Grassroots Marketing

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Music fills the air as children wander the parking lot with their parents, eating ice cream and drinking soda, making kid IDs with the local police department, and petting the local bloodhound search-and-rescue team.

It’s a huge draw for the families of Mechanicsburg, Pa., but it’s nothing new for Zimmerman’s Automotive Service Inc., which hosted its seventh annual car show and community day on Aug. 15.

And those families can thank Jacquie Hower and her team for that.

If you live in Mechanicsburg, Pa., it’s highly likely you know about Zimmerman’s Automotive. You either interacted with Hower at a local fundraising event, through your son or daughter’s Boy or Girl Scout troop, or because she taught you how to safely install a child seat in your car.

Hower, who still vividly remembers spending her days and evenings running around her family’s auto repair shop as a child, loves serving as director of operations for Zimmerman’s, which her family has owned since 1958.

Referring to herself as the shop’s “community ambassador,” Hower’s main job is to immerse herself in the small town of 9,000 residents and be the “face of the business.” And it’s her philosophies on grassroots marketing that make her so effective at her job—and make the annual car show a smashing success.

As told to Travis Bean

People always ask me, "What does ‘director of operations’ mean?" It’s actually a tough question to answer. The most fun part of my job is working with the community. Really, both my mom and I fill the duty of “community ambassador.” We are both considered the “faces of the business.” 

It’s such an honor to be the face of this company, and with that comes great responsibility. I don’t take that lightly. This company is my family. With every decision, I always have my family in mind. 

The way I carry myself at local events and organizations, I have to keep in mind that I’m representing a company that’s family friendly. It’s a good, honest place to go when you need help, and I’m the kind of person you’ll be working with when your car needs to be fixed. And I need to work with organizations where that type of environment appeals to them.

One of the biggest groups we work with is the Mechanicsburg Senior High School Music Alliance program. Our local schools really cut the funding to the arts program. You have to pay to play in high school. For their annual chili cook off, for example, these kids would’ve had to raise $1,500. They came here instead and we were able to give it to them for free, so they saved $1,500 that they could put into their funding. 

Then, about three years ago, they approached us about being a part of our annual car show, which we’ve been hosting since our 50th anniversary. They set up a booth at the show selling ice cream and raised money for their club.

Basically, I look for different events, fundraisers and organizations we can work with locally. That’s been a work in progress for me, understanding which local groups have the widest influence and can bring us the most business. 

IMMERSED IN COMMUNITY: While director of operations Jacquie Hower will provide extra help in the shop, from administrative work to performing oil changes, she spends most of her time in the community promoting the business. Photo by Stuart LeaskIt’s just my nature to get in there and learn by doing it. I’ve always been that way. During my senior year of high school, we had the chance to take career-focused classes, and because I wanted to run my family’s business someday, I took classes such as entrepreneurship and accounting. I even got certified with Microsoft Office through my high school.

I attended college for two years and I did not get a degree. I decided to leave school to start my career here with Zimmerman’s. I decided I wanted to take my “education” in a different direction and do more career-based training in the automotive industry. I am currently working on achieving my Accredited Automotive Manager designation from the Automotive Management Institute. Once I achieve that, my goal is to get special designations for being a general manager and an office manager. 

All of that training is more valuable to me than any classes I took in college. I don’t feel like a degree would’ve helped me because this is what I want to do. The only thing I’m more passionate about than this business is my children.

I really don’t spend much time at my desk. I’m at the shop fulfilling any extra help that’s needed, but mostly I’m meeting up with various businesses and organizations around town. I’m working with our local chamber of commerce, which provides lots of opportunities. I make sure I’m attending at least one community event every week. All the connections you make through these events—especially from hosting them—is crazy.

I’m involved with the arts programs at the local high school, I teach Ladies Car Care Clinics, I host classes at local career days, serve as the president of the board for the Children’s Family Center, and help lead Boy and Girl Scout merit badge seminars. One of the things I recently did is become certified in installing child safety seats, to be able to inform community folks just how to get your child safety seat in properly. Hopefully I can host a class soon to help parents out with that.

More than 60 antique cars were on display at Zimmerman's eighth annual car show. Photo by Stuart LeaskFor the car show, many of those connections end up becoming sponsors. While the event cost us $1,500 to put on, we were able to get about $500 in sponsorships from vendors.

We do just about anything to get our community out here. Hosting fundraisers in our parking lot is always a big draw. It puts our shop in people’s minds, so then they’ll think of us next time they need maintenance. We’re very involved with the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank. We also host our annual antique car show every August, which is a huge community turnout. We work really closely with the local fire department and police department—I even served as a volunteer firefighter for several years.

We held the car show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a Saturday. We’re a 12-bay shop, and we actually were able to let people wander around in our service shop. We had so many people in through our bays. People don’t realize we have that big of a service department, or that we even have anything back there. It’s funny—they just think the front of the building is the only thing we have.

The CARFAX mascot loomed large at the shop's last car show. Photo by Stuart LeaskEverything that’s going on at the car show is the result of years’ worth of connections and networking and community work. Our biggest draw was getting the CARFAX mascot. It’s a gigantic blow-up fox balloon that you usually only see at dealerships. Kids loved it. 

This is the first year we actually had a live band, which we booked through a friend of ours at a local church. They would play any song that anyone requested. They were a huge hit. 

The Music Alliance is here selling drinks and ice cream to all the families, and people just flock to them. They made about $300–$400 this year.

We also hosted our local blood bank for a blood drive, and they’re really great about promoting the event all over town. We’re helping each other out in that sense, and it become free advertising for us.

And then there’s the car show itself, of course. We actually had about 60 to 70 cars here this year. We work with a local car club called Blue Moon Cruisers, plus we have customers that have exotic cars. We don’t give out prizes or anything—it’s just a good-natured car show that people have fun with.

It's just nice to get people in our doors and see who we really are. That’s better than any paper or radio advertising you can do. Just seeing the shop and the people working in it and making personal connections with the business, and then they’ll tell their friends how great Zimmerman’s is.

Because of all the stuff our shop is involved in, we have local connections to our news outlets. For the chili cook off, we were able to get a news anchor to report live from the event, and that was huge. It just helped make the whole thing much bigger and better. 

Zimmerman's also had a live band perform at the event. Photo by Stuart LeaskIt’s actually easier to market when you’re active in the community than it is to market through paper or TV or radio. It’s a grassroots effort. I think people remember you more easily if you’re active in your community and if you’re making personal connections than just seeing you in the newspaper. There’s a gentleman that we work with at the Chamber who just loves us and what we’re doing locally. He goes around telling people all about us. And he’s very adamant about it. That’s free advertising right there.

Our work with the local police and fire department really came through to help us out, as well. The fire department brought their fire truck to the show, raised a big tall ladder and hung the American flag from it. 

I tried to get the area K9 crew to the event, but the timing didn’t work out. Instead, we found an organization that has bloodhounds that do search-and-rescue work. We were able to get them out here, and of course the kids love running up and petting them.

Director of operations Jacquie Hower organized a kids ID station with the police department. Photo by Stuart LeaskOne thing the police did do is create kid IDs for the children. For one, it’s fun for the kids, and then parents get a card that has the child’s height, weight, age and fingerprint, which all gets entered into a database, so if a child goes missing, they’re in the system.

We focus on family and try to keep the whole family vibe to the event. Our employees are part of this family, and that’s important to us. So we focus on the fact that our customers have families too and we need to keep them in mind, as well. Everyone had such a blast this year.

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