All in the Family
Tom Gebbie had always heard the term, and he didn’t like it; or at least, he didn’t want it to have anything to do with his family’s business.
Gebbies’ AutoCare has been an institution in Lansdale, Pa., since the 1950s. When Tom’s parents, the shop’s original owners, passed away and left the shop to him and his siblings, it was that term that popped up in his head: sophomore slump.
“You hear of it happening all the time,” he says. “The business goes down to the next generation through inheritance and then fails in that second generation.
“We had that pride thing to where we didn’t want that to happen to us. That was certainly motivation.”
And that mindset has kept the shop on a successful path. Despite taking over full-time in 2007, just before one of the worst financial periods in the past century—a time that hit particularly hard on their small Pennsylvania town—the Gebbies have held solid numbers, increasing the shop’s revenues to just above $800,000 annually.
The Gebbies have done it all through a unique group leadership style, where each role in the business is as specific and important as the next and everyone works toward one common goal, the betterment of the business.
“We’re all on the same page, and we’re all in this together,” Tom says. “That’s what carries us through it.”
Harry and Peggy Gebbie first bought their service station in 1959, and for more than four decades, ran the gas station and repair business out of the same lot on East Main St.
With the family home just around the corner, the five Gebbie children grew up in the business, spending their childhoods learning the ins and outs of the industry.
Each of them eventually fell into roles that best suit their personalities and their skillset. And by the time their parents passed away, Peggy in 2004 and Harry in 2007, their roles were firmly established.
“I wouldn’t say any of us chose our roles,” Tom says. “They chose us. A business can’t survive if you don’t have the right people. We’re fortunate that we had it right here in our family; people that really fit their positions and that really fit our overall culture here.
“For all businesses, it’s the same, though. You have to find the people that fit. How could it be any other way?”
Today, four of the five Gebbie siblings—Tom, Trudy, Jerry and Fred—work at the shop full-time, and the fifth, Maggie, is in part time to help out when she’s needed.
In a relatively unique spin, each of the four full-timers have an equal ownership stake in the shop, regardless of position. All five have equal split of the land.
“We joke that we have too many bosses and not enough employees,” says Trudy. “But it’s actually what makes this work so well. We all have the same incentive and the same buy-in.”
Tom Gebbie, 47, service manager
Role: Technically, Tom is in charge of the shop, although he’s very quick to point out that it’s only from a “workflow standpoint.” He is the main person dealing with customers day in and day out, and he’s the one “sitting at the computer researching things” or checking numbers.
“I’ve always been the most talkative of the family—well, I could argue my sisters talk more, but I’m more diplomatic in talking with people,” Tom says with a laugh. “My personality and skill set just made it a good fit to be in this role, and it’s what I’ve done since I started back here full time.”
For a stretch after college, Tom worked in environmental consulting. He had a degree in geology, but eventually felt the “politics” of that industry were a bit much.
“It’s funny because my parents never demanded that we worked here or anything,” Tom says, “but we all just fit right in. There were a lot of reasons I came back, but I’m definitely glad I did.”
Lessons from a family business: “We’re all pretty much self-regulating,” Tom says. “When everyone has a stake in what’s going on, no one is lacking any motivation. Everyone wants what’s best for our shop, and that’s how we all make decisions. That’s something that any shop can do: If you get your staff feeling that they really have a stake in what’s going on, then everything becomes that much more important to them.”
Trudy Gebbie, 48, retail manager, bookkeeper, marketing lead
Role: Mostly, Trudy is in charge of the gasoline and retail side of the business—the hiring, the scheduling, etc. She also does the finances for both repair and gas, takes the lead on most of the marketing and helps out at the service desk whenever she can.
“I was actually the service manager for a while but it wasn’t as good of a fit,” she says. “If Tom is the diplomat, I was a bit more of an enforcer. Tom’s personality was just a much better fit in being up front with customers all day.”
Trudy has a business administration degree in accounting and finance, which made her doing the bookkeeping an easy decision. But, she says, growing up in the business was her best training for her role.
“We just always saw how our parents treated people,” she says. “They really saw it as their job to be here to help people. Whether it was changing wiper blades, pumping gas, helping someone check their oil—my dad just wanted to help. He loved to work, and he loved people.
“That’s something we’ve really tried to carry on, and I feel that everyone in our shop does a great job at that.”
Lessons from a family business: “We work really hard on knowing our boundaries,” she says. “We’re older now, and I think that helps a little, but we’ve worked really hard over the years to always keep it professional in the shop and not let personal issues affect anything in the business.
“It’s about understanding our goals, why we’re here, and that’s to help the people coming in the door. Everyone keeps that in mind, and that’s how we can still see each other outside the shop and enjoy ourselves.”
Jerry Gebbie (top), 50, and Fred Gebbie, 56, technicians
Roles: As Tom puts it, his older brothers Fred and Jerry are very much like their father.
“They are both very mechanically inclined; it was just very natural for them,” Tom says. “They’re those people that always want to improve, always want to learn new things, and that’s what you really need from technicians.”
Fred and Jerry both considered different career paths at one point but ultimately knew that this was what they wanted to do, Fred says.
“It was really just an automatic,” Fred says.
The brothers share the six-bay shop with one other technician, Nick Fazzolari, who’s been at Gebbie’s for more than 25 years. “He’s basically family like the rest of us,” Fred says.
A benefit of being back on the shop floor with family, Fred says, is the competitiveness of the environment.
“We constantly push each other,” he says. “You can get complacency in some family shops, but that’s not the way we are. We just all want to improve and we want every single job to be fixed the right way. We don’t want to see people ever leave with problems on their car.”
Lessons from a family business: “Trust is the key, the number one,” Fred says. “I think that was our father’s idea with the equal ownership thing. We all trust each other and the decisions we make, and that’s something that every shop should have. We know that decisions are being made with the best interest of the business in mind, and the best interests of each other.”
What’s in a name?
As was the case with many service stations in the 1950s and ’60s, Gebbie’s was always defined as a service station first, not as a repair shop.
It was first called Gebbie’s Esso, before Esso was bought out by Exxon.
The name didn’t change until the Gebbie siblings took over full time after their father’s passing.
“It used to be that you’d see gas pumps and know that’s where you get your car fixed,” Tom says. “That’s not the case anymore. Now, a gas station is where you get cigarettes or a breakfast sandwich.”
Also, the shop was making a push to improve its Web presence with a new website, gebbiesauto.com (which is currently being updated again), and social media pages. The Gebbies didn’t want “Exxon” all over their new branding.
“It was something we had talked a lot about with our dad, and we actually were putting it in motion before he passed,” Tom says. “We just felt a name change was better for the business.”
So, in 2007, the shop became officially known as Gebbie’s AutoCare.
They changed the sign, they did new direct mail pieces, email marketing and even got some free promotion in the local newspaper.
“We really wanted to emphasize who we were as a family business, and this was a great way to do it,” Tom says.