Can an independent repair shop still be successful with only limited space? Just ask Scott “Oz” Osborn, who makes the most of his three-bay shop in Redondo Beach, CA. Square footage comes at a premium in Southern California, and Osborn prides himself on providing quality service and making every square foot count.
“In a small shop, productivity is huge,” Osborn explains. “We have 1,000 square feet and only one bay per tech. But we have rolled out as much as $1.25 million in sales in one year. Everything has to be done right: appointments, greeting the customer, writing up repair tickets, vehicle inspections, estimating the job, sales, parts ordering and final presentation. If one of the processes falls apart, the cost in time and production can easily exceed the job we’re working on.”
To prepare for inevitable hiccups during the repair process, Osborn says that a walk-through from the customer’s vantage point is completed periodically.
“We actually walk it out from the customer’s perspective of coming in the door, see what they see, where they stand, and where equipment and supplies are stored in the bays,” he says. “We’re constantly tweaking it to make working in the tight quarters a little smoother and to enhance the customer’s visit.”
He’s also careful to not let productivity take away from the customer experience, which is critical to word-of-mouth advertising.
“We’ve looked into automating the process of customers dropping off their car, but we want it to be a personal experience where we can ask questions and make it a personal relationship,” Osborn says. “Customers never tell their friends, ‘They used real good quality parts,’ but they will say something like, ‘Wow, they really made me feel comfortable.’”
Placing importance on the cleanliness of the facility also goes a long way with customers; after all, first impressions do matter.
“I’ve always had a clean shop,” Osborn says. “It’s the first thing a customer can judge you on. You can tell them how good you are until you’re blue in the face, but if the sales room, front counter, bays or even the trash dumpster look dirty, it’s a big negative. There’s no such thing as too much lighting or too clean of a wall or floor.”
While satisfied customers have done their part in telling friends and family about their positive experiences at Osborn’s Automotive, TV commercials starring Osborn himself have also helped attract attention. He says that rather than a serious take on his business, humor has been his most successful route.
“We do a lot of advertising. Our TV commercials are constantly out there, and we’ve learned that they have to be memorable to be effective,” Osborn explains, adding that “we’re the best shop around” and “we fix it right the first time” tactics just didn’t resonate with viewers. “As soon as I switched it up to doing corny things like licking the dipstick to check the oil’s condition, or racing around town in our ‘smart’ car, people started talking about the commercials. If you’re going to spend the money on TV ads, you better make it something people can laugh at!”
Osborn actually started his first automotive business in 1979, banking on specialization at the time. Oz’s Tiger Service focused on the repair of Sunbeam Tigers — a blast from the past that proved quite profitable for a time.
“You don’t see many of those around anymore, but I was one of the few guys who knew what made them tick and had a great following,” he says. “I ran into some problems with my lease and ended up moving on to a general auto repair shop at another location. I soon learned that maintenance and repair was a far more reliable source of income and stability than the customizing and racing field.”
Osborn managed several shops after that and owned six different locations that included gas stations with service bays, as well as convenience stores. Osborn sold those 12 years ago, and Osborn’s Automotive was born at its current location on Redondo Beach’s Pacific Coast Highway. It may be small, but Osborn is quick to point out that there is plenty of parking — something that’s tough to come by in Southern California!
Osborn also has a long history of industry involvement, with memberships in organizations such as ASA, AMI, BNI and ASCCA. Most of all, AAA has helped build customer trust and rapport.
“We’ve been AAA-certified for 25 years and won the organization’s ‘Achievement Award’ twice now,” Osborn explains. “I’d have to say that AAA has been the most effective for building my customers’ trust. We’ve been part of its approved battery programs, its used car inspection programs, and every year we sign up for its oil change specials. I know that AAA has changed considerably over the years, and I have seen a decline in the value to its customers, but it’s still a positive relationship.”
Having three bays does limit the shop to three techs, but Osborn employs several support staff, including a younger apprentice who handles most of the oil changes and a skilled porter who washes all of the cars and keeps the shop clean. All of his techs are certified, and Osborn is a Master Tech with a current L1 status as well. Staffing is still critical, and Osborn says it’s getting harder all of the time.
“One of the hardest jobs we have is finding good employees,” he says. “I had one employee leave awhile back, moving to the Philippines to be with family, and I’m finding it very hard to locate a good tech with a strong work ethic.
“I’ve seen a decline over the years of kids in school taking shop classes, or anything other than college prep,” he continues. “It’s a shame that more people don’t realize the benefits of working with your hands and actually feeling the success of a job done right. We’re left with growing our own employees from the apprenticeship level, recruiting on dozens of websites, or even going out of state and offering moving incentives.”
Employees at Osborn’s Automotive stay current on the latest in automotive repair through online tutorials, YouTube videos, local auto parts sponsored seminars and DVD lessons.
“It’s tough to send one tech from a three-tech shop away for a few days,” Osborn explains. “That cuts productivity by a third, so we have to use whatever we can get ahold of in terms of local training programs.”
Osborn himself isn’t exempt from training, as he takes advantage of all the knowledge he’s gained through management groups and applies it to improve shop productivity.
“Currently, I’m a member of Bob Cooper’s ‘Elite Pro Service’ group of 90 of the best shop owners in the country,” he says. “I’ve been through Management Success, ATI (Shop of the Year in 2006) and RLO Training. I’ve gained something from every one of them, but I’ll stick with Elite until I retire.
“I’ve learned that shop profitability is a combination of pricing your services correctly, getting paid for what you know, and especially what you do, as well as making sure your parts margins are correct,” he continues. “The biggest gain to profitability comes from watching your expenses, though. I believe in keeping equipment up to date and buying only quality equipment. My dad taught me years ago, ‘Buy it once, and buy it right.’ That’s definitely true for our business!”
In the end, it all comes back to the customers: Are they satisfied with their repair? Did they have a pleasant experience at the shop? Were employees friendly and helpful? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” Osborn says they haven’t done their job.
“Follow up calls, personal notes in cars and having cars washed on every visit is big, but none of those would mean a thing if we had a lousy attitude toward the customer,” he says. “Our employees know that they are the heartbeat of our service, and they treat everyone with respect and honesty. Whether it’s just filling up someone’s tires with air or writing them up at the service desk, the customer knows they’re important to us.”
A good rule of thumb, Osborn says, is to treat every customer as if he or she were your mother having her car serviced. Would you lie to your mom? Osborn hopes not!
“Always make sure that customers have options when making decisions on repairs,” he says. “When someone is told that they need to spend ‘X’ amount of dollars on a brake job, they automatically think of what else they could do with that money. Unless I give them a choice of jobs, with different warranties or prices, they instead think of getting a second opinion or saying no.”
Also offer a great warranty and stand behind it — Osborn does.
“My customers know that if they break down on the road, and it’s because of something we did, I’ll get on the phone and find them a reputable shop to have it repaired and pay for it,” he says. “I’ll work out the details later, but the customer knows they’re going to be taken care of.”
So can an independent repair shop be successful with limited space? Osborn’s Automotive is proof positive that it can.