The news is impressive: “59 Auto Repair Named the 2021 NAPA AutoCare Center of the Year” — but the story behind the headline is even more satisfying. Rich and Linda Brauer, owners of 59 Auto Repair in Plainfield, IL, understand that they couldn’t have received such an honor without a deep matrix of support.
“Our shop is a well-run shop,” says Rich Brauer. “My employees are great. I’m proud of my team and brag about them all the time. I’ve been recognized in the past, but it was nice that they got some recognition, and what’s better than being nationally recognized?”
The Brauers purchased the shop in 2006 and since then have built a welcoming environment for staff and customers. NAPA customers since 2007, 59 Auto was one of the first in the Chicago area to receive AutoCare Gold certification.
Though Brauer says he had always enjoyed working on cars with his father, he hadn’t really considered an automotive career. “Following high school, I was going to our area career center to be a computerized lathe technician (AKA a machinist). It was actually the first year that Lincoln Technical Institute had bought the Chicago location. I entered their scholarship competition, thinking it would be cool if I won a $500 set of tools. I competed against 700 other people and actually won a full-tuition scholarship! I decided that if somebody’s going to pay for me to go to school, I might as well go and give it a try. If I don’t enjoy it, I can always go back to do something else. I’ve never looked back. It’s been a great career for me.”
Shortly after completing the Lincoln Tech program, Brauer began gaining certifications, quickly becoming an ASE Master Technician. “I was 18 when I graduated college and started working at a place in Downers Grove. I stayed there about 12 years then bounced around a little bit after that.
“Then in the mid-‘90s I bought a small five-bay shop. It was just me, another technician and a service advisor. After about 10 years I sold that shop to go into business with another guy. That just didn’t work out so I went and worked at Pep Boys for a friend, for about two years.”
Finally, Brauer says, he did what he should have done originally — he bought the 10-bay shop he should have built.
“The shop is about three miles from my home. You know, I had always wanted a shop there, and eventually it came up for sale. I was asking a real estate friend about property on which to build and he told me it wasn’t for sale yet but the owners were talking about selling. I was in the right place at the right time, 14 years ago.”
Brauer says Plainfield is close enough to Chicago to reap the benefits but far enough away to still be rural. Some of those benefits are the people — the network that he has built within the shop and within the community.
“Upfront, we have four employees, including my daughters, Ashley and Marisa. Ashley has background in our bookkeeping and takes care of the oil changes, as well as checking people in and out. Marisa does similar things, some service writing, taking care of all my computers and day-to-day management. They’re great assets to the business. Hopefully they transition into taking over the business in five and a half years,” he says.
In addition to his daughters, Brauer says his staff of 10 consists of his wife, brother-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephew, long-time family friends and technicians who have worked with him for decades.
“I’ve been blessed that I have them all,” he says.
59 Auto Repair utilizes many of the AutoCare programs to give that family insider experience. The Brauers believe in the importance of ASE Certifications and staying up to date on training. All the technicians at 59 Auto Repair are ASE Certified, making the shop ASE Blue Seal Certified, with a combined 38 certifications. Rich and Linda also utilize the NAPA AutoCare Apprentice Program and currently have two apprentices training. Rich leads by example with training, continuing to gain his ASE certifications as well as numerous industry and supplier certifications.
Many years ago, he says, his wife had ideas about managing the shop that seemed different from those he understood. “She was asking me something, and I said, ‘Well, that’s because it’s the way we always do that.’ I was told that if I ever said those words again, that that would be the day that she would quit and walk out. She had never worked in the automotive industry, but she understood the bookkeeping and the accounting side, so we made a lot of changes that were for the better, because she started looking at things from the customer’s perspective.”
Brauer admits that he still sometimes handles things the best way he knows, but with his wife’s encouragement, he works hard at getting out of routine.
“She’s brought a lot of new things to our processes and efficiency. We’ve developed processes that allow everyone in the shop to know the status of every repair.
“I don’t have to ask a service advisor, I don’t have to find the person who’s working on it, but at a glance I can tell you when it has to be done, where it’s at in the shop rotation, what’s been sold and what hasn’t.”
Brauer credits his shop management system with part of the success, but says it’s a commitment from his team.
“Basically, every single one of us does it the exact same way. So, when we’re writing estimates or when a technician is assigned to the ticket, we all make sure we make the changes in the system so that we all know what’s going on with it. Everybody knows what’s going on, even if they just came in two minutes ago and they had been off for the last week. They almost always can answer any question of a customer.”
Part of the efficiency comes from his partnership with his local NAPA store, NAPA Plainfield.
“We know where the parts are in the supply chain, when it was ordered and when we can expect it,” he says. “It’s just little extra steps when you’re doing it but saves a lot of time later on.”
Doing things the right way the first time helps the business in other ways too, Brauer says, pointing to the shop’s commitment to recycling and environmentally friendly practices. Following proper practices has been helpful with interactions with EPA and OSHA, he says.
59 Auto was recognized as the first automotive shop in the United States to earn a GreenLink Certification for environmentally friendly business practices, a certification typically reserved for NAPA’s collision repair facilities. It was just smart business to follow those practices, Brauer says.
“For example, if we’re going to store oil, we store it correctly. If we ever have a leak, we have everything we need to stop it from ever getting down the drain. We’ve done safety training with all the employees and what to do if somebody gets injured. It’s important to us. I had to deal with OSHA once, many years ago, but I think after dealing with them, as much as you’re scared to death while you’re dealing with them, I believe that we came out of the other end a lot better shop for it. ”
His shop’s COVID practices, too, have helped make the shop better.
“I believe since COVID, we are a better run shop. We’re taking better care of customers’ cars and returning them cleaner than we found them. Heaven forbid, I’d hate to get somebody sick because one of my employees was sick and didn’t know. And the side benefit of doing all the necessary cleaning has been that this was the first year our shop didn’t get hit with the flu! We’ll continue the cleaning because customers appreciate it.”
Brauer credits his front office staff with maintaining those positive vibes. “We have a very loyal customer base, and it’s nice knowing the people when they walk in and being able to say hi. Jim, Dave, Marisa and Ashley all remember the names really well. Now, I remember cars and the license plates, but they remember names phenomenally. People come in and they’re like family and friends. They trust us and we trust them.”
The internet has been a key to helping grow the customer base. “Google always has been pretty good, and we have put a lot of effort into that for years, with the help of AutoVitals. But in the last six months, Marisa has started doing Instagram and Pinterest, and just everything out there right now. Not that we’re going to get a customer who is looking at Pinterest to find an auto repair shop, but the more you’re out there, the more that Google likes it, and the more your name gets pushed up in the search engine.”
Brauer is quick to praise his daughters’ skills at social media and admits that his own understanding of search engines is knowing that they don’t run on gasoline. “Thank God for my two daughters. The girls are taking classes on social media and what I’ve learned from them is that basically everything we do, our job is to be at the top of the search engine on page one, within the first couple of spots. I understand it, and I help them as much as I can. I will help Marisa write blogs when she needs technical information, but I’ve stepped away from the posting because they’re doing a great job at it. I let them do what they do best, and I do what I do best. I’m a good mechanic, I am not a good social media person. I believe it’s good to let the people who know what they’re doing do those jobs, and to step back and not interfere.”
59 Auto Repair continues to be heavily involved in the automotive industry outside its shop doors. Lincoln Technical Institute inducted Rich into its Hall of Fame in 2018. The shop is also an American Express Card Member Favorite as an approved small business, a AAA Approved Repair Facility and a member of National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
In 2018 and 2019, 59 Auto Repair was voted a Nextdoor Neighbor Neighborhood Favorite, an award given out to only 1% of businesses. The shop was also recognized as a Top 50 Shop in the Chicagoland area and was voted Patch Readers’ Choice for repair shops in Plainfield, IL.
59 Auto Repair and its team are also active in their community. Rich and Linda donate car repairs to families in need at their church, collect food items for their local food pantry and are active members in the Plainfield Rotary Club. Linda acts as the president of the Rotary Club where she was awarded the Service Above Self Award. Being a family-run shop comes back in community service, and several of the members of 59 Auto Repair are also hands-on in their communities.
This involvement pays off in much more than personal satisfaction, Brauer concludes. “I would say probably 90% of our customers are long-time customers. We get a lot of customers whose parents started coming here and then the kids did, and now even some of their grandchildren are coming to 59 Auto.”
The family tradition continues.
Each year, NAPA AUTO PARTS, NAPA AutoCare, and the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) recognize the top achievers in the NAPA system. The NAPA AutoCare Center of the Year Award recognizes the best owner and operator in the industry. The winner is selected by the NAPA AutoCare Advisory Council who are fellow shop owners. The winner is committed to the industry, community involvement, training the next generation of technicians and is a strong AutoCare partner. To learn more about the 2022 NAPA AutoCare Center of the Year Award or submit a nomination, visit https://napaaseaward.com.