BEARING THE WAIT
When road construction threatened to alienate Black Bear Auto’s customer base, owner Barry Balaban found a unique solution. It involved the local news station, community art and spray paint—a lot of spray paint.
He calls it the “Dunkin’ Donuts Theory.”
“Driving down the road, someone will see construction in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts, and instead of going a block out of their way to go to that one, they’ll drive five blocks down the street to the next one,” Barry Balaban says.
And that’s what Balaban was afraid of when he found out the road in front of his Bristol, Conn., shop, Black Bear Auto, would be closed for at least all of June and July—even longer if construction didn’t stay on schedule.
Balaban says that demographic studies show that roughly 40,000 cars pass by his shop daily on that main thoroughfare. In a town with about 20 competing repair facilities, that drive-by traffic was a key advantage for Balaban’s business; Black Bear would average anywhere between five and 10 walk-ins each day. For a shop averaging 250 repair orders per month, that’s a substantial total.
And now, for two full months, that portion of the business could be gone.
“We’re right by a bridge that crosses the river here, and there have always been flooding issues, so we knew they’d be doing substantial road work at some point to fix that,” Balaban says. “But, when they told us the road would be completely closed, it was, ‘OK, what are we going to do now?’ We’ve always made money, but I’m not sure anyone can be prepared to totally lose their business for two months.”
‘Adapt and Overcome’
This wasn’t the first time Black Bear was presented with adversity that had little to do with the business itself. Balaban started the business in 1998 as a one-man, two-bay repair shop in a Citgo station, before finding his current location on Frederick Street.
Two weeks after moving into the 3,800-square-foot facility in 2005, the building flooded when the river rose during a storm. He lost $50,000 worth of furniture and equipment. It flooded again three years later—but this time, Balaban and his team were ready.
“We now have everything on risers and up on the walls,” he says. “We always want to be prepared for whatever comes down the road. Adapt and overcome—that’s always been my motto.”
So, when he first learned of the road closure in October of 2014, Balaban wasted little time in making preparations. He dropped the price on his oil change deal in local mailers; the idea being that it would help drive in an influx of new customers, which he could then turn into longtime customers through the shop’s full inspection process and superior customer service. He also purchased Mitchell 1’s ShopKey Pro system to help improve search engine rankings and begin a more thorough customer follow-up process through email marketing. (He’s always done hand-written thank-you notes to customers.)
And in each of his regular direct mail and mailer package pieces he started emphasizing more differentiators of his business, such as the shop’s courtesy shuttle.
“We have ESPN headquarters in our town, and that’s something that makes a big difference in getting that business,” Balaban says, noting that roughly 25 percent of his customer base is made up of ESPN employees—young professionals with disposable incomes.
Still, Balaban was concerned none of this would be enough.
A Better Brand
Balaban had the flyer sitting on his desk for two months. He’d grabbed it on a whim, not really sure that he’d ever need it. Then, the idea hit him.
“We were at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in town and there was this artist out there painting a 15-by-15 canvas of Santa Claus using spray paint,” he says. “I just sat and watched him, and it was pretty incredible. I randomly just grabbed his flyer.
“Then, I’m sitting there and thinking, ‘Maybe he can do something for us.’”
Balaban’s L-shaped building was your classic, old-school shop—white-washed concrete walls with some blue stripes. The only distinguishable feature on the property was the 14-foot wood carving of a bear by the entrance to the parking lot.
“The idea was to get [the artist] to do something that people would remember and be able to come and see,” Balaban says. “And it kind of snowballed from there.”
After some initial work spraying the exterior walls of the office and lobby to resemble a log cabin, Balaban decided to take it up a notch and redo the entire facility.
The end result is one of the most unique facilities in the country—a full-scale mural, covering the walls and garage doors that includes black bears working on vehicles.
“I can’t imagine it turning out any better,” Balaban says. “Now, we have all this custom artwork that completely fits with our name and brand. It was a complete rebranding for the business.”
The murals were finished in the spring, giving the shop a buffer period before the road closure.
The final bill approached $20,000 including paint, materials, tax and the fees to the artist. It may sound steep, but Balaban’s typical marketing budget is $30,000 per year, and after all, this was a marketing tactic.
And the results were evident. Balaban received considerable local attention, being featured on the news and having reports written in the area newspapers. Local residents began coming to the shop just to see the paintings—many returning to get work done.
Typical monthly sales for Black Bear were just under $70,000 prior to the road closure. In July, the shop set a record with $83,000. Remarkably, car count rose by 50 vehicles in both June and July, and the shop now averages roughly 350 cars each month.
The shop was on pace to hit nearly $100,000 in August, after the road reopened.
“We’ve had the goal of becoming a million-dollar shop for quite a while, and it’s pretty astounding to think that, through all of this, this is how we might get there,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to stand out, and give people a reason to come to us, no matter what. I feel like we’ve done that.”
CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY
As Plandome Service Center pushed through a decade of year-over-year growth, owners Peter and Kevin FitzPatrick focused their attention on a side business. Then the shop’s sales went stagnant, forcing the brothers to overhaul the business’s core philosophy.
Plandome Service Center had been a mainstay in the Manhasset, N.Y., area for 35 years before brothers Peter and Kevin FitzPatrick bought it in 1996.
Kevin was the master technician; Peter the business major with management experience.
And the partnership was a perfect match. The 1,500-square foot shop grew quickly, eventually allowing the brothers to hire on staff and shift from under the hood of vehicles (Kevin) and behind the front counter (Peter) to roles overseeing operations and focusing on overall growth.
Plandome Service Center experienced double-digit, year-over-year growth through its first decade under the FitzPatricks’ ownership.
“It was really just focusing on simple things: quality work, solid marketing, good people, good customer service,” Peter says. “We weren’t a giant operation, but we were getting a lot out of it.”
So much so that when the brothers had another business opportunity come their way, they leapt at it. It was an automotive diagnostic company, and with their shop humming, the FitzPatricks went all in.
That was nine years ago. They spent the next seven years as absentee owners of Plandome, only to wake up one day and realize their shop had fallen flat.
“It was just stagnant for about three straight years—dead flat sales,” Peter says.
Costs of operations and taxes increase yearly, though. So, as the shop stayed steady, the business made less and less money.
“The business just wasn’t moving forward,” Peter adds. “And, because of the other things we were focusing on, it didn’t hurt us [financially] to be hardly making anything on the shop.
“We had never planned to be absentee owners, and we hadn’t set up our business that way. And it showed. The was the business we loved and were proud of, and we didn’t want to see it fail. We had to figure out how to let the shop thrive without us.”
An Absentee Education
First the problems: Peter says the shop has a great staff—three technicians (one lead tech), an experienced service writer and another part-time helper in the front of the shop. But, with the brothers so distant, enthusiasm inside the building had faded.
The owners weren’t pushing to improve, so things just stayed the same.
But the brothers didn’t have the tools to realize the issues before it became a long-term trend—nor did they have the processes in place to ensure the issues didn’t arise in the first place.
The solutions came swiftly. Two years ago, the FitzPatricks hired a consultant to help them write an operations manual, detailing every process and system in the shop from the time a customer calls to the follow-up marketing long after the customer’s vehicle is repaired. They also began tracking a multitude of KPIs, and implemented a new pay scale based on incentives that come from overall shop success. The FitzPatricks also worked closely with their team to train on the new processes and ensure the shop flowed consistently.
“The change in attitude around here was just amazing,” Peter says. “Everyone all of a sudden had so much more energy each day and enthusiasm, not just for their work but to push the business forward.”
Arguably the most substantial alteration was in the shop’s philosophy on selling work—they now provided a detailed list of every single option to customers, broken down by need. Before, they were less consistent and often just presented the “must-do job,” Peter says.
A year-and-a-half after starting this shop overhaul, sales rose 20 percent, Peter says.
And working so closely with the shop again has reinstilled Peter’s love for it. He says he plans on winding down his roles with the diagnostic company, so he can refocus on the shop—looking for growth opportunities in his market.“That’s basically the difference between just sliding by and being able to feel very, very comfortable about where we’re at,” he says.
“It’s at the point where it can be very successful without us,” he says. “So, I’d like to dig back in and really get the business growing again and moving forward. It’s been successful for a long time, and with such a great team in place, there is a lot of opportunity ahead for us.”
Three years ago, Rob and Kim Auernheimer were nearly forced to close their doors. In 2015, they’ll turn a 19.6 percent profit. In between? They rebuilt their business to churn out profitable repairs with machine-like efficiency.
Picture a clock. A quick look at its face, and it seems pretty simple: three hands steadily and continuously displaying a result. Hours. Minutes. Seconds. Time.
“But it’s not that simple, right?” says Kim Auernheimer.
Behind the face are dozens of gears spinning and moving—intricately intertwined and dependent on each other to produce one result.
The clock is your shop, Auernheimer says, or in this case, it’s her shop, Cool Springs Automotive, which she co-owns with her husband, Rob, in Brentwood, Tenn. The hands ticking represent face-value results like total sales and profitability. The shifting gears are everything else that goes into that—average repair order (ARO), car count, gross profit on parts and labor, effective labor rate, productivity, etc.
“There’s not one particular piece that is more important, necessarily; all of them need to work together,” Auernheimer explains. “That’s a business right there.”
And here’s the problem: Most shop operators don’t understand what goes on behind the face of the clock.
The Auernheimers didn’t.
For nearly six years after opening Cool Springs Automotive in 2006, the shop struggled. Overworked and exhausted, the Auernheimers produced 215 repair orders per month in 2011 out of three bays and a pair of technicians. But they grossed just $60,000 each month, barely scraping by and paying bills.
Rob was a technician by trade. Auernheimer had worked in real estate before coming on full time at the shop in 2011 as its business manager. Neither had a deep knowledge of the intricacies of running a repair business.
In January of 2012, their struggles came to a head.
“We were working far too hard to get so little out of it,” Auernheimer says. “It was at the point where we had to do something or we’d close our doors.”
Let’s cut to the discovery: The shop’s problem was time. They couldn’t find enough of it each day. Cool Springs Automotive was always busy—or, rushed might be a better description. The Auernheimers and their team hurried through work, often recommending and performing only the essential repairs on vehicles, or simply fixing issues brought to their attention by customers.
They didn’t perform extensive inspections, and they rarely sold routine maintenance items. And it stemmed from a lack of knowledge, Auernheimer says.
Back to January of 2012, and the Auernheimers made the decision to max out a credit card and attend a WORLDPAC training event in California. There, they received their first introduction to the difference between parts margins and markups, a number of key performance indicators (KPIs) they had never tracked, and they began working with a business consultant on workflow in the shop. They returned to Tennessee determined to push the business forward.
A New Set of Goals
Auernheimer considers her and her husband to be goal-oriented people. Before receiving training, they simply didn’t know what their goals should have been.
“It was never one thing that was holding us back, but it was knowing what we should monitor and what we should shoot for,” she says. “Once we knew that, we had the chance to actually improve.”
The Auernheimers overhauled the shop’s estimating process and began using a parts matrix to achieve specified margins, rather than simply applying a random markup. And they began tracking KPIs religiously, monitoring specific metrics against benchmarks their consultant, Cecil Bullard, provided based on their market demographics and overall industry averages.
Suddenly, Cool Springs Automotive had direction, with an overarching goal to grow without adding volume. Sales jumped $15,000 in March, and ARO steadily climbed in the following months. The shop’s financial health became so strong by the end of 2013 that the Auernheimers were able to receive a loan to purchase a $1.3 million building to grow the business.
In 2015, Cool Springs Automotive averaged 221 repair orders per month out of its now 10-bay, eight-lift facility. But, despite a practically identical car count to 2011, the shop grossed $110,000 each month in sales—nearly double its previous output. After barely being able to pay the bills before, the shop now turns a net profit of 19.6 percent.
Understanding the various gears that put the shop in motion—and armed with the knowledge to properly monitor them—the Auernheimers are now on a fast-track to success.
“If you know your goals and you work on achieving those, the bottom line will come when you achieve those,” Auernheimer says.
The Cool Springs Workflow
When the Auernheimers overhauled their shop’s workflow, they did so with the intent of getting the most out of each vehicle. That meant a more extensive information-gathering phase, and better utilizing the shop’s point of sale system to find maintenance interval information on each vehicle.
As told to Bryce Evans
When a customer enters the shop, the work order starts right away. The vehicle is logged into our system, and the service writer checks the oil change sticker. Part of that check-in process is pulling and looking through previous recommendations from past visits. We also check Carfax to see if work has been done anywhere else, and check for any open recalls on the vehicle.
If it’s a brand-new customer, we also check the automaker’s recommended maintenance intervals based on age and mileage. We then enter that information into our system, so that we can customize those recommendations moving forward for the customer.
At that point, our shop foreman dispatches the work to a technician. The tech does a full inspection, based on needs: required (safety issues), recommended (pending safety issues), and future work. They will also perform the initial diagnosis on the vehicle, or the desired service for the customer, like an oil change, for instance.
Once that is complete, the repair order comes back to the service writer who prepares an additional estimate for the customer based on the findings of the inspection.
Overall, it’s not anything special or out of the ordinary—it’s about repeating it on every vehicle. It’s ow we have improved ARO and overall sales without changing car count.
FROM THE ASHES
A shop fire not only threatened Travis Tabolt’s one-man shop, but also nearly took his life. With no insurance for a rebuild, Tabolt had to turn to the community he served to help scrape by and restore his business and livelihood.
Here’s the best way Travis Tabolt can describe what happened: “Take every aspect of your absolute worst case scenario for a shop accident,” he says, “and then imagine making the wrong decision at each turn—that would still probably fall short of what actually happened.”
He has trouble telling the story; not so much because of the trauma it caused, but because it’s still hazy to him, like a nightmare he never fully woke up from.
There was the gas tank—that’s where it started. Tabolt removed it from a vehicle to make a repair, setting it near his tool box up against one wall of his 2,400-square-foot, rural, upstate New York shop, Bearpath Automotive.
The next thing he knew, the fumes from the tank had caused a small fire.
“I know that the first thing I should do is grab a fire extinguisher and call 911,” he says. “I know what you’re supposed to do, but when it happens, well, your mind works a little differently.
“Basically, every single thing you’re not supposed to do—that’s what we did. It was an absolute disaster.”
Tabolt tried to move the tank away from the wall to keep the fire from escalating. But he slipped. The gas tank spilled, spreading gas across the shop floor and Tabolt’s body.
Then the fire took over.
It engulfed the gas-slicked area of the shop, and Tabolt. His uncle was the only other person there, and his initial response was to open the main door of the garage to get both Tabolt and himself outside. The added oxygen in the shop caused the fire to spread exponentially.
Within minutes, the shop had burned to the ground, and Tabolt was left with life-threatening burns on every inch of skin below his waist.
He spent 32 days in the ICU, two weeks of which were in a morphine-induced coma.
When he woke up, he had no business, no livelihood, and was facing the possibility of a lifetime on disability.
Tabolt’s wife, Dawn, describes her husband as resilient, “a fighter.” That’s one of the reasons that just two weeks following two skin graft surgeries on his legs (he would later have a third), he went to work for a friend who owned another shop in the area, trying to earn money to rebuild his business.
But Dawn also says Tabolt is the most caring person she’s met—and, in the end, that’s what helped save his business.
Having been a technician in the area since he was 19, Tabolt spent a lifetime helping customers in need and building a bond with his small town community. And that only intensified when he launched his own, one-man business in 2009.
When others learned that Talbot’s insurance didn’t cover fire damage to the structure or his more than $100,000 worth of equipment, others chipped in.
A local lender offered him a no-interest loan to rebuild. A friend with a contracting company worked for free in putting up the new building, and a number of others chipped in when they could.
The fire was six years ago, and within a year of that, Tabolt was making repairs again in his own shop.
Tabolt realizes his obvious naivete; he hadn’t properly insured his business. He had basic coverage, but nothing that covered loss in the event of a fire.
“I’d never been one to focus on the business aspects of things,” he says. “That changed. I can tell you we definitely have the right insurance now, and I work very hard to run this as a business and focus on it that way.”
The other lesson comes from the way his customers reached back out to him. People realized the impact Tabolt had on them, Dawn says, and they were quick to return the favor.
Tabolt’s shop isn’t an industry-changer, she says. He does about seven jobs per week, focusing mainly on drivability issues with an ARO at roughly $600. But the numbers don’t measure his impact on his community, Dawn explains.
“Travis may not have had a global impact on the automotive repair industry, but this man represents America's small-town shops, automotive service technicians, and business owners who still care about their customers, their safety, their happiness, and want to provide quality service no matter what,” she says. “[He does it] because it’s the good and right thing to do and because there is no alternative in Travis’ mind.”