When VJ Sabanayagam and his wife opened a single-bay independent repair shop in Monrovia, CA, in 1997, they had no idea how quickly their small business would grow.
“We were leasing a single bay at a gas station,” VJ says. “It wasn’t long before our landlord started asking, ‘Why are you so busy? I didn’t expect to have such a busy business in my gas station.’ We worked 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week for four years straight.”
That hard work and dedication paid off, and the couple moved their operation to a larger, four-bay garage in the heart of Arcadia, CA. But even that location wouldn’t hold the rapidly expanding business for long.
“Before we could blink, we had four techs, a service advisor and a driver working six days a week,” VJ says. “We were moving cars in and out — and running out of space. In 2008, we had an opportunity to acquire four more bays at a property across the street. This allowed us to grow. We started doing tires and alignment, in addition to RV repair.”
In addition to routine maintenance, repairs and electrical diagnostics, VJ’s is also a factory-certified sales and service center for Onan generators and Blue Ox tow equipment, commonly found in recreational vehicles.
“Being longtime RV owners, we understand many of the problems that these customers encounter with their RVs,” VJ explains. “We’re often able to assist them with the service, repair and diagnosis of problems specific to motor homes and trailers such as A/C units, septic systems, slide-outs, generators, tow setups, etc.”
Whether it’s a passenger truck or a family RV, VJ says the staff makes sure customers know exactly what’s going on with their vehicle at all times. Each repair is explained to the customer in an in-depth manner, but also in a way that can easily be understood so they can make informed decisions.
“We start off by treating every one of our customers as part of our extended family,” VJ says. “We care about every customer and their needs, and we deeply value their trust. We always tell our advisors to treat all of our customers like family.”
Part of that philosophy means taking care of customers even when they’re away from home. VJ’s provides customers with a two-year/24,000-mile standard warranty with nationwide coverage enabled by the shop’s association with Bumper to Bumper.
“Being a Bumper-to-Bumper Certified Service Center, our customers have the confidence to travel anywhere in the nation, knowing that if they ever break down, there are more than 2,900 service centers available to help and perform warranty services,” VJ explains.
Mentoring Next-Generation Techs
Attracting — and keeping — qualified technicians requires work on the part of the owner. VJ makes a point of staying in contact with other shop owners, who may have an experienced tech looking to make a move to the Arcadia area.
“Sometimes techs quit at one shop because they move, or simply because not every shop operates the same way,” he says. “A tech might not be in the right environment in one garage, and be a perfect fit in another.”
To find out if his shop is the perfect fit, VJ says it’s a good practice to really get to know potential employees before you hire them.
“You have to see if your shop might be an environment where they can be their best for the shop, as well as themselves,” he says. “Adhering to this practice has not only delivered techs who are well-rounded in mechanical and diagnostic skills, but also people who have really found a home and family at VJ’s.”
While younger technicians and students may not have field experience, VJ says they are eager to learn and willing to work hard. For that reason, taking the time to be a mentor can be beneficial for all involved.
“Younger techs are more capable of retaining new information, and they usually excel at diagnostics in particular,” he says. “Sending everyone to classes is crucial, but there are many things they can learn in a real shop setting that can’t be learned in school. We take pride in teaching them right from wrong and assisting them in their goals, whether they want to achieve their Master’s certification, be a career tech or start their own shop.”
The shop’s four technicians are all ASE certified, and they’re offered free continuing education at all levels of automotive repair, including diagnostics and programming. On average, a tech at VJ’s Auto Service goes through 80 to 100 hours of classes per year.
“We are a Bosch-Certified Service Center, and we make use of the training provided by Bosch at every level, starting with basic electrical classes,” VJ says. “We also regularly send our technicians for training provided by our primary parts vendor, Hanson Distributing Co. Hanson uses its connections with various manufacturers to provide factory-level training to our techs.”
In addition to staying current on diagnostics and repair techniques, VJ says he understands that the shop’s methods of acquiring new customers needs to change with the times. While traditional direct- mail campaigns work with certain age categories, each generation requires a different approach.
“Word of mouth is our No. 1 way of acquiring new customers, but it’s clearly not the only way to acquire customers in this day and age,” he says. “And it’s not enough to simply have an attractive website. We use customer retention marketing through our existing shop management system to remind customers of future services and repairs. We also use SEO to bring our name brand for different makes, models and services to the top of the search results on Google.”
VJ says having a well-trained staff working in unison goes a long way to ensuring that they continue to be the successful shop they set out to be 20 years ago.
“Our service advisors are well-trained to maintain a certain GP on every invoice they write,” VJ says. “We have bi-weekly meetings to discuss the P&L of the shop. Our shop manager is trained to be able to monitor technician productivity and closely watch labor hours sold. He is also responsible for negotiating better pricing with vendors so we can pass on the savings to our customers.
“The right marketing, supportive vendors and great morale in the shop make us a well-oiled machine,” VJ concluded.