners that are out there, the skill they have is the ability to delegate,” he says. “I need to be smart enough to delegate to people who are better than me.”
Marketing the Brand
Neglecting to work on the business is one of the main reasons Seader says many shop owners aren’t setting their businesses up properly for their absence.
“One person told me a long time ago that the measure of success in an auto repair facility is that the people who are coming don’t even know you’re the owner,” he says. “You can just stand to the side.”
Seader realized that to be able to step aside, he needed to create a brand for World Wide Automotive Service that was separate from Don Seader.
“Think about a doctor’s office,” he says. “If you were going to the same doctor all of your life and then one day that doctor retires, what would you do? Would you just go to whoever took over the business or would you go out shopping for a new doctor? It’s the same concept. If you want the business to have value, it needs to have value separate from you.”
Seader had already created that value, but he needed to share the message with customers, so he took advantage of as many marketing opportunities as he could, especially digitally.
First, Melinda worked with a designer to create an effective website (worldwideauto.net) that highlights the shop’s services, certifications, green initiatives and community involvement. The Automotive Service Association has since recognized the site as one of the best in the industry. Seader also works with online contractors to create Google ads and enhance search engine optimization.
He has had particularly good luck with Angie’s List as a way to generate business. He says Angie’s List tends to attract a higher caliber customer who is willing to pay for a subscription to find a good business.
“It’s almost like prescreening a customer,” he says. “By being a member, what you’re saying is, ‘I value quality and reliability.’”
Seader says nearly every customer Angie’s List refers will write a review of their experience. As a result, the company gave the shop a Super Service Award, which recognizes excellence among service providers based on overall ratings.
Besides digital marketing, World Wide Automotive Service is also heavily involved in community efforts. The business regularly underwrites educational and arts programs in the schools, works with social service programs, helped found the local science museum, and builds sets for local theater productions.
According to Seader, the biggest advantage to a self-sustaining business is the availability of options.
Seader has yet to decide what he will do with the business upon retiring, but thanks to his efforts to add value to the business, he says he now has a number of different options: sell the entire business, including real estate, for the maximum price; sell the business but keep the real estate and lease the building to the buyer; or hire a general manager and become a silent owner in the business.
Seader has increased gross sales from $1.1 million at the old location to $1.6 million last year. Currently, the shop is netting about $250,000 annually.
Left on the agenda: Hiring and training another service writer, finishing the employee manuals, and possibly hosting different training sessions at the shop to continue to build its profile.
“I’ve got two daughters in college,” he says. “I want flexibility in my schedule to go visit them and leave for more than one week at a time without having to worry about the shop.”