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Shop Profile: Fuerst Automotive, Broadview Heights, OH

Bob Stout grew up riding dirt bikes in Northeast Ohio. The son of a metallurgical inspector at a local steel factory, he was told if he wanted to continue breaking his bikes, he needed to learn to fix them. 

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“My parents said they couldn’t afford to fix them, so I started tearing motorcycles apart. Next thing you know, I’m doing them for my friends. As I got older, I had to make a decision on what I wanted to do, and I told my parents I wanted to work on my motorcycle engines. My dad said ‘While you’re under my roof, you’re going to learn to fix cars. You’ll be able to make a good living, working on cars – not so much motorcycles’”.

Stout says he went through the automotive program at Polaris Career Center in Middleburg Heights, OH and loved what he was learning.

“During my senior year, I was able to go on early placement at a local tire dealership with several locations. I started as a tire changer and one day right after I graduated, the brother of the owner called me into the office. They made me a service manager at 18 years old. I was one of the youngest service managers that they ever had, and at 18 years old I ran their six-bay shop in Parma, very successfully. At that time, the various locations were always fighting it out for the best in sales. I met my wife, Sheri, when I was 19 and I told her “Hey, you know what, if I can do this for them then, well, let’s try to do it ourselves.”

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Stout says the young married couple moved into her parent’s basement for two years. “Though we were saving up money to buy our first home, I ended up investing all our money that we had been saving in a tow truck. I was basically paying myself minimum wage, which was $2.65 an hour back then.”

Stout says times were lean, but Sheri supported his dream. “I have an awesome wife. I tell you; she’s been behind me this whole ride.”

It was during this period, Stout says, that he met the daughter of the owner of Fuerst Automotive through a mutual friend. “The original three-bay shop was started in 1968 and in late 1986 my wife and I were able to purchase it when I was 25. We ended up incorporating it, and eventually moved across the street into our current five-bay shop.” 

The current location was originally a retailer and installer of car phones and audio systems in the ’80s and ’90s. “We were blowing out at the seams and one day I looked out the window across the street and that store was having a liquidation sale. So, I called my wife and I told her they were going out of business. I got in touch with the owner of the building who said he really wanted to sell it. We worked out a five year lease with an option to buy. Here we are, 20-some years later.”

Stout says the original building was covered in gaudy blue tinwork and, frankly, the local government was reluctant to authorize another automotive facility at the same location. “We renovated the whole exterior of the building, putting in paver stones, ornamental lamps, basically whatever the City of Broadview Heights wanted us to do in order to move into the property. Then, after the building was finally paid off, we looked at it and realized we needed to take things up a notch.”

Stout says the city presented him with a beautification award after that first renovation and just did so again. 

“Now they’re mapping out a new master plan for this area, trying to push other businesses along to update their look,” he explains. “They’re using our shop as a focal point for the city, on the way they’d like to have it look. We want to contribute back to the community with something that’s not an eyesore, raising the bar about what we think an auto shop should look like.”

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Stout says inspiration for the shop’s exterior came primarily from high end restaurants in the area and has been beneficial to both customers and employees.

“At first, I was thinking customers would expect that our prices were going to go up to pay for this building. But it actually turned out that people were coming in and thanking us.” 

Stout says though the location and look of the shop has changed entirely since Fuerst Automotive was originally started in 1968 he retained the name due to its history. “People knew the name in the area. So, I figured rather than rebrand it, I’d keep the same brand and make it grow. And that’s what we did. We took a shop that was grossing around $150,000 a year to now, making around $1.3 million a year in sales.”

Of course, you can’t achieve such growth without a solid team, and for Stout, his key personnel are family.

“Yes, my wife is the true boss,” Stout laughs, only half-joking. “I say that I’m just a peon working for her, but throughout this whole journey of ours, we’ve always talked to one another, to make decisions together. Now we’re in a position to grow, and my 25-year-old son, Mitch is in the business planning to take over eventually. He’s worked with me since high school, and he wants to grow it even more. I told him, ‘we’ll help you out, but it’s going to be you here pretty soon.’”

Stout says he has participated on a number of advisory councils, both local and national, and he recognizes three different scenarios from his contemporaries. “You see the technical guys who started young and decided they wanted to open their own shops. According to GM, the typical life span of that business is about five to seven years before they end up going back to work for somebody else. And then you have your lifers who own a business like mine for 30 years. They don’t have a plan, so eventually they close their doors and walk away. And then you have somebody who actually has an exit strategy, with a family member or someone working for you who wants to possibly take the bull by the horns when you retire.”

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Stout says his shop is in great shape, staff wise.

“It’s not hard. What you have to do is think with your heart, your soul, and be a family person. At the end of every year, I sit down with each individual employee, and we make plan for the following year, what their personal goals are and what I’d like to see them as a business goal and what their business goals would be. The goal for last year was that everyone had to try to get an ASE certification, and they did.”

The secret, he says, isn’t really a secret. “When you appreciate them and respect them, they’re going to be with you a long time. That’s what I do. It’s not that hard to do the ASE tests, especially when you coach them along and you help them set goals. That’s the main thing. Everyone wants goals, but I think people are often afraid to set them.”

Stout explains that though he is ASE Master certified, his emphasis in working ON the business, not necessarily IN the business, building relationships with the community.

“When Covid-19 hit, I started thinking about ways to keep busy during the pandemic. I just started thinking, what can we do to make people comfortable, to still want to have their cars fixed?” he says.

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“We always did the floor coverings, seat coverings and gloves because health is important. I know that we’ve lost a lot of shop owners in my age group who didn’t wear gloves, who blew asbestos off because we didn’t know anything about it, who would wash their hands in a bucket of solvent. So, I was careful to build a shop culture that kept the customer’s cars clean. The new addition was the masks, and every time we would do a customer’s car, we’re cleaning the handles and anything we touch where it’s visible for the people who were still coming in,” Stout explains.

“Then I thought, I’m going take my regular direct mail marketing campaigns and let our local residents know that we care about their safety,” Stout explains. “Our message to them is, ‘We’re going to come and pick up your vehicles for you, service them and return them to you.’ I bought an ozone sanitizing machine and marketed the fact that customers would get a clean, safe vehicle back.”

Stout says the ozone sanitizing has been popular off with customers of all kinds “The police and other city services around us are great. I told the police chief to have the officers bring their cars in and we’d ozone them. During the early days when everything was all over the place, nobody knew anything, they would bring their cars out. They have 13 or 14 cruisers and we would sanitize them and wiping them down inside and outside of the cars and – we still continue to do it now.”

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Stout says that, out of the blue, he received a wall plaque of appreciation from the chief of police and mayor. “Next thing you know, the local newspapers got ahold of it – It was a really cool thing, even though I wasn’t looking for recognition. A lot of it, as you grow in a community with your customers, you really start thinking with your heart.”

Stout says continuing to look at his business with a fresh approach to marketing and management has made a world of difference to his shop’s success. 

“I can spend time with my wife away from the shop. I have great people. I trust them and they run my business like it’s theirs.”

“I’ve always been hands-on, under-the hood, running-the-business kind of guy. I’ve always had a counter guy up front, Rick, who’s been with me 18 years now, but you know what? I’ve been on those advisory councils and networking groups with other shops. Every single one of us is always asking the same questions: ‘Why aren’t we making money? Why am I still working on cars? Why don’t I have a life?’”

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Stout says that five years ago, after hearing about a management seminar hosted by Drive, he and Sheri decided it was time to listen to their message. 

“In that five-year period, they helped us set our goals, which included renovating the shop, and adding an office. It included hiring the right people as our dream team. It included me no longer working in the business, but on the business, marketing, recruiting. It was just a whole 360-degree gamut of things that I was always looking for and never had the right answers.”

Now, Stout says, life and work aren’t always at odds. 

“I can spend time with my wife away from the shop. I have great people. I trust them and they run my business like it’s theirs.”

Now, Stout says his passion extends to mentoring his staff and other shops. I always say, “When I grow up, I’d like to be a consultant to help other shops. This business can be a struggle – but it’s all what you make of it and how you present it and go forward.”

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