How do you create a business that’s sustainable long-term? The answer’s simple, says Donnie Hudson. You just build it—and then rebuild it, again and again and again.
“You have to be able to adjust and see what’s coming,” he says. “What’s coming down the road? How are we going to adjust? How can we position ourselves to capture that? How do you sustain and grow?”
As the co-owner of Troy Auto Care in Troy, Mich., Hudson has shown a fearless approach to change. It’s why he and his brother, Frank, didn’t hesitate in pivoting their father’s then 40-year-old gas station/service center business model in 1998 to become a standalone repair business. It’s why they’ve made significant investments in training and equipment, and upgraded the facility and overhauled shop processes multiple times.
And it’s why Troy Auto Care has made a leap in the last two years that few shops around the country have attempted: going completely digital.
“It’s everything, from inspections to invoices. Everything is paperless,” he says. “The idea goes beyond creating efficiencies or saving money; it’s about connecting with today’s customers—and tomorrow’s customers.
“We saw a chance to get ahead of the curve and really jump on something that could have a big impact [on the business]. And we did it.”
Customers “vote with their feet,” Hudson says. And he judges his business’s success by the amount of customers who walk back through his door.
“You usually only get one chance to impress someone or you’re never going to see them again,” he says. “If you really impress them, they’ll tell people, and your business will grow.”
From Day 1, he and Frank worked to give customers an ever-increasing list of reasons to come back.
Both Hudson brothers teach technical courses at local schools. Hudson is the captain of the local fire department. The shop has a community rewards program that gives customers 10 percent off on certain repairs and donates another 10 percent to a local school. The Hudsons host regular women’s nights. Their 9,000-square-foot facility, which they bought and moved into in 2006, has a children’s play area, a fridge with complimentary water, and is kept immaculately clean, allowing its NAPA AutoCare Center–branded features to shine through.
“The more things you can offer a customer, the more ways you can improve their experience,” Hudson says. “We have six-month financing offerings, shuttle service, appointments through email—we want to make our shop as friendly as possible.”
Combined with an intense focus on training (the shop offers any employee who exceeds 40 education hours in a year an all-expenses-paid trip to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas), the shop topped $1 million for the first time in 2011, and grew to $1.3 million by the end of 2013.
And Hudson felt the business was only starting to reach its potential.
Fire and paper don’t mix—that’s pretty obvious. And Hudson says he and his team at the Troy Fire Department have used tablets in the field for the past several years.
It was on one firefighting trip that it suddenly hit Hudson: “If we’re completely digital out fighting fires, how come my shop can’t be digital?” he remembers thinking. “We’re still jotting down notes and using printouts and things—why?”
This was early 2013, and Hudson’s biggest concern with his shop’s paper trail was its inspection process. The shop began doing full inspections on each vehicle two years prior, and while customers seemed to appreciate the gesture, Hudson says it accounted for just a 2 percent increase in average repair order (ARO).
“We seemed to do a great job with them, highlighting between 10 and 20 things, teaching the customer whether they were safety needs or concerns for down the road,” Hudson says. “But they didn’t really respond. When it’s a piece of paper, it can get lost or crumpled up or thrown away. It has a [finite] life to it.”
Hudson also wanted to streamline processes beyond the inspections—communication and documentation between the techs and the front counter; the ability to better provide more interaction with invoices; opportunities to connect with customers, whether sitting in the lobby on the day of repair or weeks later.
“There’s so much opportunity with technology today,” he says, “and I felt we could really take advantage of that.”
As a NAPA AutoCare Center, Hudson posed this issue to the company’s corporate representatives. And, as it happened, they told him they had a perfect opportunity for him.
“They were just about to launch a pilot program for digital inspection, and we were the first to sign up,” Hudson says.
The NAPA Digital Vehicle Inspection program, which uses technology from AutoVitals Inc., provides an interactive and customizable tablet-based inspection application that automatically links to the shop’s NAPA TRACS shop management system. It provides a simple, color-coded template that allows technicians to document issues based on severity, upload pictures and link to videos explaining the basics on the vehicle’s needs.
The program required no training for his techs, Hudson says, as it was very intuitive. Convincing them of its purpose, though, was a little trickier.
“I think our technicians were worried by the perception of this to customers, that we’re forcing sales on them,” he says. “I told them, ‘This isn’t selling. This is informing.’ The goal is to educate them on their vehicle’s needs to help them be safer on the road.”
And he offered his techs an incentive to adopt it quickly—giving out weekly gift cards for those who met inspection requirements. (First, it was 75 percent of all repair orders; then, he moved it to 100 percent.)
The inspection process altered the customer communication process as well, as it gave the service advisors more detailed estimates and increased knowledge of each vehicle’s needs when talking with customers. They could email the reports to the customer instantly, allow them to review it, and then proceed with a call. For customers that elected to not get all work done right away, it gave the shop a unique way to reach back out to them in the future for service reminders on unfinished work.
But the shop’s digital switch didn’t end there. Hudson added two additional services as well:
Digital Menu Board. Also a NAPA product—although Hudson was quick to point out that there are a number of options out there—the “board” is actually a 46-inch TV hung above the front counter. It displays basic pricing for things like oil changes and tuneups, but also rotates through a number of different promotional items, like, for example, a video explaining the need for replacing cabin air filters.
Point-of-Sale Equipment. Hudson also added smartphone-based credit card processing tools to his mobile team. The shop does some roadside repairs, but also has a supplemental, 21-truck towing business.
Without adding any staff (the shop has five technicians and two service advisors), Troy Auto Care surpassed $2 million in sales in 2014.
Hudson says it isn’t all due to technology upgrades, although the increased efficiencies “played an enormous role.”
Streamlining the information flow in the shop has freed up his team, allowing technicians to spend more time on vehicles than explaining things to service writers. Car count rose by nearly 20 percent last year, topping 200 cars per month.
And, as the service advisors can spend more time directly interacting with customers, ARO has increased by 15 percent to just north of $800 since adopting the digital inspections. Hudson says that the digital approach has really caught on with his customers. Roughly 85 percent of all invoices are now done electronically, he says. That other 15 percent is printed—accounting for the only use of paper in the shop today.
The Hudsons are now looking to expand after purchasing a facility a few blocks away that will be a 100 percent digital quick lube shop that will serve as a feeder for Troy Auto Care.
Hudson has rebuilt his family’s business using new, modern concepts that allow the shop to operate more efficiently. As an owner, he says he focuses on making changes so that his team can remain concentrated
on the same objective: caring for the customer.
“Everything is about the customer experience,” he says. “We’re in a commercial area, not really on a main road or in a prime spot, and people are always asking how we’re able to keep growing. It’s really that simple: We try to do the right thing for the customer.
“We might be finding new ways to do that, but that’s always the focus.”