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Specializing in Customers

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It’s early afternoon on a Friday when one of Dick Kartozian’s regular customers pulls in for service. Kartozian recognizes him immediately, and so do his employees, who spring into action.

Shuttle driver Hector Macias hustles to the front counter, where shop manager Jay Bruley is waiting to greet the customer and send him on his way before even writing a ticket. The customer knows the drill, knows he can simply share a few words about what’s going on with his car and trust the team at Karco Specialties in Orange, Calif., to diagnose and fix it right, and communicate everything along the way. The customer doesn’t even need to think about it—peace of mind is the shop’s specialty.

“We’re not just fixing cars. In fact that’s almost secondary,” Kartozian says. “We’re fixing people’s situations.”

That focus has helped the Toyota and Honda repair shop thrive in one of the country’s most competitive markets for three decades. The 8,600-square-foot shop’s nearly $2 million in yearly sales is hard to believe when you step outside the facility and look around. Kartozian estimates there are 30–40 other shops within a one-mile radius of his; a couple are right across the street.

“There are a lot of cars, but there are a lot of shops, too,” Kartozian says. “People have a lot of choices, so I’ve found that if you can pull the thorn out of their foot as quickly as possible, and get rid of all of those other problems that don’t have to do with fixing their car, you’re a lot more likely to get that job and that customer.”

Specializing Early

Kartozian opened his shop in 1984 at age 26, after paying his dues at a Toyota dealership.

Working for Toyota, he started as a trainee and ended as a “team leader,” or manager of roughly four technicians. It was an important part of Kartozian’s development into a shop owner. He had dreamt of owning his own business since he was a kid—for a while his aim was to own a dealership—but his work at Toyota ended up inspiring him to run a service center.

“I learned a lot of good things,” he says of his days at the dealership. “I also learned a lot of things that I thought weren’t good as far as how to treat a customer and employees.”

Kartozian felt he could do it better, and he intended to, with a business that specialized in the repair of Toyotas and Hondas, makes that he had grown familiar with at the dealership. He viewed the vehicles from both manufacturers as dependable and mainstream, with a loyal, growing customer base. Specializing so narrowly was unusual at the time, but today Kartozian looks at it as one of the smartest business decisions he’s ever made.

“I wanted to be as good as I could be at certain things but not everything,” Kartozian says. “In the beginning, that was tough because if you make someone happy and they don’t have another car for you to work on, it’s harder to get that next customer.”

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: Kartozian tried to create an experience that would rival any retail operation in his area, not just the competing repair facilities. His lobby includes many 1950’s era antiques, while the rest of the shop has adopted a professional, dealership-style appearance. Photo by Jake Weyer

Kartozian found his first shop through an off-road racing friend. It was fully equipped and already specialized—but in off-road vehicles and Volkswagens. Kartozian leased the building and converted it to Toyota and Honda work with minimal investment, keeping much of the staff including Bruley, who has grown with the business ever since.

Kartozian, whose shop moniker is a play on his name, spent much of those early years concentrating on vehicle repair, adding Toyota’s Lexus and Honda’s Acura divisions to the mix when they arrived later in the 1980s. He still works on cars occasionally, but he gradually honed in on achieving his vision for superior customer service.

“I felt like I had a good grasp on how to fix a car, but what I realized very quickly is that that’s only part of what you have to do,” he says. “There are so many components that go into running a shop. And most of it has to do with doing the right thing for the person on the other side of the counter.”

Catering to Customers

Karco Specialties, always in Orange, expanded twice before moving to its current location, which Kartozian owns, in 1996. From front to back, the facility was designed with the customer in mind. The goal was to create an efficient environment as good or better than that of a dealership and one that offered service on par with other retail outlets, such as department stores.  

Outside, everything is neat: The lawn is manicured, the signage is sharp and the clean building is painted in the company’s yellow, red, white and grey colors. Inside is a mix of ’50s nostalgia and modern dealership.

You’ll find an old Texaco gas pump, a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine, diner-style booth seating and many antiques that Kartozian has collected, some as gifts from customers. But you’ll also see a glass case with about a dozen service awards from AAA and Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and, on the walls, a couple of other purposefully placed items, including:

  • A brief, framed mission statement, sharing the shop’s goal to provide quality work at reasonable prices, using the best parts to ensure satisfaction. The statement also encourages customer comments and suggestions.
  • Framed portraits of the shop’s staff, which include their ASE certifications. Kartozian hired someone to assemble the frames, so he could help “show the faces” of his shop and help humanize the business. 
  • A copy of the ASE-Certified Technician’s Code of Ethics, to instill further trust in the customer.

The visuals have had an impact on customers, as Bob Ruddy can attest. Ruddy, 61, was looking for a shop that was more affordable than a dealership, but operated at the same high level when the warranty ended on his 2006 Lexus. He checked out Karco Specialties on a referral and was immediately impressed.

“It was like walking into a Lexus dealership—the pictures, awards, how spotless it was,” Ruddy says.

The shop’s office space is separated from the front counter and lobby so it’s not disruptive and the office looks out onto an immaculate shop floor. Customers are routinely invited to see their vehicles as work is being done, and potential customers are also offered tours. The shop’s side doors are left open on purpose, so customers can peek at the space.

In the far back of the shop is one of its most notable features: a dedicated outdoor wash bay. Every vehicle that comes through Karco Specialties, even if it’s for something as minor as a headlight replacement, gets washed. This has been a hit with customers, who sometimes schedule service just because their car is dirty, Kartozian says. 

Together, all of the shop’s features buck negative industry stereotypes and create the professional feel Kartozian envisioned, and his staff backs it up with reliable service.

“I always know I’m going to get the absolute best work,” says Ruby Tracey, 86, who followed Kartozian from the Toyota dealership and is on her third vehicle, a Lexus, with the shop.

“They treat me like I’m family.”

The Right Staff for the Job

Some of Kartozian’s staff, such as Bruley, have been with him for decades. Bruley, who started as a tech and wears many hats, including that of service advisor, says the customer-first culture is something that staff has to buy into to be able to work at the shop. Building relationships with customers, understanding their needs and delivering on them is paramount.

TEAM FIRST: Employees like shop manager Jay Bruley, top, and shuttle driver Hector Macias are at the center of Karco Specialties’ customer-centric business model. And the team has become a tight-knit group, often playing cards over their lunch break. Photos by Jake Weyer

Kartozian is determined to recruit and keep the people that “get it” and perform at a high level. He does it by hiring for attitude and teaching skills, and by catering to specific staff needs. For instance, one employee might value a strong benefits package while another cares more about being able to leave at certain times for family functions. It is a balancing act to keep things fair, Kartozian admits, but if his staff wasn’t performing in the shop, he wouldn’t do it.

Four of his techs work on commission, one is hourly; and he has an advanced apprentice that is also hourly. They all work from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday–Friday. Kartozian says he’s never had the desire to stay open on weekends, a decision that was also made for the purpose of staff retention.

“I tried to create an environment where a tech can work here a long time and still have a family and not get burned out,” he says, “because there’s nothing harder than finding a good tech.”

To improve how techs work, the shop’s bays are set up back-to-back, so tools and equipment can be shared. Kartozian also invested in a couple of tablets that allow his technicians to access repair data without walking to the office. Eventually, he wants every tech to have one.

All of it, Kartozian says, ultimately circles back to providing a better experience for the vehicle owner.

“Because people do business with people,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. You can say whatever you want, but that’s what it boils down to.”

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