For his first year of business, Andy Gales knew he had to do something different—something “really wild.”
“I’m in a small town, and the only two shops I have to compete with have been around for decades,” says Gales, owner of Gales General Service Center in Bridgeport, Mich. “Have you ever seen Road House? That was my situation: They owned the town, and I was coming in like Patrick Swayze. I had to compete with the big dogs.”
That “something wild”? Try a 10-foot-tall snow sculpture of a shrine enveloping a car, branded with the Gales General Service Center logo to boot.
But it wasn’t just some eye-catching project. Because of his competitors’ critical weakness, the true power of this snow sculpture rested in what it represented when it premiered at Zehnder’s Snowfest, the local annual winter festival.
“I noticed that the big dogs never contributed to anything, never sponsored anyting, never bought the little kids’ candy bars—nothing,” Gales says. “That’s when I knew I could set myself apart. I had to prove myself.”
For Gales—who has more than tripled annual revenue since focusing on community involvement—and two other shop owners who shared their stories for this article, it’s all about standing out in the community, and serving as an example for their employees. Customers and employees don’t just see a sponsored snow sculpture or an internship program for disabled individuals or an eco-friendly initiative—they see companies that care, that have become one with their communities.
It’s the kind of earned trust that can truly become the bedrock of a business. All it requires is a little bit of time, effort and a willingness to give back.
1) Targeted Marketing
By offering a few extra services, Brad Pellman appealed to his community’s green mindset
SHOP STATS: Pellman’s Automotive Service Location: Boulder, Colo. Shop Size: 9,420 square feet Number Of Lifts: 14 Staff Size: 11 Average Monthly Car Count: 325 Annual Revenue: $2.4 million Community Involvement: Serving as a hazardous material drop-off site; hosting car care clinics; hosting individuals in need of temporary employment; partnering with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; hosting ride-sharing bicycle stands.
In 2016, the White House designated Boulder, Colo., a Climate Action Champion for “outstanding leadership in climate resilience actions and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.” The recognition stemmed from a community that has voted to reduce air pollution, establish an eco-friendly public transportation system, and stop building permits from intruding on 1,200 acres home to grazing deer.
And for the past 22 years, Pellman’s Automotive Service has been part of that green effort. It’s just one piece of owner Brad Pellman’s attraction to targeted marketing, which, for his city’s demographic makeup, has taken on several forms over the years.
“We are a college town, so the younger demographic is very transient. They’re here for four years, and then they’re gone,” he says. “Then we have the 32–45 age group, which consists of families and people who have been really committed to the green stuff.”
But he’s not talking about targeted marketing in the sense of carefully crafted Facebook ads or any sort of traditional advertising. For Pellman, it’s about becoming entrenched in the community.
In an effort to become a local leader and appeal to the Boulder community’s green 32–45 age range, Pellman’s environmental commitment has flooded into virtually every aspect of his business. Everything about his business is green, from the solar powered rooftop to retrofitted energy-efficient light fixtures to its composting program—all the way down to its logo.
But what truly separates Pellman is his commitment to easing the community-wide effort to make Boulder one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the country.
“We’re a reception site for hazardous materials, which is great for people right around Christmas,” he says. “People who want to drop off old electronics, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, hard styrofoam you get with packaging.
“We have an agreement with the local recycler for Boulder county. We pay to take over everything that comes in. We worked out an agreement to give donations to them, so we get a reduced rate for that.”
While achieving his green status in the community took many years of hard work and targeted marketing, Pellman wants to insist that it’s not as difficult as it seems—all it requires is a little brainstorming.
“A lot of it is thinking outside the box,” he says. “You don’t want to do what everyone else is doing.”
Pellman suggests an initiative growing in popularity that any business could be a part of: loaner bicycles.
“Boulder is big on being green and being healthy, and many of us are bike riders,” he says. “We made a call to the local loaner bicycle company, obtained some permits, and got it set up. Now we watch people every day drop off their vehicles and then grab one of the bikes.”
He also invites his customers in for car care classes—one class aimed at his older customers, and another at his younger demographic. For the former class, he takes an active role in customer education about recycling and environmental responsibility as it pertains to the use and care of their cars. The latter class, aimed at teenagers and young adults, teaches the basics, like changing the oil, jumpstarting a car, and how to use a car owner’s manual.
“It’s a fun day, and we generally have around 10–20 kids per event,” Pellman says. “It’s fun and successful. We even have a tire-changing competition at the end.”
Pellman advertises this initiative through the shop’s bi-monthly email newsletters, which are sent out to the older demographics in the shop’s database.
Pellman’s community outreach programs are bolstered through his partnership with local organizations, such as EnergySmart, Green Girl Recycling and PACE. His shop is also part of the Environmental Leadership Program through Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Being directly tied to community organizations and hosting workshops allows Pellman to reach his main two targeted demographics directly and inform them that improving the city is a community-wide endeavor—an endeavor he’s more than willing to assist in.
“It’s about showing them that we’re part of the community,” Pellman says. “We’re a repair business, and, yes, we can be green, and, yes, we can give back. We’re not here to just take your money.”
2) A Charitable Culture
The Waughs’ internship program is inspiring a giving shop culture
SHOP STATS: SpeeDee Oil Change & Auto Service Location: Greenville, N.C. Shop Size: 4,000 square feet Number Of Lifts: 8 Staff Size: 6 Average Monthly Car Count: 200 Annual Revenue: $1.1 million Community Involvement: Hosting individuals in need of temporary employment; serving on the local wildlife board; volunteering at the local soup kitchen; assisting at church and school events.
The old Dante Davis had some issues. He couldn’t read, his finances were a mess, and he was in constant legal trouble. Needless to say, finding a job under those conditions isn’t easy.
The new Dante Davis is a different story. His reading and computer skills are improving, he has a savings account in order, and he’s happily married with two children.
Oh, and the new Dante Davis also has a steady job.
The lead mechanic at SpeeDee oil Change & Auto Service owes it all to Tyler and Mindy Waugh, the owners of the Greenville, N.C., shop that took a chance on Davis three years ago, just when he felt as though finding a job would be near impossible.
Davis and the Waughs found each other through Strive, a program set up through Life of NC, a nonprofit organization that helps struggling individuals achieve financial independence and obtain the necessary skills to jump back into the workforce.
On the Waughs’ part, working to integrate Davis back into society is a standout move for one very obvious reason: It’s not something they market to the public.
Well, they could, if they felt inclined to—but that’s not their reason for giving back.
“Dante went about eight months without a job. Nobody would give him a chance,” Tyler Waugh says. “Having that chance, that opportunity for a better life is something we feel is important. Some people get second chances and really shine, and that’s exactly what happened with Dante.”
Life of NC is one of three programs—including a vocational college and a local special needs organization—the Waughs partner with for bringing in apprentices and interns. Many times those temporary employees are coupled with disabilities or chronic conditions, such as autism or ADHD (which was Dante’s case).
“They spend two or three months with them to help them learn a new skill, which will either get them a full-time job with us or somewhere else,” Mindy Waugh says.
“Most of the people who come in don’t have labor skills,” Tyler adds. “They’ve never been given the opportunity. Nobody has ever taken the time to teach them anything. They learn what it’s like to have a boss, but more importantly they learn to work with others.”
The real value of hosting these individuals lies in the building of a charitable culture, Tyler says. Feeding off the Waughs’ ambition to help others, employees have embraced the opportunity to give people a second chance and integrate them into shop systems. Most of the time, the temporary employees assist in courtesy inspections or administrative tasks. The Waughs even hired a woman who was 90 percent blind, who assisted the shop with filing duties a few hours each week.
“[Our employees] will say, ‘Nobody else would give this guy a chance. We really appreciate you doing this for him,’” Tyler says. “It resonates with employees when you’re just doing something out of the goodness of your heart, and not looking for any recognition for it.
“It gives everyone a sense of ownership. When [your employees are] the reason this person is succeeding, they feel good about that and they want to help even more. And it just creates this energy at the shop that’s infectious.”
Tyler wants to stress how Davis had to earn one of two lead mechanic positions at SpeeDee. It’s the result of hard work and commitment on both ends: The Waughs have helped Davis improve his reading and computing skills and set up a savings account, and Davis has returned the favor by achieving his ASE certifications and giving the shop three years of hard work.
“It’s not just about teaching them how to be an employee. It’s about allowing them to become part of society again,” Tyler says. “It’s about living a more prosperous life.”
3) Being Everywhere
Andy Gales’ lofty marketing goal is keeping him front-and-center in his community
SHOP STATS: Gales General Service Center Location: Bridgeport, Mich. Shop Size: 4,400 square feet Number Of Lifts: 6 Staff Size: 8 Average Monthly Car Count: 120 Annual Revenue: $860,000 Community Involvement: Building snow sculptures; sponsoring area festivals; purchasing new uniforms for the local high school basketball team; hosting car shows; sponsoring a local bowling team.
Andy Gales proudly holds his trophy high, beaming for the local newspaper photographer. In the following day’s edition of the Frankenmuth News, everyone will see Gales and his team—which consisted of his employees and an area high school art teacher who dedicated off-time to the project—posing in front of their snow sculpture.
And Gales isn’t just reaching the shop’s home market of Bridgeport, Mich. He’s trying to grab the attention of the tri-city area, which includes Frankenmuth, where Zehnder’s Snowfest is held each year.
“I wanted to attract business outside the area, since there’s a bigger population in towns around us,” he says. “After we won for the sculpture, we just blew up.”
Not only will that snow sculpture appear in the newspaper, but Gales also will be sure to post the photos to the shop’s various accounts on social media, making sure everyone understands the sweat he and his standout employees are pouring into the community.
“You have to be very reactive. You have to think about it. You can’t do what’s easy,” he says. “You’re not just posting some ad online or in the newspaper. You need something that stands above all that. We get so much engagement on Facebook when people just see us doing something real and relatable.”
It’s all part of Gales’ desire to appear “everywhere,” which, at first glance, is a goal that seems lofty at best. But when you hear him list off his various community projects in an effort to, in fact, be everywhere? It starts to sound less and less hyperbolic.
“It’s all about word-of-mouth,” he says. “People talk, plain and simple. And when you’re constantly in front of them, they’re going to talk about you.”
Those efforts range from from sponsoring a local bowling team to buying new uniforms for the local high school’s basketball team.
“We’re in a low-income area, so the school hadn’t been able to buy the team new uniforms for 20 years. It was embarrassing to watch,” he says. “So we bought them all uniforms, and it’s made a huge impact. Word spreads quickly with the parents when you do something like that.”
Along with participating in contests, Gales’ shop sponsors local festivals whenever possible, which affords him the opportunity to get his name in front of everyone. Last year for Bridgeport’s summer festival, Gales sponsored the parking lot, meaning everyone with a car had to see a “Gales General Service Center” sign as they pulled into parking spots.
When Gales speaks to people in the community in an effort to promote Gales General Service Center, his pitch is what sells him, mainly because it’s not a pitch at all.
“When you’re ‘pitching’ something, it’s usually very obvious and manufactured,” he says. “I try not to pitch. I look to have a conversation, ask about their life, and if they happen to ask about me, I will tell them about my shop and what we stand for.”
While making his name ubiquitous around town has its obvious benefits, Gales says nothing sticks out like cultivating your own moments, like when his shop hosted a community car show. The event puts Gales right at the center, making him the star and providing a convenient way to reach people directly.
“I try to introduce myself to everyone, smile at them, and greet and leave them with a handshake,” he says. “I believe in the power of a handshake. When they feel like they know you, it’s so much easier for them to bring their car in.”
Because of those efforts, Gales has steadily taken his shop’s annual revenue from $250,000 to $860,000 over the past seven years without spending a cent on traditional advertising. He, instead, uses his time and money to arrange for community events and philanthropic efforts.
It’s that attitude that leads to Gales scoffing at the idea of getting an ROI on philanthropy and grassroots marketing, which he believes is achieved with a modicum of effort and care. When you live and breathe your work, people will recognize that and reward you “10 times over.”
“I know it’s hard to invest in something if you don’t know you’re going to get a good return on it. But if you believe in your heart that you’re doing a good thing and helping out, you’ll see the results immediately,” he says. “You actually have to invest your time and make it worthwhile.”