Fallon Automotive, Ashburn, VA
“I’ve had many different jobs in the automotive industry over the past 42 years, from dealerships to gas stations to independent repair facilities,” says Mike Fallon, “and most of them have been within about a three-mile radius of where I am today. It’s how you build a loyal customer base and end up serving as many as three generations of the same family.”
Fallon, owner of Fallon Automotive, a TechNet Service Center in Ashburn, VA, says his journey has been one of progression and exploration.
“I just never stopped working or trying to achieve the next level, says Fallon. “I can’t say that from Day One I ever planned to own my own business – I just wanted to be a mechanic. That naturally progressed into where I am today. What I’ve learned is the most important thing is to treat everyone with respect.”
Fallon explains that he grew up in a low-income housing environment outside Washington, DC, with no guarantee for his future. “Aside from taking auto mechanics in high school, I didn’t really get any formal business education, just life lessons learned extremely well.
“I started my career in 1980 as an apprentice at a Volkswagen dealership. I held that entry position for all of three months, when they put me on the line taking care of all the warranty repairs and squeaks and water leaks. Seven years later, I moved to a Subaru dealer as a service writer for a short time. Then went to Hertz as their service manager at the local hub center.”
Fallon says this career move was educational in exactly the wrong way.
“I was in my early twenties managing a 26-bay place with 40 mechanics from two different unions. Let’s just say it was hard to get much done – these guys always just seemed to be getting ready to get ready and never do anything. I worked there for only three or four months, but it was the worst job I ever had.”
Fallon then started at a local Shell gas station that did repair service, and there he found real success. “After about 10 years, I was making $100,000 a year running the gas station and we were doing over $1 million in sales out of a gas station. I talked to the owner about opening a second location and got shut down. I was shocked – here I was, head chef and bottle washer. I hired, fired, managed and handled the banking. I figured I could run my own shop. All he did was show up to count his money, while I did everything.”
The sobering reality, Fallon says, was that he only THOUGHT he did everything.
“It was like having a baby, when you have the sudden realization that you’re responsible for absolutely everything. I thought I was ready for it, but I struggled,” he recalls.
“It was a six-bay shop and there were just two of us. The two of us worked very hard. We turned $35,000 the first month we opened the doors and then averaged almost $50 grand a month with just two of us for a number of months. I thought I was making money. But, at the end of the year, it was like, hey, we made $130,000 but we took only $80,000 so there should be another $50,000 somewhere. Where is that? I was a good mechanic – I was not a great businessman. It was more than a struggle for a solid 10 years.”
Fallon says things got easier and he came close to being a million-dollar six-bay shop with a team of four when he had the opportunity to move to a larger shop with 12 bays five years ago.
“The first year at the new shop we went from just under $1 million to $1.7 million. It hasn’t been perfect – we had some growing pains including getting rid of some people who were stealing, but since then profitability has been high and things have been going well.”
Fallon says his original plan was to expand to even more bays in his 9,000 sq.-ft. shop, but hasn’t been able to take over an additional 3,000 sq. ft. being used for storage, so within nine months of opening his shop he bought an additional 4-bay, 3,200 sq.-ft. shop from a competitor.
“They’re literally a mile apart,” Fallon says, “and because we are certified Virginia automotive safety and emissions inspectors, we’ll do around 40 or 50 cars a day at the beginning and end of the month. But, on average, we probably run through 25 to 30 cars a day.”
Fallon Automotive is a full-service facility handling all types of underhood and undercar repairs for a variety of vehicles and customers.
“At one point a number of years ago, a customer walked through the door and asked if I could service his late-model TDI,” says Fallon. “Of course, Volkswagen is where I started my career but, honestly, I hadn’t even worked on one of these newer ones yet. I looked at it and, sure enough, it was something simple that the dealership had overlooked.”
After the successful repair, Fallon said his customer offered to promote him to friends on a TDI website. “I was initially reluctant because there had been a local Audi racing club that would come in, literally knowing more about their cars than I did, expecting me to wear booties… I finally agreed, and then it was almost weekly that I was getting phone calls about TDIs from all up and down the East Coast. I had one customer who lived in Canada who would drive from Canada to Florida twice a year for business. And, he would make sure that he stopped at my shop so I could service his TDI.”
Fallon Automotive still handles TDIs and other smaller diesels, as well as anything that rolls through the door – as well as things that don’t roll through the door.
“One of my customers owns a little ice rink that does goalie training. He has a mini ice-surfacing machine. He called me one day in a panic, asking if I could fix a Zamboni. Now I have my little magnet sticker on the side of his Zamboni, which is an interesting advertising angle.”
While Fallon admits he doesn’t want to make Zamboni repair a career (“It’s too cold in an ice rink!”) and some might question what an automotive expert might know about such a machine, he says the engine is basically nothing more than an old Ford engine.
“I save him a lot of money, because if he has to call the Zamboni mechanic, it’s $500 for him just to show up plus room and board. If he needs to wait for parts to come in, it might cost him thousands of dollars to get the thing fixed,” Fallon explains. “Basically, it’s matched up to an ‘85 Ford Ranger 2.3L, four-cylinder engine. I can get most of what I need from my local supplier, Carquest of Sterling.”
As with most of his work experience, his relationship with Carquest has been based on proximity. “I think they’re about three miles from us. I’ve been part of TechNet for nearly 20 years,” Fallon says. “What a great program, both for how it benefits the customer and how it benefits the shop owner. The training and the ongoing support have been incredible.”
Fallon says he plans to soon take advantage of other TechNet business solutions, including TechNet Impressions, a branding program that offers customized design concepts that are tailored to a shop’s unique specifications. Through the new program, the TechNet Impressions’ design team develops branding packages customized to the unique building specifications of each repair shop in the network. Upon request, TechNet’s team provides complete interior solutions such as branded service counters, furniture and other fixtures, along with exterior enhancements, including branded awnings, non-illuminated and LED-illuminated signage, bay banners and more. Programs can be tailored to budget, providing repair shops the opportunity to make subtle or substantial changes to the appearance of their facility.
The main goal of Impressions, says the TechNet team, is to put the owners’ unique branding front-and-center, building on the local identity members have established in their community.
Much of Fallon Automotive’s business success is tied to a number of local fleets, including an expanding heating and A/C group; a large commercial electric contractor with about 600 vehicles; and a fleet segment of Amazon.
“We couldn’t compete for their repair business because of our costs,” Fallon says, “but another part of Amazon is their security fleet. They’re all brand-new Tahoes and Suburbans that do nothing but circle their data centers that are here in our area. They literally wear both right tires, the front and the rear tire, often in as few as 7,500 miles, just going around in circles.
Fallon says there are six employees at his larger shop (a service writer, four technicians and himself) and three at his smaller location, including a service writer and two techs, one of whom is his son, Mike. But, like nearly every other shop owner, he’s always looking for more. He says he has found success over the years through word of mouth and reputation.
“I’ve hired more than one of my customers’ children and I just hired one of my customer’s grandchild. I definitely could use more techs and probably another writer. TechNet has a job search function built into the TechNet program and coming into spring I’m going to try to add at least two, if not three, more people at the large shop.”
Fallon says that the relationships within his tightly connected community, his partnership with suppliers like Carquest and his commitment to meeting the needs of his employees have made the past two decades in business successful, if not always simple.
“The first 10 years were working hard, hoping to get everybody paid and that everything stays together. And, then, the past 10 years have been pretty lucrative. I’ve been able to not have to really worry about whether I’ll be able to make payroll or the normal worries of a small business,” he says.
It hasn’t been luck, Fallon says. He has worked hard to overcome obstacles.
“I understand that a lot of small auto repair shops barely make it by, or they fail. Many shops are making 5% after everything’s said and done and that doesn’t pay the bills. Just trying to keep up with the shop down the street isn’t the way to run your business.”
His hard work continues through innovative training methods for his team and creative marketing efforts to his customers. Above all, he plans to task the next generation of Fallons to continue the legacy he has built.
“Somebody like me, a master technician, I sometimes feel like a dinosaur. But, my daughter is young and very sharp. She’ll be managing my marketing programs. And, thankfully, I have my son to take over more of the business operations, too.”
Fallon says 33 years in a three-mile radius has been a good start – and over the next few months he plans to do even better. “I could probably double my business if I had more employees.”
Fallon says continuing to build his professional and consumer business comes down to a fairly simple concept: respecting the customer. “Treating people like human beings is critical, and it’s so easy. I mean, we’re here to help each other. There are so many places I go into – not just shops, just businesses in general – where it feels I’ve interrupted something.”
This respect has to come from the top, of course, and Fallon exhibits it to his employees, as well.
“I’m not a high-pressure guy, and I try to make the employees try to be the same. You’re not going to get penalized for being human. I let them know it’s okay to screw up, but put your hand up and fess up to me, because I have to explain things to the customer. I’ve got to do the right thing on both sides.”