Al Sutherland believes in offering one thing to his customers – the absolute highest degree of customer satisfaction and technical service. It’s how he was raised and it’s how he was trained.
In typical Yankee fashion, he won’t make a big deal out of his commitment – he’ll just get the job done, the right way.
In fact, Sutherland has been operating in this manner for decades. The owner of ACAR (Al’s Certified Auto Repair, an Auto Value Certified Service Center) in Augusta, Maine, says adversity has tried to interfere from time to time but has given way to great opportunities.
“I started my career with American Honda back in 1983. At that time, Honda was still a very, very young company in the States, still doing training in New Jersey. Honda had that huge rust recall in the late 1970s where they really stood up and took care of all of their customers,” recalls Sutherland. “That impressed me that a company would stand up and fix cars that were up to 10 years old, just so they could take care of the customer. I never forgot that, and that’s sort of what we use as our philosophy at our shop today – we’re always there to take care of the customer no matter what it is.”
One example of service from the early days involved taking care of a one-time customer Sutherland would never see again. “Shortly after I opened up, we put a fuel pump on a car. Unfortunately, one of my techs crimped the return line when he put it on. The customer drove home to Massachusetts, and then I got a phone call from him saying he had it in his local shop. It had blown out the fuel injectors because it was over-pressurized and unable to relieve the pressure. Even when I didn’t really have the money and I never was going to see this customer ever again, I cut a check to pay for the whole thing. It was all about doing the right thing at the right time.”
Doing the right thing at the right time is a Sutherland tradition. “We had a couple come up to Bar Harbor on their honeymoon when their car broke down. Bar Harbor is about three hours away from our house, but my wife drove them out there so they could have their honeymoon. We fixed their car and then we picked them up after and we brought them back,” he says.
Prior to gaining his superhero status as a shop owner, Sutherland became a pretty big deal with Honda.
“Then, I took a management job for a new Honda dealership down in Saco, Maine, and sort of came up through the ranks. I felt it was necessary for me to move up to management. As a technician, I realized I could help the half a dozen customers who came in my bays everyday. But as a service manager, we could help 15 or 20 customers a day. And, I always had a dream to be an owner because then I could help as many people as I wanted to.”
Eventually, Sutherland got his opportunity to own his own business – but that dream almost became a nightmare overnight.
“In 2001, I gave my notice, left my job, and we leased an old Citgo station, got it all painted up and was ready to open on Monday morning. On the Thursday before opening, our house burned down,” he says.
“My old boss would have taken me back and we could have gotten out of the lease for the place we had rented,” he says. “But my wife and I both realized we had nothing else to do. We weren’t going to go drive nails to rebuild our house and we’d already made the commitment. We just never looked back from there.”
Since there’s nothing like desperation as an incentive to make it a success as quickly as possible, Sutherland and company met the challenges head on. “We really didn’t have any choice. For three and a half years, we had the gas station when, déjà vu, I actually purchased the Honda dealership building that I had originally worked at.”
Based right downtown in Maine’s capital city, Sutherland says his customer base is extremely diverse.
“We work on everything. Everything from a Nash all the way up to Teslas. We are a hybrid specialist, as well. We work on the gamut, cover it all. We have a very talented staff of technicians.”
Still, even a talented group of techs need a mentor from time to time.
“I’ll admit, they’re young, so pretty much anything with a carburetor I’ll handle. That’s sort of my forte, and I let these guys handle all the fuel injection stuff now.”
So, with all his skill and expertise, you would imagine that Al Sutherland was raised in a multi-generational automotive family and he has assumed his natural place in the succession plan. Well, not so fast.
“Quite frankly, getting into the industry was kind of strange because I majored in chemistry at Virginia Tech. I came home to Maine one summer to see my mom and dad and met my wife. We got married six months later. I never went back to college and then I went to work for the shipyard, which is where I had worked during the summers.”
Unfortunately, economic downturns forced layoffs at the shipyard. “I got laid off on Friday. On Monday, I started work at the Honda dealership as a technician. I’d always dabbled in cars and stuff like that, but nothing ever serious. Honda was gracious enough to send me to school. I learned a lot quickly because being in chemistry, you’re trained to think that way.”
Sutherland completed the Honda training, gained Master Honda and Master ASE tech certifications and worked his way up the ranks among local dealerships.
“This was a time when people were starting to really pay attention to their customer base. They had recognized that female customers were becoming the purchase decision makers and they were the ones deciding on maintenance. When I came over and opened my own place, Motor Supply, a Car Parts Distribution Center in Plaistow, NH, an Auto Value Supplier, had the philosophy that service is the difference, and that’s our philosophy, too. They have been incredible to work with and that partnership has always reinforced my commitment to making sure that people are taken care of and that we’re servicing them whatever their need is. Our motto is that we fix problems – they just happen to be with cars.”
Sutherland says it takes like-minded teammates like Car Parts Distribution to help him meet his goals – and to find more, he has created an in-house apprenticeship program.
“We have four technicians. One of our master techs and our hybrid master tech both came through our apprentice program. We have another technician in the latter stages of our apprentice program. Then, we just took on a new apprentice who just started our program about seven months ago. Our shop foreman is from another apprentice program and has been very, very good for us. We’ve found that by growing through apprenticeships, we’re able to have candidates with less bad habits,” Sutherland says.
“I was just getting tired of hiring other people’s problems. I had found that the technicians who were constantly moving didn’t necessarily have the same philosophy that my wife and I had. We just found that was just costing us way too much money, too many customers, and sometimes creating a bad attitude in the shop. You’d have to excise that really, really quickly to stop it.”
Sutherland says his program starts in the local high school and involves looking first at attitude. “We need somebody who cares about people, who’s willing to go the extra step to make sure that the customers’ happy. Obviously, we want them to have an interest and an aptitude for mechanics, but that’s not our primary goal.”
Sutherland believes in giving his techs the chance to help his shop but, more importantly, the chance to help themselves. “The biggest thing we do, it’s the one thing that we really tried to let them understand, is that whatever we teach them, whatever knowledge they gain from us, nobody can take it away from them. It’s not like they’re working for something that can be taken away – ‘Oh, no, sorry, you can’t leave with that toolbox because you’re not here any longer’ – we give them knowledge. We want to give them so much knowledge that they can leave, but we want to treat them so well that they want to stay.”
In addition to working to improve the lives of his employees and customers, Sutherland takes pride in being able to help other shop owners, as well.
“As part of the Auto Value family, I got to serve on their advisory board for three years. It has been a real privilege to be involvee – I’ve learned a lot with that, as well,” Sutherland says.
Sutherland says relationship building has been critical to his shop’s success. “When we had our gas station, we wanted to be full service because we figured, when it’s minus 30 degrees and the wind’s blowing at 50 miles an hour in Maine, nobody wants to pump their own gas. So, we developed relationships with these people. Then, when their car developed problems, they would call us. And, when we began to hire young people from the high school, people liked it. I think that’s part of what helped our business grow – people like being served, they liked being taken care of and if you do that and you do it well, they’ll reward you with trust, coming to see you and seeing what you’re going to do.”
ACAR’s involvement in the community has been seen in tangible ways. “One of the biggest things that prevents women from leaving bad relationships, in many cases, is transportation. They have no way to escape. We participated in a program with Charity Cars and the Alliance – the Alliance donated the parts, we donated all the labor and then Charity Cars paid for the registrations for 13 cars for women in a battered women’s shelter,” Sutherland says.
“It wasn’t just us – some other shops participated, too. And, our customers donated cars. We would like to think we really helped them escape some of these dangerous relationships.”
In addition, Sutherland says he works with local Scout troops, the Rotary Club, the American Legion and the local National Guard base.
He acknowledges the magnitude of his service. “No one wants to be sidelined while their car is in the auto repair shop. We will work diligently to quickly identify any vehicle issues and give customers an accurate estimate for repairs. We work a lot with the National Guard Soldiers and their wives and kids, especially when they’re deployed. The readiness office knows that, if somebody is having problems and they don’t have the wherewithal to handle it, to just get them over to us.”
Of course, as with all businesses, ACAR’s resourcefulness was tested over the past year.
“I think the biggest thing that we’ve found due to COVID has been to just give the customers options regarding inspections, vehicle pickup and dropoff, and payment. Anything they need to do, that’s really what it’s all about. We give them the options and allow them to service their car in the manner that they want to service it – after all, service is the difference… we get it.”