When people refer to you and your staff as “the car guys,” you know you’ve gone above and beyond as a repair shop. That’s exactly how repeat customers think of shop owner Scott Brown and his crew at Cardinal Plaza Shell in Springfield, VA.
“Whenever they have an issue related to their transportation needs, we are there,” Scott explains. “We specialize in taking care of our clients for the entire life of the vehicle, starting even before the purchase.”
Many customers turn to the “car guys” for advice when they’re in the market for a new vehicle. Really knowing the customer and how they use their vehicle allows them to make the best suggestion for their next car or truck.
“One of the services we offer is to advise our clients on which vehicles we believe fit their needs,” Scott says. “We will even act to introduce them to the actual salesperson and help to negotiate their best deal.”
A second-generation shop owner, Scott says his father, U.T. Brown, founded Cardinal Plaza Shell in 1969 as a three-bay, ranch-style Shell service station. While Scott took over day-to-day operations of the shop in 1986, he had started helping out at the business by the time he was 10 years old. It was when he took over that Scott says he and his dad decided to update the shop to five bays to make better use of the limited space available.
“We have a high car count and a very small amount of space, so over the years we have added additional lifts,” he explains. “First, we added two lifts outside where we mainly perform maintenance and tire services. Next, we eliminated our storage room and added lifts in the rear of two service bays. Luckily, we are blessed with some awesome parts distributors close by and really don’t need to stock many items.”
Cardinal Plaza Shell currently employs five ASE-certified technicians, two of whom are ASE L1 Master-certified, and a full-time safety inspector. The shop’s general manager, Cam Carter, is also an ASE Master Tech with an L1 certification. Finally, Scott’s three main service advisers are ASE-certified for their positions as well.
“We have had three people celebrate their 25th anniversary with us,” Scott says. “Next year, Ray Betts will be our first technician with 30 years of service. I have a number of other employees who have between 15 and 25 years of service. By far, the best thing about my shop is the team. They really care about and help each other.”
While employing certified techs is critical, Scott says he’s also proud of his other techs who are currently working toward certification — oftentimes under trying conditions.
“We are proud to employ another special group of employees, my light-service techs,” Scott explains. “They tend to be my youngest techs who are still learning and working toward their certifications. These guys work on the outside lifts in all weather. When it snows, first they shovel, then they work. Virtually every person working at Cardinal Plaza Shell, including myself, has spent time proudly working on the light-service lifts. I think this has been a huge factor in the development of our unique culture.”
The foundation of that culture is treating all employees not only as professionals, but as family as well.
“They know I value them as individuals and as members of our team,” Scott says. “I love going to work, and I love my guys. I have heard many shop owners say those words over the years, but at Cardinal Plaza Shell, it is the key.”
When a vacancy does open up on the staff, Scott says he looks to the local high school, where he’s participated in the local job fair that has resulted in more than 30 applications.
“Typically, we hire at the entry level and try to grow the new employees,” Scott explains. “We work with our local high schools and community college to find students with the highest potential. In addition, one of my service advisors, Chris Chagnon, serves on the curriculum advisory board at Northern Virginia Community College and at Edison High School.”
Having been at the same location for more than 45 years, Cardinal Plaza Shell is now seeing third- and even fourth-generation clients bringing their vehicles into the shop.
“A lot of our clients washed cars at Cardinal Plaza Shell to raise money for their youth groups as kids,” Scott says. “Or they may have played Little League with our name across their back or just enjoyed our yearly Christmas decorations.”
Scott says they are constantly trying to find new ways to satisfy customers. Two of the most popular programs instituted at the shop are the Royalty Rewards Loyalty Program and the shop’s White Glove Concierge Service.
“The Royalty Rewards Program is a points-based CRM program that allows me to give my best deals to my best customers,” Scott says. “We are also able to use this program to even out our work schedule.
“Through the no-charge White Glove Concierge Program,” he continues, “our concierge George Redfearn will come to your home or office, pick up your vehicle, service it and return it to you. If needed, a White Glove loaner car can be provided.”
Part of making customers feel at home and want to return to the shop when it’s time for service again is keeping up with the shop’s appearance.
“Appearance is very important to me, so the entire team works on it every day,” Scott says. “I believe our image is second to none anywhere in the country. This gives my shop an advantage over every one of my competitors. If the shop was dirty, and the landscape unkempt and overgrown, why would a customer think we would take better care of their vehicle?
“Instead, our entire property is manicured, and we set up elaborate displays throughout the year,” he continues. “My brother Doug is a master of Christmas lights. It’s not unusual to have parents bring their kids (my future clients!) to the shop and spread out a blanket to watch the display.”
Having deep ties to the community is important to Scott, and it’s just one more area that helps to set his shop apart from the competition.
“We have been continually involved wherever we can be since my dad started the shop in 1969,” he says. “Sponsoring local youth sports, homeless walks and hosting car washes every weekend are all a part of it. We have been very blessed to have a great business in a wonderful neighborhood, so I have always felt it to be a good idea to give back.”
Scott’s criteria for selecting charity partners comes down to supporting local initiatives as well as ensuring that the majority of funds raised goes to the charity and not to administrative costs.
“I get creative so that my donations ultimately benefit my neighborhood,” Scott explains. “We build houses in Haiti through our local church, and we support St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Nashville because it serves kids from our neighborhood. Finally, we donate only to charities where a minimum of 95% of the money raised actually makes it to the ultimate beneficiaries like the Fisher House Foundation, my favorite Military Charity.
“I was raised that when you give, it always comes back to you. That has always been my personal experience as well,” Scott said.
Participation in industry associations has been invaluable to Scott. Aside from his dad, he says the relationships formed with other shop owners through the Automotive Training Institute (ATI) and his 20 Group have had the most profound impact on his development as a businessman and as a person.
“It’s amazing how much we as shop owners can learn from and teach each other,” he says. “Our shops are each unique, but the challenges we face are universal. What works successfully at one shop may not work at another, but there will always be important lessons to be learned. It’s also great to have a group of peers to call on when you need some help or just have a question.”
Scott currently serves as a member of the Car Care Professionals Network, an advisory panel serving the Auto Care Association, and is the president of the Virginia Automotive Association (VAA).
“The VAA is the only statewide association of independent repair shops in Virginia,” he explains. “We protect our industry in the General Assembly, have great programs to help our members be more profitable and host an amazing yearly convention.”
Scott is also a past member of the Tech-Net National Dealer Advisory Board, where he first started to see where independent repair shop owners fit into the overall automotive aftermarket.
“Chris Chesney, who is in charge of the Tech-Net program, and his team are doing truly amazing and valuable work to help prepare us shop owners for the future,” he says.
Seeing the big picture of the automotive aftermarket helped Scott realize that flexibility is perhaps the greatest attribute a shop owner can possess today.
“Our industry is changing at an exponential rate,” he says. “The things we do to be successful today are not necessarily the things that will help us be successful in the future. As a shop owner, we can’t be afraid of change.”
Keeping pace with an ever-changing industry, but staying firmly grounded in the local community, will certainly help Cardinal Plaza Shell remain relevant for many years to come.