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Auto Repair’s Next Generation

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William Hillmuth III gets it; he knows many are worried about the state of the auto repair industry.

The quickly evolving technology in vehicles; the increasing complexity of repairs; the rising cost of doing business; a new generation of distracted, tech-savvy customers; the tightening chokehold of consolidation.

Hillmuth has heard it all, and his response is simple: Stop worrying.

“We’re in a good industry at a good time,” says the ever-enthusiastic, second-generation co-operator of four-shop operation Hillmuth Certified Automotive in Maryland. “A lot is changing, but it’s changing for the better. It’s giving us new opportunities to do innovative things, and run our businesses in better ways.

“It’s not about changing everything we’re doing. We just need to tweak and innovate our processes to better meet modern demand. You just have to look at it with the right mentality.”

That type of mentality is proving to be the foundation for long-term business success for shops like Hillmuth Certified Automotive and Georgia-based C&C Automotive—two family-owned businesses well known throughout the industry for their decades of customer dedication and polished processes. They’ve each won a slew of local, regional and national awards, and both are now undertaking transitions to a new generation of operators.


 

THE SIMPLICITY OF A COMPLEX INDUSTRY

Tasked with guiding a premier family-run shop into its fifth decade of business, Amanda Clements leans on the values of her father and grandfather—and the sophistication of modern processes—to continue a legacy of connecting with customers.

Amanda Clements remembers watching her grandfather, and it all seemed so simple.

Seemingly everyone in Augusta, Ga., knew him. Everyone trusted him. Everyone came to see him, whether for an oil change, full-on breakdown, or just their morning cup of coffee on their way to work.

C&C Automotive has never been just another auto repair shop; not when Amanda’s father and grandfather—Aaron and John Clements—started the business more than 38 years ago, and certainly not today, as Amanda, a 29-year-old, third-generation operator, steers the company through its fifth decade of business.

“People have these negative perceptions of the industry—or of the way consumers think of this industry,” she says. “I’ve never seen that. I’ve never thought about that.

“I grew up in the shop, watching the way my father and grandfather treated people, watching how people treated them. [My father and grandfather] weren’t just their mechanics, and those people weren’t just their customers. That’s the type of legacy we’re trying to carry on.”

To do that, Amanda not only had to carve out her own niche in the company, but also implement plans to continue the company’s growth, profitability, and, most importantly, reputation.

FINDING A PLACE

Amanda understands why people may have had their hesitations. In 2010, she was still just 25 when C&C opened its second location (the first expansion in the company’s history), and she said she looked “more like 18 or 20.”

A CHANGE IN DIRECTION: Amanda Clements initially wanted to go into medicine, but discovered a passion for business while in school and pursued it by joining the family operation she helps run today.

“I wasn’t the son who’d been working in the back my whole life,” she says. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to come in and say, ‘I’ll be in charge now, and don’t worry, you can trust me.’”

Let’s back up a bit, though. Clements did grow up in the shop—just not the back of it. She’d tag along with her father as a child to C&C’s original 30,000-square feet downtown Augusta location, and she worked the front counter while in high school. 

The oldest of three children, Amanda then went off to college wanting to go into medicine. Toward the end of her undergrad program, she took a handful of business courses, simply to pad her résumé when applying to medical schools.

“I just fell in love with the business side of things,” she says now. “I sort of changed my direction and wanted to find something that I could make a good living at and still help people every day.”

And she couldn’t think of a better place than C&C. The only problem was that there wasn’t a true role for her in the company. Many of C&C’s team members have been with the business for decades, and even though her grandfather had retired, her father still ran day-to-day operations.

If Amanda was going to have a place in the company, she’d have to create it.

TAKING A CHANCE ON TRANSITION

Now back to that second location; that was Amanda’s way to contribute to the family legacy.

“I worked at the [original location] for a couple years after college, and it became pretty clear that the only way I had a place here—at least longterm—was if we grew,” she says.

During her first years back with C&C after graduation, her father had pushed her to get an industry education of sorts—taking classes through the Automotive Management Institute (AMI), earning an advanced automotive management designation, and also networking with a group of mentors whom her father knew well.

One was Mike Brewster of Gil’s Garage, a $5.6 million powerhouse of a family shop in New York (“Coming of Age,” October 2012). Another was industry  entrepreneur Greg Sands, who has opened and sold more than 80 shops in his career (“At Your Service,” September 2012).

It was during this time—and with some guidance—that Amanda crafted a strategy to take C&C to a new level.

“We came up with a plan of how to do it,” she says, “and with my dad’s blessing, we decided to go ahead with it.”

FIVE-YEAR PLAN

The Central Savannah River Area encompasses Augusta and its surrounding suburbs. Having been a part of that market since C&C opened in 1977, Amanda had the benefit of market recognition and reputation on her side.

Everything else, though, would be up to putting an airtight business plan together.

“The biggest thing is not getting too far ahead of yourself,” she says. “Sure, I have ‘bigger’ plans for the company moving forward, but we try to focus in three- to five-year stretches and have thorough plans for that period.”

Her five-year plan ended with a strong, sustainable second facility (one doing roughly $1.5 million in sales) that would serve as the company’s blueprint for further expansion.

That plan started with a location, though. The original C&C location, which regularly pumps out roughly $2.5
million in annual sales with five technicians, would remain the company’s flagship store. The second facility would be supplemental, at least in terms of scale.

Amanda found an 8,000-square-foot shop in West Augusta that was up for sale. The facility, which has 11
bays, was roughly the ideal size she and her father were looking for (that is, slightly smaller staff size than the
original) and the area met their needs in terms of customer demographics (middle- to upper-class families with vehicles out of warranty).

An acquisition—as opposed to a new build—was a simpler transition, she says. C&C would transition the
current staff through implementation of its standard operating procedures and gradually instill its culture. Amanda would serve as the location’s manager.

Fast forward several years, and C&C’s West Augusta location did $1.6 million in sales in 2014—almost exactly double what it had done the year prior to the acquisition.

CARRYING ON A CULTURE

John Clements passed away last spring, which sent a jolt through the company, Amanda says. It also made her transition into leadership seem even more real.

Aaron Clements, who serves as the president of the company, says he is very proud of what his daughter has accomplished in a short period of time. She’s quick to brush off any praise, though.

“I had the best role model you could imagine,” Amanda says, referring to her father. “All I’ve done is treat people the way I always saw him treat people. I’ve learned all of it from him and my grandfather.”

She is now starting on her next five-year plan, which includes adding bays to the second location and maxing out production before eventually adding an additional store. She envisions C&C having five locations in the region some day.

But it won’t come at the cost of losing the shop’s local, neighborhood reputation.

“That’s what this company was built on,” she says. “I saw it every day as a kid with my dad and grandfather. There’s a lot that goes into running a shop today, but just from watching them, it could be that simple: Treat people right, do things the right way, and everything else falls into place.”


 

PLAYING A PART IN INNOVATION

Clearly defined roles, a focus on innovative thinking, and serving customers in the way they need to be serviced, has the Hillmuthes set for long-term success

Let’s get this straight right off the bat: Hillmuth Certified Automotive was founded by brothers Doug and William “Bill Jr.” Hillmuth Jr. in 1978. Then there’s Doug’s son, Scott, and Bill Jr.’s son, William “Bill III” Hillmuth III; they both have worked in the business since high school, and are now in line to take it over.

Doug is the analytical one, the founding brother who always handled the finances, the marketing, and the
research and development side of things.

Bill Jr. is the operations guru, focusing on developing—and continuously improving—the company’s processes and procedures.

Scott, for all intents and purposes, acts as the company’s CFO today, and Bill III has taken the lead on marketing and customer-engagement initiatives. They both serve as day-to-day managers of the four locations.

Got all that? It’s alright if you don’t; the Hillmuthes have it down pat.

“Understanding each person’s role is the most important thing in running a family business,” Doug says. “If you have that down, and have those roles correct, everything else can build on that.”

Organization, functionality and an overall meticulous approach to running the four-shop Maryland business
have allowed the Hillmuthes to not only better understand each of their places in the business, but also help put the company in a strong position to push into the future.

Bill Jr. and Doug plan to retire in the next three years. It’s now Bill III and Scott’s turn to take the reins.

NO TIME TO WASTE: HANDLING THE MODERN CUSTOMER

The industry is far different today than when Bill Jr. and Doug first founded the company as a three-bay, three-person (Doug’s wife being the third) outfit in Columbia, Md., nearly 30 years ago.

The business has changed, too: The Columbia facility grew to 12 employees and 18 bays within a dozen years; shop No. 2 opened in Gaithersburg in 1986; the Clarksville location opened in 1996; and Glenwood followed in 2010.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: William Hillmuth III (left) credits his father, William Hillmuth Jr. (right), for passing along a passion for running a family-owned business.

“The biggest change we see in the last several years in the industry is the shift toward convenience,” Doug says. “That’s the No. 1 thing customers are looking for today. Everything we do has to be about convenience.”

“Cars aren’t breaking down like they used to, and you need to be able to capture that work when it’s there,” Bill Jr. adds. “If a guy is driving down the road, sees us and thinks, ‘You know, this is a good time to get my car fixed,’ we have to be ready to help him when he steps in the door. We can’t turn customers away, or they might never come back.”

So, how do you do that? Well, it starts with standardized processes and systems, tailored to drive efficiency in the Hillmuth Certified Automotive team, both in the front office and on the shop floor.

“The speed of technology and how quickly things change today, you have to stay on top of it all and really continue to analyze what you’re doing and make changes if you need to,” Scott says. “Everything changes rapidly—our operations, communication [with customers], marketing. All of it.”

Marketing is how the company today is able to best capitalize on changing customer needs. Word-of-mouth referrals are still the best customer source, Scott says, but they just come from a different place today. As Bill III explains, modern referrals play into that overall convenience factor.

“It used to be that you’d find out about a business from the neighbor across the street; it’s just not that way anymore,” Bill III says. “Those referrals are coming from Yelp, Google, reviews, social media. [Search engine optimization] is so important, so that you’re there when the customer needs to find you. Then the other elements come in to build trust.

“A shop today has to be there in all avenues, and you have to be available and ready for those customers not only to find you but also for them to gain trust in you.”

THE ‘BLUE OCEAN’ STRATEGY

Picture yourself sitting on the beach, staring out at the expansive ocean. That ocean is your business’s future with seemingly endless possibilities. It can both daunting and exciting.

“You just have to figure out what your ‘blue ocean’ is,” Bill Jr. says.

For Hillmuth Certified Automotive, it revolves around Scott and Bill III, carrying on the legacy their fathers built. They’ve been groomed for this transition for the last several years, and they’re ready to push it forward.

“I wouldn’t really say there’s pressure, but we have a big sense of responsibility to it,” Bill III says. “Scott and I want to do a good job carrying on their vision, but also craft that vision of our own. It’s an exciting time, and not just for us but for the industry as well. We know which way we’re going, and we’re going to put all we have into it."

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