From a young age, Mike Sargeant knew he had a mechanical aptitude. Sargeant grew up on a farm in Illinois, where he learned to repair “whatever needed to be fixed.” In high school, he attended an automotive trade school as part of his curriculum.
When Sargeant was 20, he realized he wanted to live in the Sun Belt, so he packed his bags for sunny Florida. He settled in St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast, working as a technician at several dealerships until he opened Sargeant Service Center in 1987.
“Over 30 years ago, I felt the need for a more personal connection to customers and their cars,” Sargeant explains in a video on the shop’s website.
Even as a technician in his previous jobs, Sargeant says he felt a strong connection with his customers, “and that concept kind of spilled over” when he launched Sargeant Service Center, a Parts Plus Car Care Center. That wasn’t the only thing that he brought with him. When he left the dealership in 1987, he brought his apprentice to his new shop, “and he’s still turning wrenches with me” today, Sargeant tells ShopOwner. Within the next two years, two more of his former co-workers joined him at the shop.
Those three techs have been at the shop so long that they feel like brothers, he says. And one of Sargeant’s real brothers works in the shop too – along with his youngest son and his stepdaughter.
“It truly is a family operation,” Sargeant adds.
Every aspect of the business is geared toward conveying professionalism. The facility – a former auto body shop that Sargeant acquired and renovated five years ago – is clean and attractive. The Sargeant Service Center logo is prominently featured outside and inside the building, and his customer-facing staff members wear polo shirts sporting the logo as well. Including Sargeant, the shop has six ASE-certified master technicians, a point that’s emphasized on the shop’s website.
“My goal is to take away the ‘grease monkey’ image that used to be affiliated with auto technicians, although not so much anymore,” Sargeant explains. “Our business model is to be a step above the traditional thinking of a repair shop.”
A Matter of Trust
For most people, a car, truck or SUV is the second-biggest purchase they’ll make in their lifetime. You know you’re doing something right when you’ve built a strong base of loyal, repeat customers who trust you implicitly with their vehicle (or in many cases, their “baby”).
“We have a number of customers who come in and say, ‘Just take care of whatever needs to be done and call me when it’s done,’” Sargeant says. “That’s achieved, number one, by doing honest and fair repairs, taking care of their car and standing by it with our warranty.”
A Parts Plus Car Care Center for the past decade, Sargeant Service Center offers the Parts Plus two-year, 24,000-mile North American Parts & Labor Warranty. The warranty provides peace of mind for the shop’s customers as well as Sargeant, who sleeps better knowing that a shop in the Parts Plus Car Care Center network can help his customers if they’re ever stranded more than 25 miles from the shop.
Sargeant trusts his local warehouse distributor, The Parts House in St. Augustine, to get him the right parts when he needs them. A member of the Automotive Distribution Network, The Parts House “just gives me superior customer service,” Sargeant says.
“They’re super-supportive of my business,” he adds.
Customers’ trust is the biggest compliment the shop receives, and that trust wouldn’t be possible without the hard work, talent and dedication of the shop’s employees. The technicians and service writers bring a “help-each-other attitude” to the job, with the common goal of delivering a quality repair and top-notch customer service.
Sargeant Service Center
Owner: Mike Sargeant
Location: St. Augustine, Florida
Hours of Operation: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Number of Employees: 10 employees (including Sargeant)
Square Footage: 7,500
Bay Count: 12
Average Daily Car Count: 20
Business Affiliations: Parts Plus Car Care Center, AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility
WD: The Parts House
“I would almost describe our team as a think tank of technicians,” Sargeant says. “I have simply the best technicians in the area, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Unlike many shops, Sargeant says he doesn’t have a problem finding good help. Case in point: Around five years ago, the shop placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a skilled technician. One of the respondents was a tech from Washington state, who wanted to move to the St. Augustine area. He got the job, “drove across the country with a truck and a trailer and he’s been employed here ever since.”
“He’s an ace European-model technician with a high level of computer savvy,” Sargeant adds. “He’s been a wonderful asset.”
Perhaps there’s some good luck at play, and the Florida sunshine can’t hurt either. But techs won’t stick around if they’re not happy, and the work environment at Sargeant Service Center is a big reason why most of Sargeant’s techs have been with him for years. Work-life balance is an important aspect of the culture – Sargeant did away with Saturday hours in the early 1990s – and “the trust factor” is the prevailing theme during working hours.
“All of the mechanics have a key to the door,” Sargeant explains. “I trust them implicitly with my business and my customer base, so they’re trusted with the building as well. The culture is a two-way street, where the employees believe in you and you believe in them.”
After 28 years in a 3,600-square-foot facility, the move to Sargeant’s current digs – a 12-bay, 7,500-square-foot shop on U.S. 1 South in St. Augustine – has been a boon to business. With the move, Sargeant Service Center has seen its annual revenue jump from $1.35 million five years ago to $2.25 million last year. This year, sales took a hit in March and April due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the shop stayed busy and “everyone was fully employed” throughout the crisis, Sargeant explains. When ShopOwner spoke with Sargeant in May, however, business was rebounding nicely.
The shop has two shuttles, and a dedicated driver every day, to take customers to their home or office while they wait for their vehicle to be repaired. “I have two retired gentlemen who drive for us, and they trade off days,” Sargeant says.
To ramp up the convenience factor during the pandemic, the shop now offers no-contact repair. Having a staff member pick up and drop off vehicles has been especially popular with the shop’s elderly clientele, many of whom are staying home out of an abundance of caution. But it wouldn’t work without the strong rapport and trust that the shop has built with its customer base.
“The trust factor is both ways,” Sargeant says. “I trust the customer to tell me what they want done and approve it over the phone.”
And his customers trust him with their most prized possessions – including some of the rarest cars on the planet. In addition to performing maintenance and repair on all domestic and foreign models, the shop specializes in classic cars – a niche that evolved from Sargeant’s hobby of building and restoring hot rods and other classic vehicles.
When ShopOwner spoke with Sargeant in May, the shop was working on a 1954 Cadillac Series 62 convertible and a 1970 Datsun Fairlady Z – the latter of which is one of only a handful in the world, according to Sargeant.
“These cars are very important to the owners, and they’re very appreciative of how we take care of them,” he says.
It’s a niche that provides plenty of eye candy for Sargeant’s customers, as well as motorists passing by the shop on U.S. 1.
“People will stop in just to look at the cars. On any given day, it’s like a little car show.”