By Debbie Briggs
What started as a hobby for Swedish Automotive Co-owner Dave Winters has turned into a successful automotive repair business that keeps raising the bar in terms of customer service and quality repairs. Today, the Seattle shop caters to owners of Volvo, SAAB, Subaru and Mini Cooper vehicles in a new facility specifically designed not only with the repair process in mind, but to be environmentally friendly as well.
“The business mainly started as a hobby,” Winters says, who manages the shop along with co-owner and bookkeeper Sandra Wanstall. “I actually went to college and got a four-year degree in geology. I thought I was going to go on for a master’s degree at the University of Oregon, but I got injured as a geologist. I smashed my left arm; a rock did it actually.
“I came back to Seattle and lived with my mom for a year,” he continues. “I’d always played around with cars in high school, and I just started futzing around with old Volvos buying them, fixing them up and then selling them. And then people started asking me to work on their cars.”
With no real formal training, other than high school shop class, Winters rented a $100-a-month apartment with a garage in the back and set to work repairing old Volvos until the neighbors complained.
“Then I rented an old commercial building again, no heat, no glass in the windows, very primitive,” he remembers. “I worked out of there for a year and moved into a four-bay garage that we were renting and working out of from 1986 to 1989.
“We managed to buy our own shop in 1989, which was a three-bay shop,” he adds. “We added a fourth bay around 1991. We worked out of there until last September. We then bought a property four blocks south of our old shop and put up a 12-bay shop on that property. There was an existing two-story office building on the property, so we’re using the first floor for our offices.”
Winters says the reaction to the new building has been by and large positive, and the bigger size and eye-catching exterior have attracted a large number of new customers. But Winters is also aware of potential negative viewpoints and is working to change those assumptions.
“We’ve had a lot of new faces in,” he says, “but probably the biggest thing we’re battling is the perception that this is a brand-new shop and the prices are really high. And times are such that a lot of things have been commoditized, which I hate to see, but that’s reality the Check Engine lights, oil changes. So we’ve dropped our prices on Check Engine light service, and we’re going to be dropping our prices on oil changes.
“Overall though, we’ve had so many new people, and everybody who comes in is just astounded when they see our shop. It’s an L-shaped shop and the doors open to the inside of the L, and the outside of the L is along the street. So it’s got a lot of windows, and when you look in you think, wow, that’s a really nice shop in there. You come around the corner and park, and then there are 12 bay garage doors.”
Running a Green Shop
Designed by an architect who is also a good friend of Winters’, he and Wanstall considered not only ease of layout, but environmental principles as well.
“We really tried to set it up as green as possible,” Winters explains. “I know it’s kind of getting to be a trite thing, but we really make an effort to run a green shop.”
To that end, he says they recycle everything (brake fluid, coolant, etc.), and used transmission fluid and engine oil are used to heat the shop thanks to a 1,000-gallon, double-walled waste oil tank, and “a great big, monstrous boiler.” In addition, flexible tubing runs throughout the flooring, actually having been cast into the concrete to provide heated flooring.
In addition, the roof is made out of structurally insulated panels, all the garage doors are fully insulated and the windows are double-paned. Add to that plans to add solar panels to the roof which will allow the shop to produce more power than it consumes and you can see why Winters has applied for a five-star rating from EnviroStars, a company that recognizes “green” businesses.
“We even recycle plastic bags,” he says. Half the stuff we get from our parts vendors comes in plastic bags, and so we save and recycle them. We recycle our metal. We have an oil-water separator. Every part that comes into the shop gets washed and all that wash water goes through an oil-water separator. We have an aqueous-based parts washer, and all that gets recycled.”
Given the growth in customer base that Swedish Automotive has enjoyed since the move, Winters says they had to move up plans to add a fifth tech to the mix.
“We just hired a fifth man; our business really took off when we moved,” he explains. “When you go from four bays to 12 bays, there’s a lot of press. I figured we’d be there for a year or two, and then we’d add a fifth man. Well, we added a fifth man in December because we had so much work coming in.
“He’s a new young guy, he’s been at it about seven years. We were really blessed to find him. He had been laid off from a dealership that didn’t have enough work for him.”
It had been quite some time since Winters had to hire a new technician; he has one tech who’s been with him for about 20 years, one for 15 off and on, and an advisor who’s worked for the shop for 17 years.
“All my other guys have been here two to six years, so we’ve been very, very fortunate in that way,” he says, adding that word of mouth has been sufficient in finding employees.
With so many years in the industry, Winters also makes a point to participate in industry associations such as ASA, having been the treasurer for his local group for the past 10 years and a member for 20.
“ASA’s been wonderful,” Winters says. “We get our health insurance through ASA, we get better workers’ comp rates through ASA. In the state of Washington, if you get a group together, and if your claims tend to be lower than the average, then they’ll give you special rates. I wouldn’t run a shop without being in ASA.”
Winters also belongs to a 20 Group facilitated by Jim Murphy of Elite Worldwide out of San Diego, and while his participation does require time and effort, he says the benefits are worth it.
“They prod you to do better constantly, but it helps prevent you from becoming complacent,” he explains. “I’ve been at this for about 30 years, so you’ve got to really guard against that. It’s a really good group of guys. You’ve got some really savvy business people (in the group), and they can help you make decisions on things.”
As far as marketing is concerned, Winters has tried to come up with unique ways to promote the business and get customers involved. Each year, the staff gives away free T-shirts and grocery bags with the Swedish Automotive logo on them. Customers are asked to take pictures of themselves wearing the shirts and using the bags while they travel, and for the customer with the picture farthest away, he or she is rewarded with a free dinner at a local restaurant.
“We’ve been all over the world in our T-shirts,” Winters says. “I think we’ve been on every continent except Antarctica. I’ve got pictures from all over the world. It’s fun to try to think of things outside the box that get people excited.”
While Winters is appreciative of the new customers bringing vehicles in for service to the new location, he also recognizes the impact of the great service he’s provided to longtime customers.
“Now I’m getting the kids of my customers coming into my shop,” he says. “The people who we used to put in safety seats when they were little kids are now bringing their cars in. So we’ve had some really long-term people.”
It’s the shop’s commitment to environmentally friendly, quality automotive repair that will keep customers coming back to Swedish Automotive for many years to come.