Whalen's Auto Repair Takes Unconventional Approach to Growth

Long Term Growth Plan in The Garden State

Whalen’s Auto Repair and Tires is an Auto Value certified service center in Cape May Courthouse, NJ.

The New Jersey coastline is home to some of the most recognizable roadside attractions in the country. From Madame Marie’s in Asbury Park to the Tram Cars plying the Wildwood boardwalk, to the majestic Cape May lighthouse to Margate City’s Lucy the Elephant, you can easily find something exciting in The Garden State.

Those wonders include an historic automotive repair facility focused less on the past and more on the future, with an owner so committed to servicing vehicles for many years to come that he has taken steps today to meet the needs of tomorrow.

“We are 100 percent off the power grid, using solar energy to produce all the power we need and then some – and both of the vehicles I own are electric cars,” says Ed Whalen, owner of Whalen’s Auto Repair and Tires, an Auto Value certified service center in Cape May Courthouse, NJ. Whalen, a third-generation shop owner who has been elbow deep in vehicle service since he was nine years old, says keeping up with change in this industry has always been important.

“Business is always a challenge and it’s changing, it’s changing fast. You have to try to keep up. I read an article that suggests that technicians work in the present; managers work in the past, looking at reports to make sure they’re doing a good job. And owners, we tend to live in the future, trying to predict the future, to see where our industry’s going, so we have something to do next year.”

Whalen’s grandfather opened his first shop, an Esso station, in the resort community of Wildwood in 1948. His father then took over the station in 1973, at which time he moved the business to a larger location on the town’s main strip.

“I worked at my grandfather’s fuel station when I was 9 and 10, in the summertime,” Whalen says. “I started pumping gas and worked my way up, literally. Imagine a little 9-year-old hopping up on the running board, washing your window and full service. I made more in tips than I did in pay.”

In 1995, his father retired and Whalen took over the business. Prior to that, he and his father each had their own shops. “The island of Wildwood is about seven miles long – his shop was in the middle and I was on the north end. We both had our shops together for about eight years. 

“We weren’t competitors because we both had plenty of work to do, though he did do all my alignments. When I took over the shop I ran, I just kept the same name, which was the city name. And then when Dad retired, I took the family name. I was 30 when he retired.”

Whalen says he watched the car count on the island slowly decline, so in 2009 he moved the business to the mainland. “My wife, Jean, told me years ago that we should have moved and she was right – we were so close to the water and, let’s be honest – there are no cars in the water! Year after year after year and I thought I was doing a good job, but people are just moving off the island and that was it. It wasn’t anything I did. It was just happening. Moving was the best thing we did for our business.”

He says another great business move was becoming an Auto Value Certified Service Center. 

“We started working with Auto Value a long time ago. It’s a great program, with so many business benefits we can take advantage of.”

Some of that business advice has been to keep up with current technology – to his credit, Whalen has gone beyond current. As this interview was being conducted, Whalen was sitting in his electric car plugged and charging under his solar panels.”

“Our shop is totally fed by our solar array and has been for a little over two years,” Whalen says. “We actually generate more than we can use – so we’re able to sell it back. My two cars are a Nissan Leaf and a Mustang Mach E. Yeah, we’re doing great things for the environment but it’s been a really good investment too.”

Whalen supports those investments, both in technology and training. He is an active participant in ADAS service, with the location to do the job right.

“Our shop bays are very large – we’re 16 foot wide by 30 deep, so there’s four full bays like that. We have two and a half acres and a couple buildings. On the back side of one of my buildings there’s a pad that’s 24 by 30 feet. I put  a carport over top of that, and that’s where I do my ADAS. It’s a nice flat, concrete surface that’s out of the sun, so you don’t have a lot of glare. It’s been working well for us.”

Whalen admits that accepting the technology and keeping up with it are two separate things – he again praises his Auto Value membership for helping him do so.

“They encourage us to keep our training up and when a member of the team passes an ASE certification test, they reimburse us for it,” he says. “My feeling is, if you don’t go to training, you’ll be out of a job in the future. That’s just reality. I mean, if you think about it, if you stopped learning 10 years ago, you wouldn’t be employed as a technician today.”

Whalen says his team is already working hard on advancing their electric and ADAS skills because doing so is no longer an option.

“I’ve trained Phil Daino, my lead tech, to master Hybrid and EV service and Donavan Wyatt specializes in module and key programming and ADAS calibrations. This year we’re trying to get into as much additional training as possible because we’re definitely pivoting the business towards the hybrid electric and advanced driver assist.”

In addition to the skill of his techs, Whalen credits much of his shop’s success to Beth Guthrie, his service advisor. “She’s been with me for 15 years and she does really well. She is the face and our clients love her. We have great clientele. They appreciate us, and we appreciate them. Beth has developed an unbelievable relationship with people. They come and give her gifts weekly, but she’s just a good soul and she likes to help people. And once you have that, the rest of it’s easy.”

Whalen also hires apprentices from local schools to work with him and hopefully become part of the team. He takes seriously his role with his existing team and potential future employees 

“I was in an Automotive Training Institute (ATI) class a couple of years ago and it was funny – the instructors reminded us how different it was years ago when people were looking for a job. Employers really had the upper hand. Today, workers know they can quit tomorrow and they’ll get another job. So, we as owners have to engage with our employees and we did that anyway. I have staff that I hope wouldn’t leave me, but I am aware of the importance of employee engagement,” Whalen says.

He offers a wide array of benefits, both tangible and intangible for his team and their families – because he feels it’s the right thing to do. “I know we wouldn’t be where we are without their hard work.”

He also serves as a mentor to other shops, both nationally and locally.

“The vast majority of us shop owners started out as technicians – we don’t have MBAs in business. For me to learn from my grandfather and my father was great, but even they had no formal training. The job skills to run a business are totally different than the ones needed by a technician or a manager.”

Whalen credits author Michael Gerber and his book “The E-Myth” for helping him realize how to make his business a success. Now he helps other multi-generation shop owners as they travel their own path.

“I like to give back to where I can, whether that’s being on the advisory board for our local technical school and in Atlantic county, or whether I’m sitting with my 20 group of fellow shop owners,” he says.

“I have learned so much from ATI, my coaches and the instructors there. And definitely my 20 group members; they’ve become like family to me because I’ve been in it for at least 10 years.” 

Whalen says the support he gained on the national level inspired him to develop a program locally. “We had a tow guy for years, who had been my dad’s tow guy. He was a great old guy. When he passed away his grandson took over at 22 and he became my tow guy. I saw him struggling, so I told him if he needed any help I could point him in the right direction. One thing led to another, and we started meeting just to answer business questions. In the last two or three years, we’ve grown from helping one shop owner to now I help six of them.”

The shops are all fairly local, Whalen says, and he gets puzzled questions from some people. “A lot of people call me crazy, because they say, ‘They’re your competition? Why are you sharing your secrets with them?’ I feel I’m blessed here. I have more work than I can do, and it doesn’t cost me anything to share my knowledge.”

In fact, Whalen says communicating with his peers has helped his business in multiple ways. 

“My dad’s old motto was ‘Keep your ears and your eyes open and your big mouth shut, and you’ll learn a bunch.’ As I told you, I learn from my guys, my business associates and my customers.”

Whalen is an active user of BOLT ON TECHOLOGY business software. When you’re as busy as we are – around 80 cars a week – you need to know the status of every car all the time. It’s just knowing which stage we’re at.”

Whalen says his local Auto Value distributor helps keep those cars moving through the shop in a timely manner. “Eastern Auto Parts Warehouse is about two miles from us down Highway 9. We’ve worked with them since we’ve been an Auto Value shop. Mike Pantaleon comes to us when we need him and takes care of the things we need. They partnered with us during the beginning of the pandemic to offer free oil changes to first responders. Not only that, they provided all the marketing materials, the signage and the product – all we had to provide was the labor. It was free to the customer and on top of that, Eastern took the customer’s name and put it in a hat and drew raffles for even more free stuff including gift cards. One of our customers actually won, one of the bigger gift cards.”

Whalen says the goodwill generated by the attention to police, fire fighters, nurses and doctors has already paid dividends for his shop. This and other programs will continue to give his team the ammunition they need to thrive in the future, as long as they embrace their history and accept change.

“I tell all of my guys, there’s no silver bullet to success – but there are 10,000 lead ones,” he explains. 

Whalen says he doesn’t feel threatened by the past – he is excited for the future.

“Being a third-generation shop owner, I have third generation customers – I have customers whose grandfathers’ cars were worked on by my grandfather. And I know there is concern about how hybrid and electric cars and other technology will affect our industry. I think it’s not so much as a threat, as an opportunity.”

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