Imagine this scenario: You’re part of a successful, second-generation family business with a dedicated customer base in an incredible location on a prime corner. Suddenly, after nearly 25 years, your landlord sends a letter saying your property lease won’t be renewed for the next year and you’ll have to pull up stakes.
To some shop owners, that situation would spell the end of an era. For Andrew Harris, owner of Automotive Excellence of Seal Beach, California, it injected new life and excitement into a solid operation and catapulted the Confidence Plus Certified Service Center to even greater success.
The business dates back to 1981, when Harris’s father opened a 76 station. At that time, his father also got an Auto Club contract to tow cars, so it was essentially three businesses in one: a gas station, a repair shop and a towing operation.
“Growing up, I would always pump gas, put air in the tires, wash the windows and check oil,” Harris recalls. “Eventually, when I was 12 years old, I started doing oil changes and tire changes. I was always involved. And then, 15 years ago, we got a notice that they weren’t going to renew our lease. We needed to take our business and go.”
The original location, he recalls, was prime real estate, right on the Pacific Coast Highway and less than a half-mile from the beach in historic downtown Seal Beach. As the saying goes, however, when one door closes, another opens.
“I was 28 at the time and I had, in the meantime, graduated from UTI in Phoenix, and returned to work with my father,” he explains. “Slowly but surely, I was becoming a service writer for the shop but still working on cars as well. Over the span of being there eight years, I saw the writing on the walls. I knew that I wanted to have a garage and go to the next level, but I didn’t want to twist a wrench. My father was very comfortable working in the business – I wanted to work on the business.
“Across the street south one block was an independent repair shop that was just run down to the ground. My father had some health problems too, which kind of deterred him from wanting to expand – I was old enough and ready to step up.”
That time period was a whirlwind of activity.
“I got engaged, I bought my first house and then decided that this is the life we wanted – so we made an offer to the gentleman who was here. For a solid year before we moved, my manager, Peter, and I worked six days a week. I would bring every customer out to the parking lot and say, ‘OK, do you see that business right there across the street where Peter is waving his hand? The next time you bring your car in, that’s where we’re going to be. Don’t be surprised when we’re not here, because we’re not really going anywhere.’ We were only 40 yards away, but people sometimes just won’t remember.”
Harris says educating the customer is an important part of his approach, whether it’s about the benefits of a new location or the benefits of regular maintenance.
“It’s been a win-win situation,” he says. “We’ve quadrupled the amount that we do in the backroom and we retained all of our clientele. Truly, it’s been a blessing. In the 15 years since we purchased the property, we have revamped the business and branded a logo that is known throughout the whole area. People come in from 10, 15 miles away to come see us. And we can’t go any further west for our clientele.”
The facility has seven bays, each with a lift, and a separate lift outside for additional inspections. Harris poured a durable and attractive epoxy floor.
“We concreted the wall out front, put in new asphalt, painted and repaired the building,” he says. “We concreted the driveway out front for a clean look, instead of asphalting the whole parking lot.”
You can practically eat off the floor, he adds, and the rest of the shop is clean and bright as well, with new workbenches and toolboxes for his five ASE-certified technicians.
“I have four Master Technicians and the fifth one is almost a Master,” he says. All of them perform oil changes and a full inspection of every vehicle. “I pay my technicians to do oil changes, because I demand a high quality of repair. And my comeback ratio is almost zero.
“All my guys are in uniforms – tucked-in shirts, no rags anywhere. Belt, shoes, clean-cut haircut, no facial hair, so to speak. I mean, I’ve sent people home in the past, because they weren’t representing automotive excellence the way my father taught me.”
The shop employs nine tow-truck drivers. The towing business continues to be a valuable asset to Automotive Excellence and serves as great community service too. An AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility, the shop’s tow trucks run an average of 60 calls a day, with new clientele coming in every day from service performed on the road.
Automotive Excellence is open six days a week, with four techs on five of those days, and all five on the sixth day.
“We perform digital inspections that the customers really love. We use the Clear Mechanic inspection system to be able to diagnose a car and provide information to help the customer make an educated decision.” Using a new text-messaging system, the shop follows up with customers two days after the repair was completed.
Harris doesn’t see any need for high-pressure sales tactics.
“There’s plenty of work here – there are plenty of cars in Southern California to work on,” he says. “I don’t need to take another shop’s customers. For the people who do come here with an emergency, ‘Yeah, I’ll put your tire on for you or I’ll install a water pump for you. In addition, here’s a full 25-point safety inspection.’”
After the inspection, he’ll alert the customer to any red flags.
“I’ll tell them that I had my ASE-certified Master Technician drive their car. ‘We want to bring these things to your attention. It’s not an immediate safety concern, but you’ll want to be aware of this. Your technician, your other garage that has been repairing your car, needs to know about it.’ Customers are grateful for letting them know. We’re here to make sure all cars on the road are safe. It’s an opportunity to service the community.”
Of course, if they’re happy with that service and decide Automotive Excellence is the shop for them, then it’s fine news.
“I reward my technicians for doing the inspections because they are all on commission,” Harris explains. “Obviously, those inspections can be time-consuming, so they get rewarded for it. Even though it costs me money, in the long run, I want the peace of mind for the customers to know their car is inspected and their car is in good hands.”
The sincerity is appreciated by customers and has allowed the owner to step away from writing service orders over the past few years, he says. “In addition to my manager, Peter, writing the service, I have another gentleman, Jonathan, who has been with me nine years now. He’s a fully trained service writer, which means I’m able to step away and do things to work on the business away from it.”
A Supportive Partner
Automotive Excellence is a Confidence Plus Certified Service Center (CSC), part of the larger Auto Value, Bumper to Bumper and Confidence Plus CSC network. As much as Harris enjoys interacting with customers, his relationship with his warehouse distributor, Warren Distributing of Santa Fe Springs, California, is just as important.
“Frank Chesnick, our salesman, is by far superior to any other salesman I have ever had in any kind of industry. As far as letting us know of all of the bonuses or specials that are running and the rebates that are available, he’s really incredible. Our WD is very much out for us to benefit, to profit as much as we can, really.”
The online parts-ordering system – MyPlace4Parts – is seamless and accurate, and the delivery schedule puts parts into his shop when his techs need them.
“We have a parts shelf organized with technicians’ names on it – Warren Distribution comes and delivers and puts the parts away. We don’t deal with the parts – they deal with the parts. They make sure that they’re there, and the technicians will come and see their parts on their bench, on their parts log, so they know that they have a brake job or a water pump to do next or whatever. We have great communication with our technicians, but ultimately they get to decide what order they want to do the jobs, as long as they’re done by the end of the day.”
As the owner of a Confidence Plus CSC, Harris has been impressed by the warranty he can offer his customers.
“It’s an outstanding two-year nationwide warranty, no questions asked,” he explains. “Unfortunately, some of my customers have had to take advantage of it the past couple of years, but it’s worked out like I’d never imagined. I’ve even helped out other repair shops to be able to help their customers get off the road and repair their car.”
The shop’s parts supplier is very proactive with information, which helps keep his technicians up to speed on new-product knowledge.
Training is imperative to Automotive Excellence.
“My technicians go to schooling a minimum of 12 hours a year for updates on various topics, but they’re rewarded for additional training too. Because the industry is changing, and the technicians need to keep their knowledge level high.”
One of the shop’s technicians, Jason Jackson, was named the Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper 2019 U.S. Technician of the Year. In July, Jackson achieved the highest score on a custom 100-question ASE test during the Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper Technician of the Year finalist trip in Detroit. By virtue of his test score, Jackson earned the U.S. Technician of the Year trophy and won $2,500 and a trip to the ASE awards banquet in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I rewarded Jason handsomely for that honor, and now there may be a little incentive for the rest of my crew to follow in his footsteps,” Harris says. “We have a good rapport with all of our technicians and employees. We meet regularly for a great steak dinner at a local restaurant and just talk. And we have our annual Christmas party with all of our staff and their spouses – remember, I don’t have just those five technicians. I also have two service writers, two dispatchers for my tow trucks, a cashier and my nine tow-truck drivers. So, we have almost 20 employees and their families.”
Harris says his location limits any expansion of Automotive Excellence’s footprint, but that’s not a problem.
“I could expand, and if the opportunity came the right way, we would,” he explains. “But I have four kids at home, and I want to be a part of their lives just like my father was with mine.
“I want customers to know that I’m always available to talk about their concerns and get them back to their day. This is a service industry, so we need to be attentive and respectful – and then of course, make it happen.”