Bill Sauer on the Evolution of Identifix
After 52 years in the industry, Bill Sauer announced in early August that he was retiring as founder of Identifix. Sauer, 77, has been involved in many areas of the industry: He’s been a service station owner, information provider, entrepreneur, association member, and a part of numerous industry groups. Since its founding 26 years ago, Identifix has grown into the largest source of repair information in North America.
In his retirement, Sauer plans to continue traveling, gardening, dogsledding, rehabbing wildlife creatures, and writing his memoir.
Sauer recently spoke to Ratchet+Wrench about Identifix’s beginnings, the evolution of the company, and his advice for the repairers of tomorrow.
You’ve been in the auto repair industry for more than 50 years. Why are you so passionate about this industry?
I started in the auto repair business in January of 1962 as a Mobil service station dealer. After eight years as a Mobil dealer, I designed and built a six-bay diagnostic center, complete with a dyno and dynamic brake tester. I sold it after four years to start an equipment sales company, selling oscilloscopes, dynos, infra-reds and other test equipment. I wanted my buyers to use the equipment properly, so with each sale I scheduled an on-site training session right in their shop with the techs.
By being so involved in the ins and outs of the industry, it became obvious that it didn’t have that great of a reputation. It wasn’t viewed as professional and that’s something I am very passionate about. Anything that can add professionalism to the industry is where I come from. In my office, I have a plaque that my mother gave me when I first went into business. It reads, “Behold the turtle! He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That has always been my motto and the reason why I’ve stuck my neck out for this industry, so to speak.
How were you able to identify the needs of the industry?
I started holding those on-site training sessions in the mid-’70s when electronic ignition was new. During these training sessions I discovered that the techs had little knowledge of electronic ignition or ignition theory.
When I had the diagnostic center, I had a list of shops to call if I needed help with the ignition. I wasn’t afraid to ask other people for help.
I’m no better than anyone else, so that’s when I realized that if I needed help, then other folks probably need help too. Since that realization, I’ve been particularly good at thinking about what I would want or need if I was a technician. I put myself in their shoes. That’s why I started my first company, Autotech, in 1976. It provided advanced technical training that was heavy in theory of operation.
How did Autotech eventually evolve into Identifix?
In 1980, the computerized car was introduced. Being somewhat of a visionary, I foresaw the increasing need for information and my thoughts wandered to the formation of a technical hotline. That’s when I came up with the idea for Identifix.
I felt that 1985 would be a good time to introduce a hotline since six model years of computerized vehicles had been on the highways. I started putting together a business plan and finding an investor. I wanted to do it right, which meant having specialists on the phone, not generalists; using original factory service information; and computerizing everything to develop a database. Eventually, we found an investor in the Owatonna Tool Company; we rented a building; hired a Ford, GM, Chrysler, and import specialist; ordered all factory manuals published since 1980; set up the phone system; and patched together a computer system. And on January 2, 1988, we waited for the phone to ring!
Can you describe the evolution of Identifix and its impact on the industry?
At the time we launched, the repair industry wanted and needed information, but it wasn’t ready to pay for it. Most felt that it should be supplied by their parts suppliers for free. So growth was slow. Part of the problem was that we charged an up-front membership fee and monthly charge. We eventually dropped the membership fee and started charging by the minute. By the mid-’90s, we had hired (Identifix president) Jeff Sweet and had more recognition with national parts and oil company affiliations, so our numbers started to go up.
Now 22 years later, we have grown to 46 specialists, taking up to 20,000 calls a month—over 4 million since we started. And we don’t seem to be slowing down.
In July, over 5,000 shops called the hotline. And we just broke another record: 46,000 Direct-Hit (our online vehicle diagnostic, OEM service and repair information tool) subscribers accessed information on over 400,000 different vehicles in just one week. There are usually around 20,000 shops accessing data at any given time.
We, along with our sister company, iATN, have become the largest source of repair information in North America. Moving forward, we’ll continue to do what we’re doing. We have more improvements and features in the works.
How would you describe the state of the industry?
The industry really has become much more professional. You see more shop owners going out and networking, and attending management classes. They’re becoming much better businessmen. Back when I started, shop owners were wrenching under the hood in the back room. That’s not the case anymore. I expect to see that more so in the future because more folks are taking classes and reaching out. There are more resources than ever and shop owners have realized that to stay in business, they need to improve.
What is your advice for the independent shop to remain competitive in this industry?
For a shop that doesn’t already do it, get out and network, join an association, or take classes. You can’t hide in today’s marketplace. Since I was a service station dealer, I have been a member of associations. The biggest reason for that is the networking. All of the top shops are there and you can really learn from them.
It has also helped me learn how to put together a solid business plan and properly finance a start-up. I have started under-financed businesses and it is not fun. You’ve got to have a solid business plan and a good set of financials, otherwise your dream is just a dream.
Do you have any plans for your retirement?
There will be no downtime for me. I have been blessed with a healthy body, so I will continue my life of travel. I’ve been to the arctic seven times, kayaked with whales in Alaska and lived with nomads in Mongolia and Siberia. At home, I have a large flower garden, and I do woodworking and dogsledding. My wife and I are also wildlife rehabbers; we’ve got 11 raccoons in a cage in our backyard right now.
Finally, I also plan to finish the book I am writing. People have bugged me for years to write a book because of my involvement with Identifix. One day I thought, “Maybe I should!” I’m a perfectionist, so I wanted it done right. It’s my life story, but it is geared toward people who want to be in business for themselves and are entrepreneurs.
Even though it seemed like the right time to move on, it will be difficult to move on from the industry completely. I’ve been doing this for 52 years, so I’m sure I’ll always keep an eye on the industry.