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Shop Profile: Empire Auto Care In Fort Lauderdale, Florida

When Empire Auto Care in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opened its doors in July 2016, the business “took off like gangbusters,” according to co-owner Brooks Farrar. In just six months, the Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center generated approximately $500,000 in revenue. In 2017 – its first full year – Empire Auto Care nearly hit $1 million. In 2018 and 2019, sales continued to increase incrementally.

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That kind of success out of the gate is a dream come true for any small-business owner. Things have gone so well, in fact, that the shop’s biggest challenge has nothing to do with growing the business.

“Our biggest issue is parking,” Farrar says. “We’re constantly shuffling cars around. I always want to make sure there’s at least one space out front so somebody else can park. I will get them in somehow.”

That’s a good problem to have for a relatively new business. But make no mistake: The shop’s success hasn’t been a stroke of luck. Farrar has built the business the right way, starting with a foundation of high-quality people. His wife, Amy, is the co-owner, and handles all of the shop’s accounting. “She is the smartest person I’ve ever known. We wouldn’t be anywhere without her,” he says of Amy.

He feels the same way about his employees.

“My employees are the best people I know,” Farrar says. “They’re dedicated. They’re loyal. They’re never late. And they look out for the company’s best interests over their own.”

Another key to the shop’s success is being part of the Bumper to Bumper Certified Service Center (CSC) network. As a Bumper to Bumper CSC, Empire Auto Care backs many of its services with the Confidence Plus two-year, 24,000-mile North American warranty. Through Bumper to Bumper, the shop also offers SafeRoute roadside assistance, which provides fuel and oil delivery, battery jump-starts, towing and other help to customers if their vehicle breaks down, for 12 months after they’ve had any work done at the shop.

It’s a total team effort, and everyone plays a role, including the shop’s warehouse distributor, National Performance Warehouse (NPW). Farrar buys parts from International Auto Parts Warehouse, NPW’s company-owned jobber store in nearby Oakland Park, Florida. He says NPW has been a reliable and responsive parts supplier.

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“We have a great relationship. They will bend over backward for anything that we need – even difficult things. If it’s something that’s not in the catalog, they’ll make phone calls to find it. We don’t have a lot of time to do research on parts. That’s what I rely on them for.”

Thanks to NPW, the parts-ordering process never stands in the way of production. Whether the shop orders a part via MyPlace4Parts or over the phone, it usually arrives within 15 minutes.

“Staring at a customer for hours while you’re waiting for a part to arrive from across the country isn’t fun. When a car is disabled and nobody’s touching it, it’s not fun. So we try to avoid that.”

Getting It Right

Farrar’s background put him on solid footing when he decided to open up a repair shop. Before launching Empire Auto Care in 2016, the Maryland native had spent the bulk of his career in the automotive aftermarket. After college, he worked as a service manager and store manager for several national tire chains, and went on to become a technician specializing in driveline repairs at various GM dealerships for 18 years.

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Farrar had a hunch that he could be successful as a shop owner, given his years of experience in management and on the shop floor. With encouragement from his wife, Farrar decided to take the plunge. In February 2016, the couple found a location in Fort Lauderdale – an automotive repair shop that had gone out of business. After about a month of negotiations, they signed a triple net lease, and began gutting the building. They installed new shop equipment, repainted the walls and gave the reception area and office a much-needed makeover.

“I’ve been in too many automotive repair shops where you don’t want to touch anything. It’s just dirty, and you don’t want to stay there very long – which can lead to not wanting to come back. That’s why a lot of people jump from auto shop to auto shop to auto shop.

“So my thought was, let’s make it clean, inviting, professional. Let’s not mount tires all over the wall. Let’s not have parts everywhere. Let’s keep it simple and make it clean. And that’s what we did.”

For the first year or so, the shop didn’t engage in any marketing, Farrar admits. However, that was by design.

“We were figuring things out, putting policies and procedures into place internally, making sure that we were ready to accept additional business,” he says. “Because if you can’t do it when you’re slow, or if you get overwhelmed when you’re slow, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to handle 20, 25 cars a day. So we have to get it right while we’re not doing that many cars.

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“Typically in any automotive shop, you’re going to have about five days a month that you’re really going to be slammed. And it’s on those five days that it really shows whether or not your procedures are working, and whether they need to be fine-tuned.”

One of the policies Farrar has fine-tuned is the shop’s hours of operation. For the first year and a half, Empire Auto Care was open for business Monday through Saturday. When he took a deep dive into the numbers, though, Farrar realized most of the shop’s Saturday business came from customers picking up vehicles that had been serviced on Thursday or Friday.

With that discovery, Farrar saw an opportunity to make Empire Auto Care a better place to work for his employees.

“I believe in a five-day workweek for employees,” he says. “I don’t believe that people should be worked to death. I think that they deserve a life.”

Looking back, the shift to Monday-through-Friday hours was a no-brainer. It’s been a boon to employee morale, and sales and gross profits have gone up. And in an industry grappling with a shortage of skilled technicians, it’s given Empire Auto Care a leg up on other shops that have weekend hours.

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“I get 60 job applications whenever I put out an ad. A lot of them aren’t qualified, but it gives me a much broader range to work with, and I can better pick and choose the people I want to employ.”

Always Empathize

When it comes to customer service, Farrar abides by a simple philosophy: Treat customers like they’re your relatives, and “always, always, always empathize.”

He says it’s important to keep in mind that when a customer’s vehicle breaks down or no longer functions reliably, “it throws off the whole equilibrium in their life.”

“Most people who come in with a broken car, they’re emotionally distraught,” Farrar adds. “They may not show it outwardly, but their life is currently on pause, and it’s our job to get them moving again, in the most efficient and helpful way possible.”

My employees are the best people I know. They’re dedicated. They’re loyal. They’re never late. And they look out for the company’s best interests over their own.”

– Brooks Farrar, co-owner of Empire Auto Care

Farrar believes in educating customers so they’re in a better position to make an informed decision about their vehicle. For customers who are waiting on site for their vehicle, the shop will engage them in a “show-and-sell,” which gives them an opportunity to meet the technician and get an up-close look at what’s going on with their vehicle.

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“The technician shows them what they found on their car, hands the customer their $200 flashlight so they can get involved and get their hand dirty,” Farrar explains. The idea is to “get them involved so they understand what they’re spending their money on and why they should be coming here, because we do care.”

For customers who drop off their vehicles, the shop uses BOLT ON digital-inspection software to inform them of the diagnosis and show them why specific actions are being recommended. With the software, technicians can use their mobile tablets to take pictures, record video and log their inspection results. After the report is generated, the service advisors make sure the verbiage is polished and retake any pictures that didn’t turn out OK.

Through the BOLT ON software, the shop can send the inspection report to the customer via text message or email. The shop receives a notification when the customer views the report.

“They don’t get any prices. They don’t get a list of what the car needs. It’s just the health report for their car, and this is what we found, good and bad. And then since we know that they looked at [the report], the service advisor can then call them and go over it with them and give our recommendations for what they need for repair or maintenance.”

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After each job is completed, the shop uses a program called MyShopManager to send a follow-up text “to every single person who comes through here to make sure everything’s great,” Farrar says.

He also keeps his finger on the pulse by shuttling drop-off customers – in his vehicle – to wherever they need to go.

“I like to interact with the customers. It gives me a bird’s eye view of how the shop’s doing without any interference from the shop,” Farrar explains. “If I’m sitting in a car with them and we’re chatting back and forth, they’ll give me an indication of how their experience has been so far or how their visit was last time – if it was their first visit, third visit or 10th visit. It helps me improve on small details so I’m not constantly going around putting out fires.”

Fortunately, those proverbial fires are few and far between, which is a testament to the quality of Farrar’s team.

“The guys that I have are very, very good,” he says. “They’re very customer service-oriented.”

Tools For Success

When Farrar looks for prospective employees, he looks for people who have at least three to five years of experience in automotive repair. That tends to weed out candidates who view this line of work as just that – work – and not a career.

But he places an even higher premium on integrity. “That’s probably more important than anything – even experience,” Farrar says.

Farrar is just as judicious in his choice of tools and technology.

For example, the shop uses fluids and equipment from BG Products – “which is what most dealerships use,” he notes – for cooling-system and transmission flushes, fuel-injector cleaning, battery cleaning and a number of other maintenance services.

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Through Identifix, the shop’s technicians have access to a large online database of problems that vehicles experience, as well as repair guidance for specific diagnostic trouble codes.

“I believe the technicians should have tools available to help them diagnose and repair today’s really difficult automobiles,” Farrar says.

For finding the right parts and building parts estimates, Bumper to Bumper’s MyPlace4Parts has been an indispensable tool that Farrar uses daily.

“It’ll have a picture of the part along with the price of the part, and we can transfer that part over to a work order,” Farrar explains. “Instead of having to type in ‘left outer tie-rod end,’ we just hit ‘Transfer’ and it goes right over to the ticket.”

Pulling in the labor estimate from Mitchell 1, MyPlace4Parts produces “a much more professional-looking [estimate] than somebody just saying, ‘Replace this’ with a price next to it,” he adds. “It’s really a time-saver.”

Expansion Plans

Farrar says he “definitely” would like to expand to a second or even a third location. Most likely, it’ll be somewhere outside of Broward County, where there’s a glut of auto repair shops. Wherever it is, he’d prefer to move into an unoccupied facility (as opposed to taking over an existing repair shop) or to build from the ground up.

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And not surprisingly, he won’t do it unless it can be done right.

“I’m of the mindset that in order for me to open up another shop, this place has to run like a clock without me,” Farrar explains. “If I were to open up another shop and then take people who are working great in this shop and move them over to the new shop to help start that one up, this shop would fail.

“So I have to leave everything in place that’s working [here] and build that one from scratch, but with the same intensity and same policies and procedures – basically mimicking the one that’s working, but at another location.”

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