Nate Winston looked straight into the barrel of the gun and froze.
There were only three people in the dark, dingy front lobby of the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, shop that night eight years ago. Winston, obviously, was one of them. His new business partner, John Cooper, was another. The two were finishing off their first day as co-owners of East Coast Performance by going through invoices when the third man came in the front door.
He was the one pointing the gun.
“It was like a movie scene or something,” Winston says. “We’re standing there, and the guy comes in with a gun demanding that we give him his car back.”
Winston and Cooper had no customer vehicles on the lot. They’d worked on a handful that day. All were returned to their proper owners. So, confused and startled, Winston stared straight at the gun—and went through the process.
“We just tried to explain who we are, what we’re doing, what our motives are and that we’re here to open a new shop and make a living for ourselves,” Winston explains. “We tried to let him know about us personally, and hope that would calm him down and give him a chance to explain what was going on.”
Let’s repeat those basic concepts: Keep calm. Stick to the story—your story, what makes you you and your business what it is. Don’t let a given situation (regardless of how explosive or potentially disastrous it is) allow you to stray from your core values. Then, make a connection.
Does this sound familiar? If it does, it’s likely because it’s at the core of nearly every marketing lesson you’ve ever heard. Those are the fundamentals, the cornerstones of any marketing approach, whether it’s a direct mail program, a web-based project or calming a fuming vehicle owner pointing a gun at you; yes, that’s marketing, too, “extreme marketing,” Winston says with a laugh.
“Everything, in the end, comes down to making a connection,” Winston says. “That’s what it’s all about. If you make that connection, you earn that trust, you’re going to be successful.”
And that’s what Winston focused on to complete East Coast Performance’s total turnaround. It’s what California shop operator Ron Inchausti (also featured in this story) leaned on to build the pristine reputation of his now four-facility business, Coast Motor Werk. Both shop owners chose to connect with customers, not throw hard-earned dollars at the problem. Their stories demonstrate how any shop in any market can build its customer base through a focused, inexpensive commitment to its own values and belief systems.
“It’s nothing special,” Inchausti understates. “It’s just finding the right way to reach the right people.”
And that guy with the gun? Winston will get into the details later, but, let’s just say it ended well:
“To this day, he’s a great friend of ours,” Winston says, laughing at how ridiculous that sounds. “He’s a great customer, comes in all the time. He has three vehicles. He’s great.”
Full-Fledged Market Domination
Ron Inchausti’s simple approach to high-level, impactful brand awareness on a low-level budget
Have a beer; it’ll be good for Ron Inchausti’s business. Sure, you might be sitting in any of a number of high-end restaurants in the Irvine, Calif., area—a trendy BBQ joint down the street from one of his locations or the wine bar on the other side of town, for example.
But that's the point: Inchausti’s customers (and potential customers) see his logo everywhere.
“You might order a beer and it comes to your table with our logo on the glass,” he says. “Then you sign the check and look down and there’s our logo again, this time on the pen.”
The Coast Motor Werk brand is ever-present to Inchausti’s target market. It’s one of the reasons that the business has gone from a meager $50,000, one-man operation when it opened in 2005 to the $5.7 million powerhouse it is today. According to industry consultant Cecil Bullard, there are plenty of things Inchausti and his team do very well. But in terms of marketing, there aren’t many better—anywhere.
But the thing is, Inchausti explains, any shop, regardless of size, scale or market, could replicate his most successful marketing concepts; they're simple and affordable. Typically, Inchausti spends roughly $5,000 per month on marketing initiatives; that's between all four locations. If you’re doing the math at home, that equates to roughly 1.1 percent of his total revenue—a number far below the industry benchmark many suggest for a marketing budget (4 percent of annual sales).
And it’s given Inchausti’s Coast Motor Werk brand complete market saturation.
“It’s not that we put a ton of money into it or have these revolutionary ideas,” Inchausti explains. “We just focus on what we do and try to do it really well.”
Who Are You?
Inchausti’s story is similar to many operators in the industry. He started as a tech. He bounced around, frustrated with inconsistent and underperforming management that made his job more difficult. Finally, as many of you did, he decided he could do it better himself.
But Inchausti had a plan. When he bought Coast Motor Werk in early summer of 2005, the largest boast the previous owner could make about his operation was that he could keep his electric bill down to $35 per month. Inchausti tried to smile politely but winced at the penny-pinching mindset. The next day, he took 18 truckloads to the dump and the complete overhaul started.
BMWs had become a passion for him as a tech, and the customers he brought over from previous jobs all drove German vehicles.
“It wasn't really intentional but very quickly, I became a specialty shop,” he says. “I went with it.”
There's the first lesson: Don't force a concept on a market; let the market dictate what's needed.
“Once it was clear that’s who we were [as a business], you could build everything around that,” he says. “It allowed us to identify our target customer and from there, it becomes simpler.”
Who's Your Customer?
Inchausti’s father is an entrepreneur and business coach, who wrote the book, 7 Steps to a Better Career. Inchausti credits his father’s influence for much of his early success—or at the very least, teaching him how to truly market to a customer.
“He came to me one day early on and asked, ‘Who’s your cardboard cutout customer?’” Inchausti says. “‘Who is your ideal customer?’ He described how Nordstrom markets to one specific person—that’s gender, job, annual income, family size, etc. Their marketing is almost solely dedicated to that one person. Now if you walk into Nordstrom, you’ll see more there than just for a 42-year-old female lawyer with two kids and a household income above $100,000. But my dad calls that the ‘bleed over.’ You’ll get those other people anyway. But you need to market to that one demographic to be successful.”
At the time, Inchausti had a year or so worth of customer data in his management system, and he went through it to determine his ideal customer—identifying the customers with the highest tickets, most repeat visits; he wanted ones who offered referrals and were never hard sells on needed work. Let’s repeat the term: ideal customer.
“These are the people that drive your business forward, and they’re the ones you want to build your business for,” Inchausti says.
So, here’s the flyover version of the Coast Motor Werk Customer: A female (70 percent of buying decisions now come from women), 45–47 years old, drives a BMW 5 Series, has two kids who are high school age, has a full-time job, and—here’s an important one—is a foodie and wine lover.
How Do You Reach Them?
When Inchausti first found his ideal customer, he dove headfirst into direct mail campaigns, firing off postcards to households that likely held his customers. The campaigns failed.
“I paid a lot of money to get this list of BMW owners within 10 miles of my shop,” he explains, “and at the time, I owned five myself. I wasn’t even on the list. Let’s just say the direct mail was horribly unsuccessful for me.”
So, he went a different route: “I decided to find the cars, rather than the customer,” he says.
He printed up business cards and went around town, putting a card in the window of the drivers side door of every BMW he could find. The calls started coming in.
“To this day, it’s the most successful campaign I’ve ever done; I still do it,” he says. “If I get 100 cards out on a weekend, I’ll get three to five phone calls right away that next week without fail.”
And consider the return on that investment. Today, Inchausti buys the cards in bulk, 50,000 at a time at $0.50 per card. He pays an outside marketer $1 per card that’s handed out—usually at a 2,000–3,000 card-per-month pace across all five stores. If that $3,000 per month (cost of the cards plus the marketer) nets 90 phone calls (at a three-phone-calls-per-100-card pace), that could be upwards of $70,000 per month in revenue taking into account an industry average closing ratio (90 percent) and Inchausti’s average repair order of $863.
“Simple, right?” he says.
Where Do You Go Now?
Inchausti opened his second location in 2010 and has since opened two much smaller, satellite facilities (the two main locations account for $5 million of the business’s total revenue).
He isn’t planning a large growth move in the coming years but Inchausti is constantly looking for ways to refine operations, service and his marketing.
“We try a lot of things,” he says. “We stick with what works best and keep trying to build. But the big thing is not getting complacent. Keep tracking, make sure it’s working the way you want, and look for ways to improve.”
Disarming the Customer’s Fear
Nate Winston used to be just like you—a tech-turned-owner disoriented in a sea of advertising opportunities, working to keep his business afloat. Then he found the marketing initiative that would unanchor his budding business’s vast growth potential.
Not every aspect of Nate Winston’s marketing plan includes life-and-death scenarios with guns, stolen cars and angry customers. (Actually, it’s usually the opposite.) Still, that first night became an example of Winston’s relentless approach to winning over customers.
The facility had been empty for three months when Winston had taken over in 2008—a good location on a busy street that seemed too good to be true. It was. As it turned out, the space was empty for a very specific reason: The previous owner had cheated customers out of money, stolen (and sold) some of their vehicles, and owed more than $500,000 in back taxes to the IRS. Before Winston and Cooper moved in, the previous owner had already fled the country.
Winston was completely unaware of the past history—as was his new landlord, who had received rent every month and never questioned the previous shop’s business practices.
This is the context to the man with the gun.
“He had been waiting for the old owner to come back, and saw that we were open that day,” Winston explains. “The [previous owner] had stolen his vehicle, and he just wanted it back.”
Winston’s ability to diffuse the situation—at the time—seemed like nothing more than a natural reaction to a potentially disastrous situation. It would take years before Winston circled back to that moment as the cure for his business’s troubles.
Some business owners look back at their early years with a longing for those simpler times, a fondness for the youthful excitement of being on your own. Winston isn’t one of those people.
“It was like hell,” he says of his start at East Coast Performance (later rebranded as ECP Auto Repair & Service).
Here’s the basic rundown: The previous shop’s reputation had sullied his and Cooper’s fresh start. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t shake the apprehension of the neighborhood. (“How could you get someone to try a shop they thought they already knew everything about—and wanted nothing to with?” Winston asks rhetorically.) And the business was bleeding money. To keep it afloat, Winston not only stopped paying himself, he stopped paying rent on his apartment. He lost it. Cooper lost his house.
Both moved into back rooms in the shop.
“Starting our business was nothing like we anticipated. Nothing,” Winston says. “It took years to right it.”
Winston and Cooper both would’ve considered getting outo f the business altogether, going back to working for others and putting their lives together. They would’ve considered that, if it were an option. But, when they opened up, they had signed a three-year, $100,000 lease. They were on the hook for the rent whether they operated a business there or not.
So, Winston and Cooper—homeless and broke—tried to piece things together.
“It was slow goin’, real slow,” Winston says, “but we started to turn things around. … If we were able to get customers in the door, we were OK. They’d come back. We’d treat them right. They’d tell others and it’d go from there.”
Making a Pitch
The first attempt was a failure. Winston had a computer, a printer and some paper, and decided to make flyers for the shop.
“I made about 3,000 copies, and it said things like ‘Grand Opening,’ ‘New Business,’ ‘New Owners,’ and I went around town and put them up on buildings,” he says. “By the time I got back to the shop, the city had already called and told me I had to take them down.”
Then he tried handing them out at the mall. He was told he couldn’t.
The flyers wound up in the trash by the end of the day.
This was that first year, in 2008, when the business finished with a $175,000 total gross.
He didn’t attempt any outside sales for six more years. In the meantime, he and Cooper scraped money together to put a small ad in a coupon mailer.
Get people in the door, then win them over. That was the only strategy for six years. Revenue doubled, but the shop operated right at its break-even point.
“It was at that point that we decided to reinvest in the business,” he says. “We had a great building, great layout and great location. There had to be a way to do this.”
In 2014, in search of some general business networking, Winston joined the local chamber of commerce. He and Cooper also began working with a coach (Jon Francis out of Pennsylvania, who has been featured in Ratchet+Wrench before for his community-focused operational approach), and that sured up some of the business’s financial approaches. But, overall, Winston says nothing changed the business more than the simple move of joining the chamber.
“I joined what they call a Gold Mine Group, a group of business owners that meet once a week to discuss how they can grow their business and how they can grow personally,” he says. “The connections made have made an incredible difference. It’s led to referrals and customers and a lot of growth. I now try to go to every event. I love it.”
And, Winston says he’s always armed with his best one-on-one marketing tactice: his 15-second elevator pitch.
“When you’re out in the community and you meet someone new, you usually have a very short window to make an impression and be able to discuss your business,” he explains. “I have a pitch I go through in about 15 seconds. It might change a little from time to time, but more or less, it’s always the same.”
Here’s Winston’s pitch:
Hi, My name is Nate. How are you? I’m with ECP Auto Repair & Service. We are located here in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. We are a full-service auto repair shop, and we're definitely not like any other shop—very unique, very different. We’d love to have you come in and check out the place and we can get to know more about you. Since the shop began focusing on community engagement, revenue has nearly doubled again in the course of two years. In 2016, the business is on pace to surpass $600,000.
No Silver Bullet
There won’t ever be a single moment that saves a business, Winston says. There are a handful he points to as “turning points.” But to put too much weight into those would diminish the hard work he and his partner put into every job, every repair, every customer interaction the past eight years.
The business has grown and changed immensely from that first night in 2008. But Winston says his basic approach hasn’t changed.
“You just have to give yourself opportunities to win customers over; that’s the key. That’s what marketing is all about,” he says. “Nothing comes easy. There aren’t any silver bullets. You have to do things the right way, and keep at it. Eventually, it all settles down.”