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Shop Profile: Union Street Automotive

Owner: Todd Packer
Location: Newark, New York 
Hours of Operation: 
Gas – Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Service – Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon
Founded: 2006
Number of Employees: 16
Square Footage: 3,500 
Bay Count:
Average Daily Car Count: 12-17
Business Affiliations:
Auto Value Certified Service Center, AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility, independent service provider for AAA Roadside Assistance
WD: Hahn Automotive

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Todd Packer has been captivated by the idea of “full service” ever since he was in high school, when he worked at a gas station whose owner embraced the concept. While Packer admits it might sound “a little corny,” the experience left an indelible mark on his worldview of how a business should operate.

Todd Packer

“Back then there were some full-service gas stations out there, but this guy was old-school,” Packer recalls. “He was all about customer service – checking oil, washer fluid, cleaning windows – and I was impressed with that. And I always wanted to do that.”   

In 2006, Packer got the opportunity to put the full-service concept into action when he purchased Union Street Automotive, a Gulf gas station, repair shop and towing business in Newark, New York, about 35 miles southeast of Rochester. With a focus on old-fashioned customer service, the Auto Value Certified Service Center has flourished, and Packer is committed to maintaining the “1950s flair” that he has instilled in the business from Day 1.

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“We check oil, wash the windshields, check the tire pressure – we do everything that you would expect in 1950,” Packer says. “Our motto is, ‘Old-fashioned service with an old-fashioned price.’ It was always something I wanted to do, we did it and it took off.”

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1981 to 1984, Packer got a job washing cars at a local auto dealership. Over the next 35 years, Packer worked his way up the ranks at two dealerships and served in a number of different positions, including service advisor, service manager, parts manager, sales manager and, eventually, general manager.

Until September 2019, when he retired from his dealership career, Packer was overseeing Union Street Automotive in his spare time and leaving the day-to-day operations in the capable hands of his family. Packer’s wife, Laurie, is the office manager, and their son, Travis, runs the service operations and gas station at the main location in Newark, as well as a second location (Sullivan Auto Service) in nearby Williamson, New York. Meanwhile, their son-in-law, Kenny Zirbel, runs the towing operations, and Packer’s brother, Harold, is the manager of Sullivan Auto Service. 

Auto Value has been part of the Union Street Automotive family from the very beginning. Packer was familiar with the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance Inc. – home of Auto Value – from his dealership career, so the decision to become an Auto Value Certified Service Center was a no-brainer. It doesn’t hurt that the local Auto Value WD, Hahn Automotive, has a parts warehouse “four doors down from us.”

“I’ve dealt with a lot of people in my experience over the years at the dealership – certainly from having my hand in parts – and I’ve never seen anything comparable to what I see with Hahn and Auto Value,” Packer says. “These guys are spot-on, the Alliance is spot-on. And between Mike Bonacci and Craig Hulett here in our market, there’s nothing I can’t get answered or fixed.”

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If a customer’s vehicle needs fixed – and they happen to be more than 25 miles from the shop when the issue pops up – Packer knows they’re covered by the two-year, 24,000-mile Confidence Plus North American Warranty.  

“If you go cross-country and you break down, it makes it very easy for the customer to find a [Certified Service Center], because there’s so many of them,” Packer says. “When you have a customer tell you they’re taking off for Oklahoma, we can say with confidence that Auto Value/Bumper to Bumper is going to take care of them, regardless of where they’re going. That’s a big deal.” 

The peace-of-mind Confidence Plus warranty is a perfect fit for Packer’s old-school approach to customer service. Union Street’s employees don’t wear bowties, starched shirts and visor-style caps like you might picture on a 1950s pump jockey, but they are washing windshields, checking oil levels, plugging tires and replacing wiper blades – on the spot and free of charge – while customers wait at the fuel pump. With their “thank you, please and all the surrounding courtesies,” Packer believes the Union Street team is preserving what he views as a lost art in today’s society. 

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“I think America, in general, has gotten away from that,” asserts Packer. “It’s this Burger King theory – get in, get out. There’s no rapport. You don’t know the customer’s name. There’s no ‘good morning,’ ‘good afternoon’ and ‘thank you.’”

Fortunately, the full-service flair of yesteryear – with all the “surrounding courtesies” – is alive and well at Union Street Automotive, and the rapport and goodwill established at the pumps carry over to the shop’s service and towing operations. But Packer admits it comes at a price. Selling gasoline isn’t a high-margin business, and Union Street typically has two employees dedicated to pumping gas on weekdays and three or four employees on weekends. When the pumps get busy, it’s not uncommon for a tech to get pulled away to replace a wiper blade. 

Still, Packer is convinced it’s worth every penny to have a full-service gas station. In fact, Packer considers it his most powerful marketing tool.

“Having a full-service gas station out front isn’t cheap to do, but it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “With your marketing spend, you have a choice: You can go to paper or radio – and being a general manager of a car dealership for a long time, I get that – but I still don’t think there’s anything better than an old-fashioned handshake and rapport. We have roughly 300 people a day coming through our pumps. I can’t think of a better way to market than, ‘Hey Mr. Jones, how are you? How’s your wife?’ You can’t put a dollar value on rapport – it’s that important to us.”  

From left: Todd Packer; his wife, Laurie; and their son, Travis

Family Atmosphere

Of course, rapport will only get you so far if you can’t back it up with great service and top-quality workmanship, and Packer’s team has the experience and training to deliver just that. Between the two locations – Packer purchased Sullivan Auto Service in 2015 – there are five technicians, and all of them have earned ASE certification at some level. 

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Packer is a “big advocate” of ASE certification, and he believes a well-trained staff is a must in this age of increasing vehicle complexity. He also sees ASE certification as a point of differentiation between a “quick-service” shop that only focuses on a handful of services – shocks, struts and brakes, perhaps – and a full-service shop like his that works on everything “from A to Z.” “We turn nothing down,” he adds.

There’s very little turnover at Union Street Automotive, and Packer estimates that the average tenure is between eight and 10 years, which is remarkable considering that it includes the repair, towing and gasoline operations. The employment benefits – partial medical coverage and a 401(k) plan with employer matching – are fairly unique for an independent automotive repair business. And the work schedule is flexible in the sense that if an employee needs time off, “we’re not going to give you a hard time about that.”

It’s all part of a calculated approach to create a supportive, family atmosphere “that’s conducive to being happy at work.”  

“If you’re going through a tough time in your personal life, we’re there to listen,” Packer says. “If you’re trying to move into your house and you’ve got obstacles there, we’ll try to help. We treat everyone like a family member. From a business standpoint, minimizing turnover is a really big deal.”

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Business slowed down a bit this spring when stay-at-home guidance and business closures were in effect, Packer says, and it was most noticeable at the pumps and in the towing operations, as there were fewer people driving. However, there have been no layoffs at Union Street Automotive during the pandemic.

Typically, repair appointments are booked out seven to 10 days, and that number dropped to two or three days at the height of the pandemic, according to Packer. In recent weeks, though, the repair business has bounced back to where it normally would be, “and those tow trucks are moving all the time.”

Last year, the business generated approximately $1.6 million in revenue for repair work and towing services, and $3.5 million at the gas pumps. Even in these challenging times, Union Street Automotive is primed for continued success, thanks to a business model that resonates with its loyal customers.

“I learned a long time ago that taking care of people is extremely important, and if it becomes difficult for you to do that, then you’re doing something wrong,” Packer explains. “And you have to have a niche. 

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“We really try to go to great lengths to make people feel comfortable – knowing our customers by name, dropping them off at their house, picking them up when their car is done. And we have a great customer base. There are some people – especially the older generation – who really appreciate that style of service.” 

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