Shop owner Bob Howlett caught the car bug early as he pumped gas and started turning wrenches while finishing high school. That early passion blossomed when Howlett moved from the service station and started at The Swedish Solution, where his apprenticeship began in earnest in 1985. The previous owner retired in 2004, selling the Orange Village, OH, location to Howlett, and the Cleveland Heights, OH, location to Dave, Howlett’s mentor.
“I love working on cars. I love the business and I’m really fortunate to have been able to start as an apprentice and work my way up and actually buy the business that I worked in for 18 years,” says Howlett. Both locations continue to operate under The Swedish Solution banner, and share advertising and insurance costs, an arrangement Howlett says has worked well in the eight years since the sale.
While The Swedish Solution implies a rather tight niche of Saab and Volvo nameplates, Howlett has expanded the business to include Volkswagen and Audi, and an occasional Porsche. But the shop isn’t limited to the European niche. Howlett invites his loyal customers to bring all of their vehicles to his shop, and he even advertises to owners of Asian imports through direct mail — the businesses prime marketing avenue.
Howlett has found great success buying direct mail lists locally and sends approx-imately 2,000 mailers every two weeks, year round.
The Power of Referrals
Howlett accredits word of mouth for 70% of his business, and offers a strong referral program to encourage customers to introduce their friends and family to The Swedish Solution. “I’ve got one guy who hasn’t paid for an oil change in a year, and he drives an hour each way to visit us,” he says.
Howlett also advertises in the local “Money Saver” circular, as well as in various local school sport and music programs, although he says the latter efforts are a way he can support his local community.
With Howlett being deeply rooted in the community, an assistant minister at church and an active waterlands conservationist, it’s no wonder that visiting The Swedish Solution is more like pulling into the driveway of an old friend than visiting a commercial venture. The office, six-bay garage and wash bay sit behind an old farmhouse which houses the living-room-like waiting area which is adorned with mementos of Howlett’s 25-plus years in the business.
Howlett still gets his hands dirty from time-to-time, but spends most of his time managing the parts department. He has $120,000 in parts inventory, allowing his team to turn most jobs around in a single business day. The Swedish Solution is a Bosch Car Service center, and Howlett says he always chooses quality over price when it comes to parts.
“You don’t want somebody coming back with a system that failed because you used an inferior part,” explains Howlett. “When a customer says this guy over there can do it for that much, I tell them I can do it for that much too, but I’m not sure you want me to use cheap parts. When something breaks, you’re going to forget what a good deal you got, and you’re just going to be angry — that’s why we stick with OEM parts in general.”
In addition to selecting top-notch parts, Howlett says his team’s vast experience sets it apart from the competition. The new guy has been on staff for eight years, while the veterans have 15 to 25 years of experience in the shop. “We know the cars. There’s no question that when it comes to Saab, Volvo, VW or Audi that we’ve got a distinct advantage over the shop that does everything, because we’ve been doing them for a long time,” affirms Howlett. “We have the tools and we have the parts to get the car in and get the job done right the first time. Having said that, we’ll work on anything. I’m confident in our team’s abilities. We have four ASE-certified Master technicians. If you’re a master technician, you know how the systems work.”
Howlett also feels that because he doesn’t pay his team flat rate, it allows them to deliver better-quality work and better customer service than if his team were trying to squeeze 12 flat- rate hours into an eight our day. “In the summertime when we’re really busy, they get the job done, and in the winter when we’re not really busy, they clean up, they do projects, they help build engines, which is fine too,” he explains. “For shops that pay flat-rate, sometimes it’s all about the numbers. For me, it’s all about the customer. If you do a good job, they’ll come back and you’ll make more.”
20 Group Involvement
While Howlett says he isn’t a bean counter, he finds that his involvement in a 20 Group keeps his eye on the bottom line. “There are 20 guys out there with similar businesses, some are bigger and some are smaller, but we’re looking at percentages, and I want to be at or above our group’s average,” says Howlett. “Because everyone else is looking at my numbers, it forces me to really look at what I’m doing and keep on top of it. I have a responsibility to my team and the 20 Group helps keep me focused.”
Worrying is one thing Howlett rarely does. With a staff he views more like friends and family, and a shop he’s loved his entire working life, he’s still energized to deliver top-notch service at The Swedish Solution.