By Debbie Briggs
When you’ve been in the automotive repair business as long as Nate Smith has, you learn a thing or two about running a successful shop. First and foremost, the customer always comes first. And second, specialization can be the key to success.
When Smith opened Optimal Auto Care in Santa Cruz, CA, in 1991 along with his wife Meg, it was with a focus on the repair of BMWs, a nameplate Smith was very familiar with having worked as the service manager for the local BMW dealership for 15 years prior.
“We have specialized in BMW from the beginning,” Smith says. “The BMW dealership closed a couple of years after I left, so BMW has always been a major portion of our business. We added Audi in 1992 after the local Audi dealer also closed. MINI Cooper was a natural extension from BMW, since all of our diagnostic equipment and our parts program could handle MINI from the time BMW brought the marque back.”
A master technician himself, Smith says he consistently focuses on training for the shop’s four technicians, some of whom are ASE certified and one who is a BMW master tech. Constant updating is critical with ever-changing technology, and Smith knows all too well that the automobile repair business is no longer a “ratchet and wrench” business, but a highly technical field.
“We pay for our techs’ training classes, we pay them for their time and we pay their expenses,” Smith says. “The technology we see is changing rapidly, so training is crucial. You have to understand the systems on modern cars — otherwise it can be difficult to differentiate between a problem and a feature.”
Smith says with the growth of independent technical training for European-specific makes over the past 10 years, his techs have been able to take advantage of training offered by WORLDPAC, LMV and Euro-Diagnostic Resources.
“I have been active in the BIMRS (BMW Independent Maintenance and Repair Specialists) group as a founder, past president and board member,” Smith explains, “and BIMRS provides a major training event every fall. We’ve been involved with that event every year.”
In addition, as a Bosch Car Service Center, Optimal Auto Care also has access to Bosch’s technical training. “We avail ourselves of whatever training is available in our area, and, of course, we will travel when necessary,” Smith says, “and we get every technician to training courses every year.”
The staff at Optimal Auto Care made a move this past year to a new space in the same location. It’s a change, Smith says, that has been well received by customers, who now walk into a new open, inviting space.
“We moved from a shop with a very small, fairly dark office to this one with its large glass walls,” he says. “It is a little like being in a fishbowl (or, more accurately, a terrarium). But I think all the glass significantly reduces the anxiety a new customer feels when coming to the shop. It is so much easier to come inside when you already know what to expect.”
Repeat customers of Optimal Auto Care already know what to expect: Expert repairs done in a timely fashion. And many of them have found out about the shop through referrals; being in business for more than 20 years does have its perks.
“Word-of-mouth is, of course, the most powerful advertising you can get,” Smith says. It has been very good for us.”
A modern website and a mobile website for smart phone users also provide avenues for attracting new clientele. And keeping things simple, Smith says, is key.
“At one point, a website was like a brochure for your business,” he says. “Then people discovered that you could personalize them, and it was easy to add more and more information. Now, with the speed at which society moves, it seems that a simpler website that communicates the information that people need to make the decision to contact you, or to keep looking for someone else, is really what’s important. A good, clear website and good reviews will often get you the telephone call you want.”
Sometimes It Takes A Village
Boosting shop profitability was the motivation behind Smith’s desire to join a 20 Group about 10 years ago, and he’s found it invaluable ever since.
“My association with the Service Center Scholars was one of the best things I have ever done for my business,” he says. “Having 19 other shop owners who know your business intimately, and who are all offering suggestions to improve it, is very powerful. I don’t believe that you can do it all yourself anymore.”
Also impacting the shop’s bottom line have been efforts to improve shop productivity, a process that is ongoing and constantly changing. From keeping parts as available as possible to computers for every tech, every effort is made to keep all jobs running smoothly.
“We have a good stock of the parts needed for most of the cars we work on daily, so we try not to be held up for parts,” he says, adding that they “get 10 or more deliveries per day from various distributors and new car dealers” as well.
In addition, Smith says whenever possible, work is pre-dispatched to every tech so that if they get held up waiting for authorization, or for a tool or a part, “they can go on to the next job and begin looking that car over.”
“All of the techs have their own Internet access, as well as being networked to our shop management system, everywhere in the shop,” he says, adding that they are also working toward a goal of paperless work orders.
For Optimal Auto Care, success has come down to specialization, plus a commitment to training, to continue to provide the top-notch repairs the shop is known for in the Santa Cruz area.
“Most of it is basic — good customer service, and caring for your customers and the job you do,” he says. “Beyond that, learning to embrace the new technology really means training, training, training. Everyone needs to understand the changes in technology — whether you are trying to diagnose a tough car problem, or explaining a system to a customer.”
With Nate’s emphasis on continual improvement in all aspects of his business, Optimal Auto is sure to be catering to customers for many more years to come.