When you’re talking dedication to automotive safety, you can’t get much more old school than Connecticut. In addition to being the home of Charles Goodyear, the father of vulcanization, the nation’s first car insurance policy was issued in Hartford in 1898; the first speed limit in America (12 mph) was set in The Nutmeg State in 1901; and the first permanent license plates were issued by Connecticut legislators in 1937.
Today, the Bruneau family exemplifies the state’s commitment to safety at each of shop locations in the neighboring seaside towns of West Haven and Milford, and the communities have responded enthusiastically.
“We have four shop locations,” says Robert Bruneau, “two in West Haven, and two in Milford. The towns are about eight miles apart, off I-95 along the Long Island Sound.”
As the owner of the multiple family-run shops, Bruneau says his path to becoming patriarch of a Connecticut automotive dynasty began, as so many others did, with humble circumstances.
“I am a local, born in West Haven and raised my whole life here. My father had opened a gas station in 1971, so by the time I was 14 years old I was pumping gas and working the bays with him. We were right off the interstate, and we had a good clientele.”
For Bruneau, it has always been about satisfying that clientele and his efforts have paid off. When he was 24 years old, he says he knew it was time for him to make it on his own. Today, with 4 locations and 43 employees, his team can easily and effectively handle any service requirement from the smallest to the largest vehicle.
“I was 24 years old in 1987 when I spun off. I knew I didn’t want to go with my last name because my dad and uncle both had shops named Bruneau’s. I decided to call my shop Robert’s and just make a fresh start,” Bruneau says. With investment from his wife’s grandfather, he found a three-bay gas station in Milford. “Even at my young age, we convinced Getty Oil to take us on as a fuel dealer and it grew from there. We grew a place that was pumping 12,000 gallons a month to an incredible 75,000 gallons a month. We got a lot of awards from the company for our sales!”
With three bays and a single tow truck, Bruneau says the original Robert’s was a great steppingstone. “I went in there with one tow truck, and when I bought the facility we are in today, we had seven tow trucks.”
Bruneau says the original Robert’s existed as combined gas and service for 14 years until he moved to a 5,000-square-foot facility nearby. “We stopped selling gasoline, and I asked myself the first week in there, ‘How are we ever going to keep this place busy?’ At the time we had three lifts that I put in there – now I’m up to nine lifts. In fact, we outgrew it, so we bought the house next door to do an addition.”
Bruneau says his uncle, who owned another shop in West Haven known as Bruneau’s Garage, was ready to retire. “In 2006, my wife and I purchased that, and that became location number two. I’m the third generation to own it, a 3,000-square-foot facility with two lifts that can hold six cars at one time. It was already doing well but we almost immediately outgrew that location.”
The empire building continued, he says.
“When Bruneau’s Garage took off, we started looking around again and we found a third location in West Haven with five lifts, large overhead doors and drive-through bays. It was originally a bus service and heavy-duty service facility with about 8,000 square feet. We painted it and installed all new lights and fenced it and modernized it. It’s known as Bruneau’s Inc. – my older son, Brian has taken a lead there and has really got that to take off. The facility is big enough where he’s doing quite a bit of heavy-duty truck work. We’ve been in there about seven years now and we’re talking about an addition to that facility,” Bruneau says.
“Finally, in the past year, we decided to open Bruneau’s Auto, our fourth shop back in Milford. It’s a three-bay shop that needed a lot of work, so we spent time to upgrade and update it. That is my younger son Kevin’s operation and we’re known at Bruneau’s Auto. We have some used cars out front and that has now taken off pretty well.”
Bruneau admits that opening a fourth location in the past year amidst all the uncertainty of a pandemic was not an easy decision.
“There were many sleepless nights. We negotiated back and forth for several months and then finally came to terms. I didn’t think it would take off this fast, but the car count is absolutely incredible. It’s busy every day,” Bruneau says.
In addition to a family dynamic that includes his wife, sons, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law, Bruneau says he has a total of 43 employees who are, to some extent, tethered to one of the four locations but may move temporarily when needed at another shop. Each location has a dedicated shop foreman and all technicians who are working on the line are ASE certified.
“Certification is a requirement,” says Bruneau. “We are AAA Approved Auto Repair for all of the facilities, which is a big achievement. And also through TechNet Professional, it’s a big, big deal to have these guys certified. We’re confident that if we have a dilemma in a shop where we have somebody tied up on a large job and that facility’s falling a little bit behind, we can slide a tech in there for a day at a time just to fulfill its needs,” he explains.
“We do just about every kind of domestic and foreign auto service; everything from clutches to brakes to heater cores to motors to just tightening bolts…we don’t usually shy away from anything unless we don’t recommend fixing it. In addition, we do quite a bit of heavy-duty work as well.”
A key part of Bruneau’s growth can be attributed to the company’s towing service. “In addition to local towing for dealerships and police departments, we do a lot of AAA work – about 1,800 calls a month,” Bruneau says. “We’re running about 35 trucks spread out across all locations but centrally dispatched from Robert’s. My younger son Kevin does an unbelievable job and will stage these trucks in certain areas at busy times. The plan works well.”
Bruneau adds being an AAA provider requires more than just showing up with a truck. “These days, you have to meet a lot of criteria driven by customer satisfaction surveys. Much of it involves truck cleanliness and driver uniform. Robert’s won the gold medal for best service provider in the nation four years ago. Two years ago, we won the silver for Bruneau’s and they just informed us that Bruneau’s has won the gold again for last year,” he says.
“We try to keep the fleet up to date and spotless at all times. The trucks look professional with TechNet logos on the booms. When we have the car on the hook it’s our goal to get it back to one of our facilities, not to the dealer. The trucks drive our shops, and we sell a lot of batteries, a lot of alternators, a lot of fuel pumps. For me, towing and service work go hand in hand,” he says.
Bruneau has been an avid participant in and supporter of ongoing training since his high school days and also his experience at GM’s Tarrytown, NY, training facility.
“I took automotive all through high school, and then the first 10 years I was in business, I was in two-day classes at Tarrytown two or three times a year,” he says.
The continued training continues to pay dividends. As with towing, Bruneau says that being an official Connecticut emissions facility helps drive business at the Robert’s location.
“That’s the facility we do emissions at and we do about 35 a day,” he says. “To be a certified emissions tester in the state of Connecticut, we’re required to pass a pretty substantial test. It’s very important up here for vehicle registrations and, along with the emissions, we do VIN verification for drivers who may have bought a car out of state. This also drives business to the garage because when customers walk in for something they are required to do, they see our facility is all lit up, it’s clean, there’s coffee in the waiting room…this one visit leads to other opportunities, as well.”
Like his trucks, Bruneau says consistency is important to his shop’s success.
“All of our parts come through Carquest, our stores are branded together, our signs all look the same, the buildings are painted similarly, everybody’s in the same kind of uniform. And it’s really worked out well.”
And, doing the job right, says Bruneau, is a reward in itself – because the alternative is unthinkable.
“If you treat people right, and you stand behind what you’re doing, their car is clean and the work was done properly for what they paid for, they’re going to tell 10 people when they leave,” he says. “If they leave your shop and they’re not satisfied, they’re going to tell 100 people. We advertise with Facebook, which helps, because we have ads on there telling what the specials of the month are. But word of mouth is our best form of advertising.”
Bruneau also acknowledges the help he gets from his relationship as a Carquest and TechNet member to support that word of mouth.
“They help me from appearance to signage, to branding our locations, to supplying heavy equipment we’ve needed – they service us at the highest level you can get. To tell you that they’ve helped us grow is an understatement,” Bruneau says. “They’re there for everything we need.”
Sometimes what Bruneau needs is out of state support.
“We’re able to offer a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty on everything we do, thanks to Carquest and TechNet. We had a situation where we put an A/C compressor on a GM product for some ‘snowbirds,’ and it failed in Orlando, FL. I called it in and in one hour the shop in Orlando had the compressor to install. The customer sent us a letter to thank us on how promptly it was handled. That ability to offer such service wherever they are goes back to retaining customers. They know if they can count on you when they’re out of town, they can certainly count on you when they come back again.”
Bruneau has been with Carquest for 20 years, but says the relationship has really blossomed over the past 12 to 15 years. He says his desire to boost shop productivity and professionalism, coupled with his local Carquest and TechNet representatives desire to improve his business, have combined for impressive growth.
In addition to this strong supplier relationship, and membership in state and local business associations, Bruneau is proud of his dedication and service within his hometown communities.
“I like to give back to our community. I’m a big supporter of our local fire departments, and we donate a lot of cars for the firemen to cut up and train on for motor vehicle accidents. We supply heavy-duty wreckers and help them stage accidents and they use our yard for training,” he says.
“I’m involved as a West Shore fire commissioner, I’m a City Councilman here in West Haven, I’m the liaison to the police department. This year, I helped hand out turkeys. If the city calls on us for anything, any one of the cities we’re involved in, any city that may need help, we will do it. They get a yes before the question is complete,” Bruneau says. “Yeah, we will help – that’s why my family members all take the lead on the shops, so I’m able to do this.”
Bruneau also offers his facilities to other shops in the area for training purposes (seminars and classes on electric vehicles or air conditioning, for example) and offers his experience to shops seeking business advice. “I have a lot of friends in this industry, and I get a lot of calls from local shop owners. I’ll give them any advice I can on what got us to where we’re at. A lot of it, again, goes back to the relationships that we’ve created over the years.”
Bruneau says he works in the shops when needed, at least stopping in the locations to see where he can help. “I’m in West Haven pretty much every day and in Milford two times a week. I will be on the line if we’re faced with a problem vehicle and I’m needed. I do a lot of road tests and a lot of what we call quality control. In that case, if we do a big job on a car, it automatically gets washed, it automatically gets a quick detail, and then I’ll be the guy to road test it. And, if it’s not me, each of my lead guys has the same expectation for quality control. We watch what’s going out the door.”
Continued growth will require commitment to technology, Bruneau says, both understanding and using it. “We’re already discussing whatever scan tools and computers are going to be required to keep us motoring in the right direction. However, with this push for electric cars, we’re going to need to get in class, we’re going to need to educate ourselves. We know we probably won’t see these cars for, a five- to seven-year window, because of their warranties, but some of our guys have already been in class on the AAA side to understand how deal with them on the side of the road – simply put, how do you jump start them?”
Even with his experience and success, Bruneau acknowledges there’s still a lot to learn. ”There’s a lot of questions and I don’t have all the answers. I know I’m going to pay attention to it though, I can assure you that.”