They say necessity is the mother of invention. That proverb certainly rings true for John Gustafson, co-founder and president of Gustafson Brothers in Huntington Beach, California, whose hardscrabble upbringing was the impetus for launching a multimillion-dollar repair business.
“When I was in high school, my dad drove junk cars 200 miles a day, and I had to keep a fleet running so he could get to work,” Gustafson recalls. “People in the neighborhood see you fixing cars and all of a sudden they’re asking you to fix theirs. It snowballed from there.”
In February 1971, necessity drove Gustafson and his brother, Frank, to set up shop in a rented two-bay garage in Huntington Beach. “We opened the shop when my dad kicked us out of the family garage,” John Gustafson says. In the early days, the brothers specialized in servicing Volkswagens, which were popular at the time. In 1989, Frank Gustafson opened an auto body shop in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and he’s been there ever since.
Gustafson Brothers, a member of the Auto Value Certified Service Center network, has grown and flourished because the business has maintained its focus on the necessities of good customer service. For example, the shop added collision repair in 1980, because the Gustafsons “couldn’t find a reliable referral for our customers.”
“The entire evolution has been about filling needs,” Gustafson says. “We didn’t have a master plan to build it and they will come. We listened to what the customers needed and just added features and services as the needs came up.”
Today, collision repair comprises nearly 60% of the total revenue at Gustafson Brothers. For the current fiscal year (which ends May 31, 2020), the shop’s goal is $6 million on the collision side and $4.5 million on the mechanical side.
Six years ago, Gustafson opened a second, smaller facility in Huntington Beach, focusing on mechanical work only. The nine-bay shop – Ron Catt Auto Care/Gustafson Brothers North – is on course for more than $1 million in revenue for the current fiscal year.
An attractive, detailed website articulates the high standards that Gustafson Brothers has established for the business. “Gustafson Brothers is a world-class organization,” the site proclaims. “This means that we provide the highest-quality service, promptly and at a fair cost. This also means that our facility is consistently cleaner, brighter and more ‘user-friendly’ than the competition. Because of these qualities our customers choose us first.”
To help meet its high standards for quality and timeliness, Gustafson Brothers has partnered with Warren Distributing Inc. (WDI), a longtime member of the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance. WDI provides on-demand delivery and offers electronic ordering via the Alliance MyPlace4Parts system, “so we can get parts at the right quality, right price and right time 99% of the time,” Gustafson says.
“A responsive parts supply chain is critical to timely auto repair, and WDI fills that role,” he adds.
Gustafson credits his WDI field rep, Frank Chesnek, for staying on top of the shop’s needs and providing “responsive customer service.”
“He understands the business. He understands our needs,” Gustafson says. “He does whatever it takes to make it happen.”
Through the Auto Value Service Center program, Gustafson Brothers offers a 24-month/24,000-mile warranty on most mechanical repairs. The shop also offers consumer financing through Auto Value.
“They have a credit-card program where a guest with reasonable credit – it doesn’t have to be perfect – can get a credit card to have repairs done,” Gustafson says.
‘We Measure Everything’
When your goal is to be a world-class organization, you can’t leave anything to chance. At Gustafson Brothers, “We measure everything and base our bonus plans on the results,” Gustafson says.
As the president of the business, Gustafson sets the strategic vision. The leadership team – comprised of Gustafson, the general manager, the mechanical-shop team leader and the collision-shop team leader – meets weekly to review the shop’s progress and set goals for the upcoming week. The entire staff meets monthly.
A daily sales report shows the progress toward the month-to-date goals. In addition to keeping a close eye on sales, Gustafson Brothers measures customer satisfaction for mechanical and collision work. Through a third-party service provider, Gustafson Brothers administers customer-satisfaction surveys via phone, text or email.
“And we monitor social media in the admin office a couple times of day,” Gustafson adds.
Gustafson Brothers aims to provide “a memorable experience” for its customers, Gustafson notes. As the website explains it, the components of customer satisfaction include “professionalism, courtesy, responsiveness, a neat appearance, a friendly atmosphere and a genuine concern for the customer.”
The shop leverages technology to keep customers informed and updated on the repair process. Gustafson Brothers conducts digital inspections and uploads them to the ClearMechanic app, which has the capability to send real-time photos, videos and diagrams to customers – via text or email – to explain the nature of the issue with their vehicle and make recommendations for repairs and maintenance. Customers can approve those recommendations through the app.
Whenever a customer comes in contact with a member of the Gustafson Brothers staff, it’s a “moment of truth” for the business to form a positive impression on the customer. With the shop being in Southern California, the bay doors stay open – which means a moment of truth can happen any time. All technicians have the authority to speak to customers, Gustafson notes.
“That’s part of our vision to provide remarkable customer service,” he adds.
Training And A Bit Of ‘Magic’
Courtesy, professionalism and communication are important elements of customer satisfaction. But they don’t amount to much if the workmanship isn’t up to par – or if the job isn’t completed in a timely fashion.
“Successful customer relations also involve providing quality products and services that consistently meet, if not exceed, the expectations of our customers, meeting deadlines and bringing projects or work assignments to completion on time,” the Gustafson Brothers website explains.
To ensure that the service and repair quality are befitting of a world-class organization, Gustafson says he has tried to create “a learning culture.” On the collision side, Gustafson Brother is an I-CAR Gold Class shop, and a number of auto body techs have achieved I-CAR Platinum individual certification. Nationwide, I-CAR estimates that only 20% of auto body shops currently meet the rigorous standards required for Gold Class status.
On the mechanical side, Gustafson Brothers is an ASE Blue Seal of Excellence shop and an AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility. Gustafson estimates that two-thirds of his technicians have achieved ASE individual certification, some of them at the Master level. Shop personnel also take advantage of training opportunities through the Alliance.
Gustafson Brothers incentivizes technicians to earn ASE certification by reimbursing 100% of their signup fee and 200% of their test fee when they pass – in addition to giving them a pay raise.
The commitment to training is a no-brainer for Gustafson.
“The customers have a choice, and really it’s the OE dealer or an aftermarket shop that is as qualified as the OE dealer,” he says. “So our role is to be as qualified as the OE dealer but still have the ability to be a neighborhood shop and service a fairly wide range of makes and models.”
Gustafson Brothers has devised a novel system to ensure that jobs are completed on time. It’s a magnetic whiteboard that Gustafson calls the “Magic Scheduling Board,” and it serves as the central nervous system of the 25,000-square-foot facility (also known as the South shop).
“We developed it out of necessity, like everything else,” Gustafson says. “We needed a way to keep track of all the jobs, and we had used paper-based schedules forever.”
The board is divided into rows and columns. At the top of each column are the names of the technicians, divided into teams. Multiple jobs are assigned to each team.
When a service advisor gets a repair order, he writes it on a 3-by-6 magnetic card and hands it to the “dispatcher” – the manager of the mechanical shop. The manager assigns the order to the appropriate technician based on the tech’s workload and ability, and depending on when the job needs to be completed.
“The magic part is every color on that board has significance,” Gustafson explains. “ … Once the team understands what the colors mean, they can communicate non-verbally.”
Gustafson Brothers has a lot of things working in its favor – a visionary leader, a highly skilled team, a well-articulated mission and the support of WDI and Auto Value. But Gustafson admits that “just being in Huntington Beach is an asset too.”
“We’re in a really good market,” he says. “Great people. We’re a mile and a half from the beach. It’s a nice part of the world.”
When Gustafson steps away from the business someday, he hopes to devote more of his time to championing the Auto Talent Co-Op, a nonprofit organization he created to tackle the technician shortage. He launched the co-op several years ago after seeing firsthand that “the candidate pool is pretty slim.”
Gustafson Brothers offers “Auto Boot Camp” to get young people interested in a career in the auto industry and teaches classes on detailing and smog-check repair and inspection for adults. But Gustafson believes the only way to solve the talent crisis “is for everybody to participate in the solution.”
“In this whole process [of creating the Auto Talent Co-Op], I’ve discovered that there are some fabulous things happening across the country, in silos,” Gustafson says. “To refill the talent pool, it’s going to take more than just talking about it. And it’s going to take more than just a few people in a few markets working on a solution.
“ … The purpose of the co-op is to gather information on the best practices for each market and share it with the rest of the country, with the rest of the auto repair community, so we get on the same page and refill the pool of candidates.”