by Debbie Briggs, contributing writer
What do you get when three guys who also happen to be technicians become friends? A highly successful Santa Barbara, CA-based repair shop.
And, here’s how the story goes…
In August of 1986, Willie Contreras established Top Shop Automotive in Isla Vita, CA, specializing in Volkswagen repair. After three years of working on his own, Willie brought on Mark Zaunius. With Mark’s expertise in Volkswagen repair, the shop was able to expand and fill two out of the three bays at the shop on a fairly consistent basis. Pat Roell, a master tech on European and Asian cars, rented one of the bays and opened up his own business, Strictly Foreign. It turned out to be a “win-win situation,” according to both Pat and Willie. They sent each other work on a consistent basis: all VW work went to Top Shop and all European, Asian and German cars were referred to Strictly Foreign.
In 2004, Hans Loesch had reached out to Willie to let him know that he was retiring as owner of his shop, Loesch’s Automotive Repair, and offered Willie his location in Santa Barbara. Willie was beyond elated. Hans was his mentor, as he started out with him when he was a junior in high school. They are very close to this day. “It was my dream, as a teenager, to be able to go back to Loesch’s as the owner since it was the nicest shop in town,” says Willie.
But, it was time to take the next step: bring Top Shop Automotive and Strictly Foreign out of Isla Vista and move into his mentor’s shop under one agreed upon name: Top Shop Automotive.
According to Willie, it was then that these three friends would become business partners as well. With their growing customer base, Pat’s certification as an ASE Master Technician, Mark’s expertise in everything Volkswagen and Willie’s drive to succeed, in August of 2004 Top Shop Automotive established itself at 177 S. Patterson Ave, Santa Barbara, CA, as an “Honest and Dependable” shop.
Do What You Know, Know What You Do
Thanks to Willie’s love for all things Volkswagen — he has a vintage 1966 VW 21 Window Microbus — more than 50% of the shop’s business is VW. Pat and Mark serve as the shop’s head techs, and they supervise and guide three additional techs, who have been with the business since 2006, shortly after Top Shop expanded to its current location. All five are ASE certified.
“Together, Willie, Pat and Mark have created a great working environment,” says Tess McKenzie, Top Shop’s new Administrative and Marketing Advisor. “We encourage and sponsor training, and we hire only upbeat, cheerful and amazing people. We then give them the tools and structure they need to succeed.”
That structure includes maintaining a calendar of local automotive training classes sponsored by Top Shop, as well as working with consulting company, Management Success.
“They offer online training and much more through a valuable tool called Visual Management Technology,” McKenzie explains. “It includes real-time video cameras placed in strategic locations, visual training aids for all shop personnel, web-based graphical productivity analysis and much more.”
More Than Word Of Mouth
According to McKenzie, owners Willie, Pat and Mark know that running a successful business takes more than just word-of-mouth referrals — especially if you want to keep growing.
“When the shop started, back in the day, the only form of advertisement was word of mouth, and that worked since the shop was small and it was just three guys!” she says. “And the shop still gets its fair share of new word-of-mouth business through maintaining healthy relationships with our amazing customers, tow truck drivers and other local business owners.” Willie adds that “being a AAA certified shop has also had a positive impact on the shop.”
In a world where tweeting and texting seem more commonplace than face-to-face interaction, businesses need to adjust to the times — and Top Shop has done just that. The shop’s website has been updated and is even more user friendly, maintaining high visibility on search engines. The shop also makes its presence on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress a priority.
But in the end, all the promotion in the world won’t matter if a shop can’t produce quality work and meet customers’ expectations.
“Any shop can promote themselves in several ways: in person, through media, their customers, etc.,” McKenzie says. “However, if we’re not performing quality work from start to finish, we cannot attract or retain customers.” This is very apparent as the owners all put their heart into their work every day they walk into their shop. Willie adds, “We hire service writers who are naturally upbeat in mannerism, with strong communication and listening skills and who are absolutely solution driven. And we couldn’t do what we do without knowledgeable, trustworthy and skilled technicians.”
Operating a facility that’s clean and inviting cannot be underestimated. The front office area at Top Shop fulfills those things and more — who doesn’t like chocolate?
“Our front office area is clean, smells good and is bright in color and décor,” McKenzie says. “We offer several waiting room tokens of our appreciation: current magazines, a K-Cup coffee machine, Hershey’s Kisses, cold bottles of water and lemonade or ice tea on hot days. Most new customers actually comment on us offering them cold bottled water and how the shop doesn’t ‘smell like an auto repair shop.’
“I always laugh at that one,” she adds. “Being a new addition to the shop and female has definitely brought a different perspective, especially since 65% of the shop’s customers are women!”
McKenzie says they also staff the office with the right people — a smile can go a long way in building a customer relationship that will last a lifetime.
“The office staff is very much a part of the shop’s appearance,” she says. “Walking into a business staffed with smiling faces who acknowledge your presence is critical.”
And it’s the little things that also help build those client relationships: something as simple as a putting a “thank you” card with a lollipop inside each vehicle upon completion or taking the time to call customers to make sure they were satisfied with their repair.
“It’s all about maintaining healthy relationships: building trust and providing solutions,” Willie explains. “How we manage our customers definitely sets us apart from other shops in the area. We do this by being honest and dependable and not overwhelming customers by overselling jobs.”
Being Open To Change
After the shop moved to its current location, the owners then looked into Management Success (mentioned earlier) for help. The impact on the business was nothing short of amazing. Willie recalls the days before then when they all would be busy working on cars, and then the phone would ring, so they’d stop and look at each other until one of them would answer it! Of course their work would always be interrupted, but somehow they managed to get it done.
With Management Success, the key step was to assign each of them “a hat.” Willie has the absolute gift of charm and chit chat, and was assigned to be the service writer; Pat and Mark love to put their thinking caps on and troubleshoot any repair issue, so, of course, they were given the head tech hat to wear. When people have a clear direction, they are able to build the confidence and ability to be amazing. And they really are.
While successful in their new location, the owners wanted to take the shop to the next level — and that’s where Management Success came in.
“Learning how to successfully implement management, sales, marketing and production processes have put the owners more in control of the business,” McKenzie says. “One of the key changes made was to begin managing the business on a daily and weekly basis, rather than waiting until the end of the month to see whether or not the shop made money. Now, adjustments can be made to operations immediately to meet profitability goals. Proactive versus reactive business management: It works!"
While profitability is always crucial, delivering solutions in the form of quality repairs is the ultimate goal at Top Shop Automotive.
“We deliver solutions to our customers,” McKenzie concludes. “We speak to them with respect and integrity, deliver a great product and are always striving to be the best choice for auto repair services for Santa Barbara County.”