By Debbie Briggs, contributing writer
By all accounts, if you walked into Certified Express Lube & Auto Service in Crestwood, KY, you’d probably think it was owned by a former technician who decided to venture into shop ownership. The waiting area is inviting and features AAA-approved signage. The shop’s four technicians have ample room to work in the shop’s 13 service bays, and customer service is priority number one for each and every repair.
All of that’s true — except how a former banker became shop owner in the matter of a few short weeks in 2001.
Steve Heggie says he had always dreamed of owning his (current) business, but he started his career in the banking industry at 18, working his way up the ranks until he realized he was in a holding pattern at around age 29.
“I realized I didn’t have enough gray in my hair to do the things I wanted to do in the world of banking,” Heggie explains. “That’s when I entered the automotive aftermarket as a salesperson for a Louisville, KY-based automatic transmission parts wholesaler. I became familiar with both transmission and automotive shops since I worked with them daily to help them grow their businesses.”
Fast forward to age 38, when life circumstances — a wife and new baby — prompted Heggie to make his dream of business ownership a reality.
“It didn’t matter what the business was as long as I was the boss,” Heggie remembers. “Since I’m a sales and marketing kind of guy, I decided not to start a company from the ground up, but to buy one that was already established. Better yet, I thought why not market to someone who is looking to retire, but wants to keep their business going — to leave a legacy?”
Heggie’s ad in the March 23, 2001 edition of Louisville’s Business First publication met with much interest and he received many responses, so he looked at several opportunities before finding the perfect fit.
“A broker presented a transmission shop to me that turned out to be one of my customers who had decided to sell his business,” he says. “I met with him several times and made several offers before he finally decided that I would take good care of his customers and keep the business going.”
Today, techs at the full-service shop repair just about any make and model, be it domestic, Asian or European. Heggie says it’s important to include employees in the day-to-day operations of any business, but especially an independent automotive repair shop that relies so heavily on a cohesive staff to provide top-notch customer service.
“In my business, we all work together so no one is an island,” he explains. “It’s not a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. Everyone has input into the daily operations, and I encourage new ideas and suggestions.
“I’ve learned money cannot buy happiness in an employee,” Heggie continues. “Many simply want to be appreciated, and they want someone to treat them with respect and dignity. In my shop, I try to use the two most underused words in the English language daily: please and thank you. It really makes a difference that you can see and measure.”
Heggie says he makes staff training a priority since he understands how important it is for any business to employ knowledgeable staff.
“My employees get the latest information in many ways,” he says. “We attend training here locally through several sources, with many part suppliers, dealerships and chains offering training at either a free or reduced price. In the next month, we will be attending training from Automotive Training Group (ATG), and as a member of the local NAPA Business Development Group, we bring training in to benefit the group members. Online training is good, but attending in a class environment works best for us — fewer distractions than doing something at home online.”
Heggie says that while staffing levels stay fairly steady at the shop, he does have the need every now and then to fill a vacant position. Who better to help fill it than the Certified techs themselves?
“One way to find new talent is to ask our techs who they know,” Heggie says, explaining that “just like professional athletes, techs tend to move around.
“I’ve also found that the best and least expensive way to find new employees is CareerBuilder,” he adds. “As a NAPA Autocare Center, I have free CareerBuilder resume access. It enables me to sit down after a long day and take a look at prospects online. If I find someone who I have an interest in, I can then email, call or text them. It sure beats placing an ad in a newspaper!”
Fueling a Strong Customer Base
Heggie admits that attracting and retaining customers is a full-time job in itself, requiring him to maintain a marketing toolbox of sorts to provide customer service reminders and solicit customer feedback as well.
“Although it appears to be going the way of the dinosaur, we still do advertise in the phone book,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many older people still go there first. I’m also a big fan of the USPS EDDM (Every Door Direct Mail) program. As a sales and marketing guy, when my shop needs some stimulus, I can put together a mailer, target a section of town, and have my 8-1/2” x 11” mailer in their mailboxes in about a week’s time.
“Not only is it affordable,” he says, “it works for us. Current customers and prospects bring in the coupons for months! And, of course, nothing is more effective than a satisfied customer telling someone else. Advertising and continuing to separate your business from the competition is vital for any business.”
A little healthy competition never hurt either, as Heggie’s “Win Steve’s Derby & Oaks Passes Contest!” proves each year. Heggie says he’s always overwhelmed by the number of entries in what’s become a signature giveaway for Certified.
“As a shareholder of Churchill Downs, I receive two passes to both The Kentucky Derby and The Kentucky Oaks,” he says. “We have a drawing that generally starts in early March and runs until mid-April where customers can earn entries based on services they purchase for their vehicle. For example, a brake job may be worth 10 entries, and an oil change may be worth three entries. You would be amazed at both the number of entries and how our customers respond to the program!”
Dedicated To Success
Heggie says running a successful shop boils down to one thing: productivity. Without it, customers are usually disappointed, but with it, they know what to expect each and every time their vehicle is serviced.
“Our shop uses a process in which we approach each vehicle the same way from start to finish,” Heggie explains. “After we receive the vehicle from the customer, we collect vital information from each vehicle, and put a sticker and floor mat inside each. The vehicle is then dispatched to a technician who does a performance inspection and then addresses the customer’s concern.
“Once we’ve done this, a service estimate is forwarded to the service writer, who then sources any parts we may need, and contacts the customer to receive authorization for the needed repairs. It’s at this time that we give an estimated time of completion to the customer. Our system works great, but if it’s deviated from in any manner, it doesn’t work as well. Sticking to the basics is our key to success.”
Another important part of Heggie’s success? Dedication to his craft. It’s not uncommon to receive an email from Heggie at 5:30 in the morning or for Heggie to be picking up parts on his way to the shop each day.
“Being a shop owner today is much like being the ring master at the circus,” he says. “All the behind-the-scenes work is played out when the shop doors open. We see our successes or failures on a daily basis, but it’s our job to ensure the customer doesn’t notice something that didn’t go quite right.
“As difficult as it is to own and operate a business,” he concludes, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love what I do and I love people! But, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and dedication of my wife Lisa.”
It’s that kind of devotion to customers, staff and community alike that will keep Certified Express Lube & Auto Service a successful shop for many years to come.
Article courtesy of Shop Owner magazine.