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Upgrading a Family-Owned Repair Chain

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The first thing you see are the rows of gas pumps, two of them, covered by a canopy that stretches back to the top of the cinder-block building. There’s also a car wash, a propane-filling station, and a towering electronic sign that rotates messages—on this day it’s touting a children’s coloring contest on the company Facebook page.

Plymouth VIP Car Wash & Auto Service has the foundation of an old-fashioned gas station/service center. It also has all the makings of a 21st century business prepared to succeed in a more competitive, technologically advanced industry.

Consider the business a throwback—with a very modern facelift.

Manager Chris Robbins, the business’s third-generation operator, simply wants customers to see what it truly is.

“We have tried to make more of a focus in our marketing that we’re a full-service auto repair,” Robbins says of his facility’s outward appearance. “Our web presence does a pretty good job of letting people know that we’re more than a quick-service kind of thing. There’s a little bit of a stigma with having gas pumps out front—you do basic service and sell gas.”

During the last six years as a manager, Robbins, 31, has invested heavily in storewide training, added new equipment, undertaken renovations, and shifted the company’s branding to reflect the area’s upscale client base. The changes have quickly paid off: Revenue has jumped sharply from $900,000 in 2013 to an expected $1.2 million by the end of 2014.

And Plymouth VIP now serves as the model for the family’s three-store company, a business, founded in 1959, that is the epitome of true staying power.

Modernizing the old model

The location Robbins manages is a general repair facility that services all makes and models. It was originally constructed in 1985 and is situated alongside a high-traffic, four-lane connecting road, near a major highway, a grocery store and a slew of other area businesses.

Its physical layout—with the front-facing gas pumps—suggests a traditional filling station/service combo. Inside, however, Robbins is working to transform his shop’s image into a more modern repair center where the gas pumps are an added bonus rather than the center of attention.

Eight repair bays are tucked away out of sight behind the newly upgraded, posh customer welcome area and lounge with leather seating, decorative houseplants, soothing earth tones, soft lighting, a children’s play area, as well as bottled water and coffee service. One step inside quickly dispels the notion that you’ve arrived at a run-of-the-mill gas station/repair shop combo.

While the garage previously averaged approximately 550 cars each month, rebranded service offerings have successfully lowered the car count toward an average of 425 cars per month, while increasing the shop’s average repair order.

The biggest change came from focusing less on low-margin general repairs, like the previous $24.95 oil changes, in favor of higher-value repairs that have reduced low-margin jobs while increasing ticket averages. Today, oil changes at Plymouth VIP are priced at $39.95, including up to six quarts of synthetic blended oil and a more thorough, 40-point inspection with battery test and a free car wash. And all repair customers are eligible to take advantage of one of the company’s seven loaner cars, a crucial way to ease the repair process for its customers.

High-tech upgrades

As an admitted technology geek who loves to show off his shop’s most advanced equipment, Robbins has implemented a few unique measures to match some of the computer-based services offered at dealerships, while also improving customer education.

Every service technician is also equipped with a digital camera used to take pictures of anything revealed in an inspection or repair that needs attention. The images or videos are transmitted to one of two big-screen TVs in the reception area so service advisors can explain needed repairs with clear visual cues.

“Any kind of a visual thing, whether it’s a fluid leak, a cracked belt, a broken steering or suspension component, worn tires—we can even do video of a loose wheel bearing,” Robbins says. “We’ve got it streamlined where it’s pretty easy to do, everything’s wireless and we don’t have to plug cables in or anything like that.”

The cameras and TVs came as part of a renovation last fall that included the revamped reception and lounge areas, with details like updated cabinetry and a new cashier island. Robbins attributes the visual presentation idea to his experience in the many roles of the store.

“It comes from the experience of being able to understand what it is like to be a technician, and what could help a technician do his job better,” he says. “Same thing with the front counter—how could you get those two to communicate better?”

Other digital efforts have been mined from various training opportunities, industry networking and an Elite Pro Service 20 Group; these include emailing estimates to customers who are unable to make it into the store, or communicating with some customers by text messaging.

Drawing up standards

A key part of Robbins’ upgrades—and to what he largely attributes the recent spike in revenue—results from an all-encompassing set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) that outline detailed duties and expectations from every employee in the organization.

CHANGE FROM THE INSIDE OUT: Robbins has helped to push the shop’s full-service offerings in its marketing, hoping to make up for an exterior that may give a false impression. Photos by Tom Kaiser

“We spent hours trying to fine-tune everything from what we want our service desk to look like with pictures of how the drawers should be organized, all the way down to how does our customer interaction go? What do we want to say on the phone? How do we go through a sales presentation? And how we want to deliver the vehicle?” he says. “It helps make sure that we’re consistent, and that’s a big thing with us. Our customers know what to expect when they come here.”

Customer follow-up is a process that’s outlined with particular detail, ensuring all customers are pleased with repairs. Whether by text, phone or email, every repair is followed with contact in the days following an appointment to ask how customers would rate their service and if there are any outstanding questions about the work performed.

Technician SOPs include overviews of diagnosing procedures, specific service tasks, directions for maintaining the car wash bay and using the shop’s management software. Robbins added that detailed standard procedures assist in training, and help weed out interview candidates that may not be comfortable in such a buttoned-down work environment.

“In general, people want to know what to do. They do better when they have a clear outline of what’s expected; and it really helps them feel more confident and comfortable when something happens,” he says. “They know they’re trained—it’s in a book, and if they forget, they can refer back to it.”

Robbins says it was intimidating when he started drawing up SOPs, having so many ideas and not knowing where to begin. Just creating a plan, he adds, is the most important part of the process that includes forming an idea, making a plan for implementation, then getting it all down on paper.

A familial transition

The family’s two other shops are EuroSport of Wayzata, focused exclusively on European service, and Plymouth Station Auto Center that also services all makes and models on the other side of town.

Robbins’ sister, Liz Nalezny, manages the Holiday-branded convenience store at Plymouth Station Auto Center, which sees much higher foot and vehicle traffic than the other locations. EuroSport of Wayzata, which also sells fuel and is located in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in Minnesota, averages only six to eight cars per day, but has much higher ticket averages.

Parents Dan and Lynette Robbins are still involved with the businesses. Lynette handles HR and payroll, while Dan covers accounting duties for the three stores. They all regularly meet to discuss what’s happening at the various locations and divvy up new responsibilities as they arise.

Robbins, who served as a cashier, technician and service advisor before eventually becoming the store’s general manager, says he expects his parents to remain engaged for the foreseeable future while he transitions into an ownership role for the family corporation.

“I look at my Grandpa Jerry, for instance, and up until the last year [of his life] he was still involved,” he says. “It was his hobby, what he enjoyed, and it was his way of getting out of the house, so he still did inventory ordering and things that were fun for him. I think that’s just kind of in our blood. At some level, I feel like [my parents] are always going to be somewhat involved because they want to be.”

Within the next 12 months, Robbins plans to re-wrap the gas pumps, add new exterior signage, and paint the canopy over the gas pumps to finalize the store’s rebranding efforts and cement the image of a premium, customer-focused service organization.

“It’s been crazy, for sure,” Robbins says. “I want to get as much information as I can and try to come up with what’s going to work best for us, our area, our markets and what it is that we’re trying to do. Over the last year, there’s been a lot of stuff that we’re working towards, and in the last six months even, we’ve seen a pretty big improvement with our shop.” 

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