Shop Profile: Pioneer Auto, Sergeant Bluff, IA
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Shop Profile: Pioneer Auto, Sergeant Bluff, IA

Rick Maxfield says his goal is to facilitate service and a positive customer experience.

A Commitment To Yesterday’s Service Ideals Proves Beneficial To Today’s Customers

Rick Maxfield understands that it takes movie magic to actually go back in time, but that hasn’t stopped him from bringing a little bit of yesterday back to his clients at Pioneer Auto in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. At the same time, he keeps a continued eye on the future, with a commitment to making the “good days” every day his shop is open.

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“We’re actually kind of a rare breed anymore, I believe, because a lot of shops I read about today want to take only the quick in, quick out kinds of jobs,” Maxfield says of his Confidence Plus Certified Service Center. “We are literally a full-service operation, offering anything from a simple tire repair and oil change to motor replacements, transmission replacements and complete diagnostics. For the majority of the vehicles out there, if the tools are available and the information’s available to the aftermarket, we’ll work on them.”

Maxfield began his career offering just such service, he says, during the neon colored, big-haired mid- ‘80s at the local mall. “While I was going to school in Sioux City, IA, I had a part-time job at the Sears Auto Center. I was greeting the customer and also serving as a dispatcher, the person who would issue the work to the technicians.”

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The retail environment at Sears meant that Maxfield and his colleagues serviced just about anything that rolled into the shop. That attitude continues to this day.

“When I got into this business, I realized that I had a couple of choices. In that retail environment, they wanted us to keep moving up to bigger stores to advance our careers. They did put me through some different schoolings and sent me to different places including a bigger Des Moines. In the early  ’90s, we already had my daughter Kelsey were getting ready to have our second child, and I wasn’t sure if the retail mode of traveling and moving every so many years was a pipeline that I wanted to be in.”

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Maxfield says his decision to step off the retail conveyor led him back to Sioux City, to a local “mom-and-pop” tire shop. “After a couple of years there, David Abbot, the owner of Pioneer Auto Service Inc. called to tell me he was just opening up a little small three bay, 2880 square foot shop, and asked if I would come work for him. His daughter, Lori, and my wife, Staci, had gone to school together.”

Maxfield says he appreciated the offer and the direction the new shop was going to go, but after achieving a certain level of success in the industry, he wasn’t sure he was ready to take a step back financially.

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“I didn’t know if I could take that type of pay decrease,” Maxfield admits, turning down the offer. “About nine months after he was up and running, he called me again. At that time, I told him I would be more than happy to do it, but I needed to be able to have some type of a guarantee. To buy into ownership or something of that nature. So, we settled on what we could get done and I went to work for him in December of 1995. In 1997 David added another 1008 sq ft to the building, bringing the total square footage to 3888.”

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As Maxfield and his team continued to grow the business, Abbott, a part-time pilot, decided to change careers and begin flying full-time. “As he transitioned out, I was able to buy the company from him in June of 2003. We shortened the name to Pioneer Auto and were off and running.”

Since then, Pioneer has expanded in size and commitment. In 2007 Maxfield built and moved into a new 10,000 square foot facility. With seven 10,000-lb. asymmetrical hoists, one 18,000 lb. symmetrical lift and a 12,000-lb. camera alignment bay, he is equipped to handle vehicles of nearly every description.

“When I took over the company in 2003, FedEx Express happened to come to my shop asking me to do all their vehicle maintenance here in Sioux City. Anything from changing tires and brakes to motors, to whatever fails on that truck, either diesel or gas Fords, GMC, Isuzu, Ram ProMaster or Mercedes Sprinters. For the majority of those, we can do the majority of the work. Some of the Mercedes Sprinters, if there’s a computer that needs to be replaced will need go to the dealer about an hour away. We just don’t do enough programming on Mercedes to justify that kind of a scan tool expense.”

Pioneer Auto has a variety of other fleet customers as well. “We do probably 85 percent or better of the Woodbury County Sheriff’s department, ranging anywhere from Dodge Durangos, Dodge Chargers to Dodge pickups. We have a long-line telecommunications company in town, and we also do a lot of work for the City of Sergeant Bluff, for their police vehicles, their fire equipment, and city maintenance vehicles,” Maxfield says. 

“Honestly, I’d say we’re probably 30 percent commercial and fleet and 70 percent public.” 

Maxfield is proud of his team’s training and skill.

“I have a full complement of techs in my shop constantly,” he says. “I have four on a daily basis plus myself off and on, depending on what our workload is. In addition, my son, Austin, is a firefighter for the air base here in Sioux City. He works 24 hours on and 48 hours off so, usually on his off days, he’ll put some time in at the shop as well.”

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Maxfield says his team can handle whatever’s presented. “We’re pretty specialized. Chad Hinrickson worked with me off and on since my days at Sears. He worked with me a little bit at the tire shop, and he’s been with me ever since. I would say he’s my old school guy, who can still rip the motor apart and put it back together also doing timing belts and other duties. 

 “Blake Hinrickson handles my heavy-duty and all my FedEx work and things of that nature,” says Maxfield. “Zach Kelley is skilled in the electrical part of it, the draws, the diagnostics, and also handles motor work. We actually do some breathalyzer interlock device for the DOT. Those need to be installed in a certain manner, so he does that as well.”

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In addition, Maxfield says, Cody Holsinger handles the oil and tires as well as some brake work and suspension. 

“Behind the counter, there are Christian Gonzales and myself with a headset in our ears – we would be the secretary on the phone; we would be the greeter at the counter; we’re the go-to between the mechanic and the customer. The blessing that I have is that we are pretty big, but we’re still small enough that our mechanics aren’t afraid to call the customer and talk with them. If needed, they’ll take them right in the shop, show them exactly what’s going on or what they need.”

Maxfield says his intent is not to be a block between the customer and the repair – his goal is to facilitate service and a positive customer experience.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about your car. I like to be able to at least explain it to you in terms that you understand, so you don’t ever walk out of here thinking, ‘Geez, I just spent all this money, and I don’t even understand what happened.’ We want our clients to feel what we’ve done has solved the reason they came in,” Maxfield says.

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Whatever service is required, Maxfield’s team does a thorough inspection and reports back to the customer what they find. He says this philosophy of honest communication works well.

“We recently had a customer in here who had gone to his car dealer for a warranty recall. He told us ‘They said I need ball joints, I need a tie rod, and some other things. What do you guys think?’” Maxfield recalls. “My guy brought it in, looked at it and said, ‘Yes, it’s got a bit of play – but if it was my car, I wouldn’t do anything. I would let it go until it got worse.’ We offered to do the work if he wanted us to – he declined, but since he’s a regular customer we’ll be able to keep an eye on it for him.”

Maxfield says his shop management system allows him to make notations of service opportunities like this so when the customer comes back for an oil change the components can be checked again.

For all of his team, Maxfield says training is critical. He looks to his parts supplier partners for assistance, including his Auto Value supplier Arnold Motor Supply.

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“There’s a lot of schooling that goes on and we try to get guys to as many of them as we can.”

“We’ve been dealing with Arnold’s since we moved into this place in 2007 and really have never had any issues or problems. They’re always our first call. There was a situation once, however, when we replaced an A/C condenser that subsequently failed. I went back in and noticed that, at that time for some reason, the part was not bought through Arnold’s. I called them, explained the situation, and John said, ‘You didn’t buy it from us because we probably didn’t have it in stock at the time – that was our fault. So, we’ll get you one, we’ll get it replaced and we’ll get it warrantied.’ Yes, of course price matters to me. But really at the end of the day, it’s all about you getting taken care of so that you can take care of your customer,” Maxfield says.

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Maxfield prides himself on his reputation for excellence and wants others to take pride in this industry as well. So why is his shop’s unofficial logo a grease monkey?

“It originally started as a fun and creative logo for our shop softball team. I have a similar tattoo on my arm so we kind of went with an old school image that is easily recognizable,” he says.

The funny thing is, he says, “grease monkey” should not necessarily be an offensive term. 

“Unfortunately, I think many kids are afraid of jobs in our industry today. Really, the shop is not as dirty as greasy as it used to be. Today, it’s more about diagnostics, electronics; it’s more about math, things of that nature. There’s good money to be made in our industry that I think these kids just don’t realize. We’ll do what we can to make it seem exciting and different.”

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Maxfield promotes his shop in creative ways, from sponsorships of local little league baseball as well as the Sioux City Musketeers, a local hockey team for kids in high school trying to make it to a college or even the pros. “I want my customers to see my name out there and understand that we’re trying to give back to the community. Word of mouth is better for me than most traditional advertising.”

Being part of a network of smaller communities, Maxfield says customer service is critical. “People know people – we’re a big blue-collar community here and in Sioux City. Money matters of course, but obviously getting their car done and fixed right matters also. 

“In my world, people do business with people and that’s the way I look at it. You treat somebody fair; you give them a good price and they’re going to come back to you.”

Maxfield puts his reputation on the line every day by doing great work, and his customers appreciate it. “You go to your dentist because you trust your dentist. So when new customers ask me about my guarantee, I chuckle and tell them ‘I’ll be here tomorrow.”

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