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How I work >> Steve Neiffer

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Customers come from more than 150 miles away to have their vehicles serviced at Bergren Transmission and Auto Care in rural Havre, Mont. Owner Steve Neiffer, 48, credits his customer base to the way his shop handles people: “I’ve always felt that if you take care of people, take care of the customer, the rest can take care of itself.”

Bergren services more than 170 vehicles each month and generates nearly $1 million a year in revenue, both sizeable numbers considering Havre’s population of just more than 9,600.

And Neiffer does it all while focusing on balance—both between work and personal life and in managing a two-building shop. His daily life is filled with managing, leading, teaching, and, on occasion, turning a wrench.

I’m not a workaholic. One of my biggest philosophies is that a person should be able to make a living in 40 hours every week—or maybe just a little bit more. My shop isn’t open on Saturdays, and I try to leave work each day by 5:30 p.m., which is when we close. I’m not saying that’s what everyone should do, or can do, but it’s what works for me. I need to have a separation from my job and my personal life.

My workday starts at about a quarter to eight. I live about five minutes from the shop, and when we all get in, the first thing we do is have a staff meeting. I try not to make it long, no more than 10 minutes or so, and it’s just to make sure everyone is on the same page. We’ll go over the schedule, and if there’s something new someone learned or is struggling with, we’ll talk about it.

The meetings aren’t something we’ve always done, but they’ve really become important the last four years or so since our building changed.

We were thinking of adding onto our building for a while, and about four years ago, the building next to us came up for sale. You don’t get many opportunities for something like that, so we bought it.

Now we have our shop split. Our original building, which is about 3,500 square feet, has our offices; it’s where we do our service writing, and all of our general repair work is in that building. The second building—the new one—is about 4,000 square feet, and we do all our transmission work there. We also have a parts store, which is in the second building, too.

There’s about 80 feet of parking lot separating the two buildings. It’s basically like running two separate businesses under the same banner.

The big challenge, as you might guess, is communication. We’re not always face-to-face with each other, and that means I do a lot of walking back and forth.

After our morning meetings, if my service writer doesn’t need any help at the front desk, that’s when I usually do a sort of walk-around between the two shops. I’m just making sure everyone is on task, and if there are any fires to put out, I put them out before they get too big.

My goal, just like many other owners, I’m sure, is to eventually have it to where the shop runs as well when I’m gone as it does when I’m here. I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but we’re working to it.

I think for any shop, even if it’s not separated like ours, it’s all about having systems and procedures in place—how paperwork flows, how inspections are done, how everything is supposed to work. The technicians have to follow a certain procedure for, let’s stay, how the paperwork is handled: It gets dispatched to their repair order rack; the top ones are the priority. They do the inspection, bring it back to the service writer, he writes it up, then it goes back in the rack if it’s approved.

It’s all about making things go as smoothly and orderly as possible. That’s why we have the two buildings linked with our computer system. We use RO Writer, and we have 10 total computers in the two buildings and a whole bunch of ALLDATA subscriptions. This way, everyone has access to all they need.

These things cost money, obviously, but it’s all about how much the time it saves is worth to you. For us, it makes a huge difference. We really try to embrace technology; it makes our jobs easier.

The rest of my morning is usually spent focusing on our shop’s marketing. We do some direct mail and other things like that, so I like to track how things are going, where we might want to improve—things like that.

Really, for us, though, the main way we market is through word of mouth.

We’re in a rural area—Havre, Mont.—with a population of about 10,000. Our market, though, is more like 40,000 people or more. We get people trailering in their vehicles from up to 150 miles away. Malta, Mont., is about 90 miles from us, and we have a very large customer base there.

We’ve been here a little more than 25 years. When you’ve been around, you become a household name. You get people in other towns recommending you, and all of a sudden you’re getting business from farther and farther away. It doesn’t come easily, though, and it’s something we still work on. We have to remember that we’re the faces of our business, and when we’re out somewhere, that’s the way people see us. We have to always be ‘on.’

Then, my afternoons are normally spent crunching the numbers. I’ve worked with a consultant for a number of years, and the one thing that really forces you to do is keep track of the numbers for your business. We track our gross profits on parts, gross profits on labor, productivity, hours per repair order, warranty hours—there’s so much that goes into a business.

There are certain ones I focus on more than others—the profit numbers and average hours per repair order—and I like to turn things into graphs. For me, a bunch of numbers is just a bunch of numbers. When I make a graph, I can see what I’m looking at, it gives me a picture of how my business is doing.

These are all things I’ve really gotten better at with working with a consultant. It really helps to have someone who can look at your business objectively, and someone you can bounce ideas off of.

Everything in our shop is about helping the customer; that’s what we’re here to do, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we get people coming from all over to our shop.

A customer, as far as the mechanical part, they don’t really know what we’re doing in the shop. They know that if they leave, and it’s working correctly, we must’ve done our job. But they don’t know what goes into it, and honestly, I don’t think they care.

What a customer does see is our service writer, our front lobby, the image we have. We spend as much time as we can with each customer. It’s just taking the time to listen to them. A lot of times, if you take a test drive with a customer, for a noise or vibration or some kind of intermittent type of thing, you find out a lot about what they need and what your customer’s needs are. Spending the time to do that is the biggest thing, just listening to them.

We close up at 5:30 p.m., and I try to be out of there then. After work, I like to fish, I take walks with my dogs, spend some quality time with my wife. I also DJ once a week at the college radio station. I get to play whatever I want—it’s usually some hard rock or metal, or something like that.

I have a garage at my house where I do my car-play. I try to never do that at work. I want that separation.

I’m fortunate, because my family works with me. My wife works part-time helping with our books, and my son is working as a technician this summer. He was teaching automotive classes at the high school this year, and my hope is for him to take over the shop at some point.
It’s hard to not take work home with us when we all work there, but we always try to leave it at work.

Having that separation lets me focus better when I am working. I know it’s not the case for everyone, but that’s what’s best for me. As I said, I’m not a workaholic. I love cars, and I love what I do, but there’s a lot more to life than working.

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