Maximizing Potential

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Steve McNamara still sees it on checks written out by customers. He hears people in the community say it all the time, too.

It doesn’t matter that the name was officially changed more than 30 years ago at the not-so-subtle request of the Honda Motor Company legal team. In the Huntington Beach, Calif., area, Steve McNamara’s shop is still referred to as Honda Heaven.

Calling it an identity crisis might be an exaggeration. But as McNamara stared out at his brand-new 2,500-square-foot-addition to H. Heaven Auto Repair in 2008, he was certainly aware of the challenge he faced switching from a Honda specialty shop to a repair-all facility.

“We doubled the size of our shop, and, obviously, we were going to need more business coming in than we had been doing,” he says. “You’re not going to fill those bays only working on Hondas.”

McNamara envisioned a complete move to general repair—a tall task for any business, let alone one with a name that would stubbornly stand in the way.

The Backstory

When McNamara and his wife, Jenny, purchased H. Heaven in 2003, the Honda connection had seemed like a perfect fit. At that point, he’d spent his entire 16-year career in the industry at a Honda, Toyota and Lexus specialty shop in Orange, Calif.

And H. Heaven had a great reputation and customer base already established by Bill and Anna Garrity, who founded the business in 1979. The name only perpetuated the fact that the shop was considered to be the premier Honda repairer in the area.

Like any technician-turned-owner, there was a steep learning curve for McNamara.

“The easiest way to say it: I wore too many hats,” he says. “I tried to do everything, and before long, you realize you don’t have enough time in the day, or hours in a week, or money in the bank to do that.”

But McNamara was quick to realize his shortcomings. He signed up for management training, and went about systematically creating a business that could operate with him in a more background role. He hired on additional staff, put operating processes in place and focused on making the business run as efficiently and profitably as possible.

The Challenge

By 2008, the business, which had always been relatively small in scale, was bursting at the seams: “We had more work than we could push through with the size of the shop we had,” he says. With the business profiting, McNamara felt it was the perfect time for expansion.

The addition doubled the shop’s size to roughly 5,000 square feet, and allowed McNamara to bring on another technician, giving him four total.

In the first month, business sales jumped more than 20 percent, but McNamara knew that the additional space would allow for much larger numbers, if run efficiently—and if he could find enough cars to work on.

“That’s really when we decided to start working on other makes and models,” he says. “To have it really busy and as [profitable] as possible, we couldn’t just focus on one or two makes.”

McNamara needed to figure out a way to change the shop’s Honda-only perception; he needed to carry his reputation and recognition into a new business model.

The Decision

McNamara wasn’t going to change the shop’s name. That much was certain.

“We’re so well known in the area that it would’ve been a huge mistake to change the name,” he says. “You’d be starting from scratch.”

His only choice was to change the way people viewed that name—make it an interesting detail of his shop’s history, rather than a name that defines what the business is all about.

For years, McNamara always referred customers with non-Honda vehicles to other facilities. His staff had the training to take on the work (most had been trained for all makes and models), but his shop was already overflowing with jobs; he couldn’t fit those vehicles into the schedule if he wanted to.

That changed with the additional space and new equipment that could be used for general repair. He needed to gain the business of other area residents whom he’d never before targeted as potential customers.

His strategy boiled down to two words: face time.

“Our reputation has always been our biggest asset, and we’re a true family business,” he says, noting that Jenny still handles all of the shop’s bookkeeping and that their 22-year-old son, Josh, is his lead service advisor. “It was just about getting out there and reminding people who we are—and that we’re not just a Honda shop anymore.”

And this worked two-fold, through marketing and customer service.

McNamara became heavily involved with the local Chamber of Commerce, as well as a number of other networking groups, such as LeTip International. Those groups have helped him interact with other business owners and develop a solid referral base. He attends as many events as possible, and when he held a 34-year anniversary party at his own shop, more than 100 community members showed up for a cookout.

He also focused heavily on marketing through TV commercials and traditional mailers, sending out four items each year to new and potential customers. He focuses the pieces on seasonal promotions, and during the Christmas season, sends out a $25 shop gift card to current customers.

H. Heaven’s website also got a complete makeover, focusing heavily on improving its search engine optimization. And all marketing materials emphasized the shop’s local, family feel, and it’s new direction as the area’s best option for “all makes and models.”

“Everything I always do, I try to put myself in the customer’s shoes and think, ‘What do they expect from us?’” he says. “And then I try to go a couple steps above that.”

That’s what led to things like H. Heaven’s loaner vehicles and focus on preventative maintenance. (“We always tell customers we want them coming in when they choose to, not when their car’s being towed here,” he says.)

It also led to the company’s “road call” work.

“Because the shop’s been here for so long, we had a lot of elderly customers who didn’t drive too often,” he says. “Then they’d get in the car, and it wouldn’t start. We started going out to them to help them out—save them the money of a tow truck and things like that.”

The concept caught on with customers, and it slowly became an official shop service. McNamara currently has somewhere between 80–100 customers who’ve never stepped foot in his shop.

“Those little things are what keep customers coming back and trusting you on recommendations and repairs,” he says, and it certainly helped with referrals and getting non-Honda work coming in the doors.

The Aftermath

In 2012, three full years after the slow transition away from being a specialty shop, H. Heaven topped $1 million in sales.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?: McNamara felt his shop’s name recognition was too great an asset to give up, despite H. Heaven’s obvious link to a Honda-focused past. Photo by Alexander Slanger

McNamara sees eight to 10 new customers every week, and “it’s not just from referrals,” he says. The marketing strategies are regularly bringing in a whole new customer base, and the shop’s work mix is evenly distributed between a number of makes and models. H. Heaven sees roughly 120–140 cars each month, most of which are American manufactured.

He’s also grown his staff to four technicians and two front office workers.

“In the last few years since this switch, since we added on the space, we’ve just gone to a whole new level,” McNamara says.

The Takeaway

As the old cliché goes, perception is reality, and that can be difficult to overcome for businesses. H. Heaven’s reputation was built on its expertise in a single make; its name perpetuated that.

It wasn’t easy to switch the company’s business model, McNamara says, but it was necessary. It came down to focusing on what was best for his business, and the things his shop did to stand out to customers.

That’s a major reason why a name change was never truly an option, McNamara says. In fact, he’s considering opening a second shop that will bear the same name.
“It’s who we are,” he says. “Everything we’ve done is to show people who we are. The type of car we work on doesn’t change that.”  

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