Wayne Sipe says 44 years has taught him a lot about the opportunities in the automotive industry, but the most influential factor for success is to present quality in every aspect of the business.
From its beginning crafting custom exhausts for iconic muscle cars of the 1970s to its current attention to full service on even the most mundane vehicles on the road, Sipe’s Interstate Muffler, a Federated Car Care Center, has been a symbol of reliability to drivers in Staunton, VA, since 1979.
With two locations, in Staunton and Waynesboro, VA, Sipe says treating the drivers in the Shenandoah Valley like family is his ultimate duty.
“When it comes to servicing a vehicle and requiring our techs to do courtesy checks, I’ve always believed that it’s either someone’s child, parent or grandparent. Ultimately, it’s important to us to know that when every vehicle leaves our facility it’s safe for whoever’s getting behind that wheel,” he says.
Sipe believes that being in business requires more than just doing work.
“I’ve always just applied myself as someone who not only offers a service, but stands by the service that we offer. We participate in a nationwide warranty program through our partnership with Federated and quality is number one.”
Sipe says the local Federated store in each of his communities is his shop’s number one source of product supply. “We follow OE-required specifications and Federated is a good source for brake products, ignition and tune-up related products. We could use anyone, of course, but because we are a Federated Car Care Center, they are our first choice. Federated provides roadside assistance for every vehicle we service free to our customers. We focus on partnering with them as our first call for everything we do. ”
Interstate Mufflers is a full-service general automotive operation with two brick and mortar stores that are about 15 miles apart. Originally specializing in exhaust system fabrication and installation, the shop has evolved into full-service automotive centers, Sipe explains. Today, both locations offer comprehensive auto repair that includes general automotive service for cars, trucks and vans, Virginia State Inspections, brakes, tires, engines, transmission and drivetrain, heating and cooling services, electronic and electrical services, including engine analysis and diagnostics.
“In the Staunton shop, we have seven and a half bays, with seven lifts. There’s open floor space behind one of the lifts that’s used for Virginia State Safety inspections. We average about 10 people in Staunton, with about five on average at Waynesboro, where the shop has four bays. My son, Jon, works between both shops, as well.”
Sipe says his son, who grew up in his father’s garage, is hands-on every day in the business. ”You’ve heard of getting that problem vehicle in, it can happen at either store. So, Jon will shift from store to store where he’s needed most. My youngest son, Jeremy, chose to do humanitarian work after working with me for 20 years, focusing on humanitarian and faith-based mission work through Project Holy Nations.”
Sipe has renovated both facilities over the past several decades to showcase his techs’ talents in the best possible light. He says he’s very attuned to appearances but believes that beauty is more than skin deep.
“I think it’s extremely important for customers to have a comfortable and professional waiting area. We strive to maintain that in order to make our customers feel comfortable and know that they’re appreciated. We want to do everything we can to make them feel that they’re our guest, not just someone coming in who we want to make money from.”
Serving his guests starts with a rock-solid crew, Sipe says.
“All our employees are essential to our business success each and everyday. Our staff at our counters and all our technicians are an important part of what we do. Both Jon and I try to express our appreciation and how important they are to us on a regular basis.”
Sipe says he has two techs who have been with him for more than 20 years, serving as steadying forces for the rest of the team. Their experience does help support the desire for training.
“We do offer to pay for their training at a technical vo-tech to a certain extent if we feel like they’re going to be part of our program and our team,” Sipe says. “In addition, Federated provides classes throughout the year with The Group Training Academy and through Standard Motor Products. I not only encourage but require certain hands-on technicians to attend classes on diagnosing and troubleshooting, drivability issues and engine and transmission diagnostics, as well as ABS and wiring issues. We also use the iATN and have multiple internet-based resources for our technicians and service writers.”
Sipe says he appreciates today’s array of training, because he felt he was on his own at the beginning of his career. “When I got started doing brake work in 1989, I would buy books on brake systems. I would study those in the evenings and after hours, a process that would continue as we grew into doing full service automotive work. On the business side of it, we became a member of the Automotive Training Institute and did a four-year course with them.”
Sipe admits that logic hadn’t always prevailed in his management style. “I had trouble sleeping at night sometimes. The first three years I was in business, I was the only employee. Then, I hired a helper, and then five or six years later, I brought the helper and myself to a larger shop and then hired an additional employee and we just kept growing from there,” he says.
Growth meant bigger headaches. “Years ago, I started going to weekend workshops and seminars for the industry. I always had trouble signing on the dotted line for the major bucks to get a business coach and all the training that they provide. I just couldn’t see myself having that kind of energy with working the hours that I was working and the long hours during the days and weekends. But, over the course of the years as I was figuring some things out, periodically coming back to my desk and looking at what I could establish not just for my customers, but for my techs, I struggled to get the customers done on time, get the guys to pick up a ticket and stay at it until it was done.
“Between the Automotive Training Institute and Mitchell 1, we found ways to help us become more profitable and be able to establish fair pricing with our margins so we could be compatible and competitive with the cost of labor.”
After many attempts at developing a workable compensation package that was fair to his customers and his team, Sipe began offering a base pay and an incentive program driven by the hour.
“We are very competitive in base pay, which is guaranteed income for the regular hours and time and a half for overtime. And then our incentive bonus program is robust. Every tech has an opportunity to make really good income in this industry. If you want this to be your career, apply yourself and you can do well.”
Still, it’s not always easy to convince people of the opportunities they may be missing. “Myself, I enjoy getting up, coming to work, doing what I need to do. I try to instill every day that’s how they need to show up at work, ready to work and excited to do what they’re good at doing,” Sipe says. “We have great potential here at our stores, and I feel like this industry offers great income potential for someone who is willing to apply themselves, willing to take the training and be on board as a team member. That’s what brings things together across the board.”
Like most shops, Sipe admits that Interstate Muffler is searching hard for great members for his team. He says he goes the traditional route – the unemployment office, online hiring resources, local trade school facilities – and has established contact with potential young technicians. But, he says one of his most aggressive search methods is totally old school.
“I’ve been running help-wanted ads on the local radio. First time I’ve ever done that in my life,” he says.
Though he has advertised his shops on the radio for decades, Sipe says he was reluctant to put such a call on air for a number of reasons. “For one, I feel like I’m not promoting what we do so well – fix vehicles. I was worried that I would just be telling people we’re short of help. But, it seems to be working, drawing potential technicians in, without hurting our image.”
Sipe says reputation is key to his business. He says that even between both locations, Interstate Muffler has a limited customer base. To succeed here, he says, you have to do right by your community. “We have a lot of repeat customers. And, we need to not only take care of those drivers, but expand with prospects. Our customer retention program is online, through our website, in which customers are able to go into our website to track the history on their car. Those who choose to participate get emails or texts from us letting them know when their state inspection is due, approximation when their next oil change should be due or other maintenance items. We do the social CRM through Mitchell 1, which has been a great partner for us. They have helped us with our Facebook pages and our customer retention.”
Sipe reports that his business, like many shops, experienced amazing opportunities during the global pandemic – unfortunately, opportunity didn’t necessarily translate into sales.
“Our only lack for revenue then and not reaching our quotas was lack of help. The work was there and we tried to add more technicians. But, I had people come in to apply for a job and they would sit in the chair across from my son and I, and say, ‘Well, as long as I’m getting this check from the government, I’m going to continue to do that because I don’t have to buy gas and I don’t have to pay for childcare.’ It was just sad to hear, and we’re still not getting the level of technicians that we want when they apply.”
In addition to his repair operation, Sipe owns Everything Automotive Warehouse Distribution, a supplier of a full range of products including his own line of branded performance exhaust components. “When I promote the Interstate Muffler name, we also use Everything Automotive under the logo and in the ads on air so that people can relate, ‘Hey, they’re more than just mufflers,’” he explains.
Sipe says the development of Everything Automotive was a family affair, because he had trouble getting manufacturers paying attention to “just the little Mom and Pop muffler shop.”
“One manufacturer actually did tell me that because we have been a strong player in the exhaust industry in the state and even beyond Virginia, some of the manufacturers didn’t want to do business with us. I created Everything Automotive to develop a line of distribution from global manufacturers. Going into 2019, we felt secure, ready to hit the streets running in 2020,” he explains.
Unfortunately, as we know, not much was running in 2020. Sipe says factories got shut down and shipping became a problem, as it did for many businesses.
“What happened in 2020 when we saw the writing on the wall that we weren’t going to be able to get the product that we had hoped to, we decided to hit the streets running with the product that we had, that we could get through agents. We found out that people were impressed with our product and how competitive it was with the major brands, and they loved our packaging, our labeling. When we put displays in the automotive shops, I just felt like it was a win-win.”
Unfortunately, with the challenges he was facing, Sipe altered course. “We’re just starting to come out of that, and we’re trying to establish an avenue that’s competitive in the market and popular with distributors.”
Sipe says one of his concerns with the increased amount of interest in electric vehicles is the impact it is already having on the exhaust industry. He is working with SEMA and state lawmakers to fight upcoming legislation that would be detrimental to his business.
Luckily, he says, he won’t be fighting alone. He and his oldest son Jon have been discussing the next steps for Interstate Muffler. “I’m 65 now, and at some point I do want to be able to back away from having to be hands-on full time. I started to begin some of that just prior to the pandemic, but with the shortage of help, with people wanting to work from home, I said, ‘Well, we’ll do what we need to do. We’ll keep going and we’ll change course either when we are ready or when we feel like it’s necessary.’”
Sipe says his 16-year-old grandson, Thomas, will be a high school senior next year and is already planning on coming into the industry. In fact, the third generation has been doubly blessed with automotive repair genes.
“His other grandfather worked in the industry, as well,” Sipe says. “In fact, that grandpa trained me to fabricate custom exhausts. That was long before either of our children – his daughter and my youngest son – was born, and now they’ve been married for 20-plus years.Why shouldn’t the automotive industry fit for our grandson Thomas?”
Sipe says he has long believed that his shop’s family tree is far from fully grown.
“In addition to Jeremy’s son Thomas, I have three other grandchildren, from Jon and his wife: Reagan, who’s 16, Mason, 8 and Addilyn, 7. I have often felt that I could build a business that would allow employment for my family. At least they can gain some life experience in this industry as they grow and decide what they may choose as a career.”
To create such a legacy, of course, requires a solid foundation, something Sipe says gets stronger each year he has been involved with Federated.
“Federated has done so much for the independent shop owner such as myself.,” he says. “They taught my staff and me to use a computer for parts lookup and online ordering before it was popular. They are there for literally anything you might need help with in this industry, whether it’s parts or problems.”
Sipe says whether he’s having trouble sourcing a hard-to-find part or has a business question about anything in the industry, he knows who to call. “They are great to us and they are ahead of everyone else with what they continue to do every day for us as a shop owner.”
Sipe concludes, “Quality is number one. In product, certainly – like the parts from Federated that we install on the customer’s vehicle – but also in the quality of work. And, of course, the service that you provide at the counter is critical. You must have knowledgeable staff to be able to answer questions and know your customers’ concerns. I tell my guys, ‘Every time the phone rings or someone walks in the door, it’s not because they want to see a smiling face. They need help with something on their vehicle.’”