Saturday, June 30, 2018

When AutoTechnicians Get Paid Like Hedge Fund Managers

I'm guessing when most people go to work, they don't have co-workers that look like this guy:
But, you're missing out on the true spice of life, the joy of watching a staff member get dirty and walk around with the little cloud of dust like Pigpen.  Ok, to be fair, rarely would one of my staff members ever become this greasy, but this can be dirty work none the less.  Honestly, when I work on cars myself, this is probably how I  look given that I sweat like an SOB and my staff usually makes me work on the ground.  Thankfully, I don't work on cars very often. 

The crazy part about this business is that, from the outside, this is how being an automotive technician is perceived to be when, in fact, this isn't how the industry is evolving.  While cars still require fluids to keep running, these fluids are either being eliminated or shrinking in quantity.  Power steering has largely moved from hydraulic to electric, engines are fully or partially electric.  Where will transmissions and cooling systems be 10 or 20 years from now?  And the greasy mechanic?  His or her job is becoming skewed more toward that of an engineer: reprogramming modules, testing circuits, replacing sensors.  As many of my do-it-yourself customers grouse, the days of the shade tree mechanic are waning.

At Lube and Latte we've been dealing with a consistent staffing problem that is endemic to the industry but especially prevalent at our shop (while customers love the concept, serious mechanics sometimes scoff at it). Less and less people are getting into the automotive repair industry even as older technicians and service writers retire or move to less strenuous work.  Whereas 10 years ago when I posted a position I would get an abundance of applicants, now a trickle is more likely.  And those that I do get are green! While I have staff on hand to train these newbies, the learning curve is steep given the complexity of vehicles now, mixed with the menagerie of older vehicles still funneling through the system.  It is coming to the point where generalized repair is becoming irrelevant.  You are either a specialist at something or you spend the day chasing your tail and hoping for the best.

In the meantime, even younger, more inexperienced mechanics have come to expect generous pay.  Shop owners now can pay 6-figure salaries for Master Technicians, even when, as another shop owner memorably quipped, "I've known Master Technicians that couldn't change a tire."  As a result, smaller shops like mine have had to raise pricing.  Ten years ago, the normal labor rate of a shop was between $60 and $90 dollars an hour.  Now the normal labor rate is between $100 and $140 an hour (watch out lawyers, here we come!).  You can only expect this number to grow as shops fight tooth and nail for staff that have some technical know-how.  In the meantime, the siren song of shops is consistently, how can I find a new technician?  Meanwhile, big dealerships with huge revenue streams zap up the cream of the crop.  

In so many ways I feel like the little startup competing against Google, Facebook and the like.  I have a great staff, but I think that they stick with me because there is a larger vision associated with Lube and Latte and Automotive Evolution.  The reason I chose the name, Automotive Evolution, for our second shop was primarily to confirm that we are in it for the long haul.  I expect to grow, and while the technology is becoming more mystifying, the tools needed more expensive and the staff harder to find, I know we'll find a way.  We will continue to evolve.

By the way, anybody know a good technician?

Monday, May 7, 2018

I'm a Millionaire!! (The Phil Simmons Odyssey)

If you are a telemarketer who has called Lube and Latte, and are reading this post, congratulations! You have finally unraveled a mystery that has plagued innumerable credit card processors and the like. You've made your way to the inner sanctum of the true owner of Lube and Latte, the same owner you would have found had you spent 15 seconds looking at our website.

For the rest of you, this post is to tell you about the incorrigible, erstwhile Phil Simmons, the man who owns Lube and Latte, but is only available between the hours of 4 a.m. and 5:10 a.m. Tuesday through Wednesday.  The rest of the time he is sitting comfortably in his over-stuffed chair at home, counting all the money pouring in from the coffers of Lube and Latte.

You see, some time around 2009 I discovered that as a business owner, you get hundreds of calls from solicitors who have absolutely no scruples when it comes to interrupting your work and explaining all the benefits of the products they are selling.  It doesn't matter if you are working with a customer or right in the middle of a excruciatingly important project, these folks have got to tell you about their product right now. Anyway, during one particularly nettling call I decided that, when asked for my name, I would tell the person my name was: Phil Simmons!  From then on, month after month, year after year, the new owner of Lube and Latte was Phil Simmons. Phil Simmons began getting credit card offers in the mail, Phil Simmons began getting the best rates on loans, Phil Simmons got mailed samples of pastries and blank checks.  Phil Simmons was living the high life.  At one point, when an uninformed employee answered a phone and the person at the other end asked for Phil Simmons the employee said, "There is no one here named Phil Simmons", the solicitor yelled: "Phil Simmons! Phil Simmons! Your boss!"  It actually reached the point where, when my wife and I applied for a loan to buy the property at 26th and Kipling for Lube and Latte the loan officer told us, shortly before closing, "We'll need Phil Simmons there at closing to sign off on the loan."  Phil Simmons had made it so far in our organization that his presence was required at meetings with serious ramifications.

Since then we've thought of all sorts of ways in which we could put the Phil Simmons moniker around our shop.  On the side of our plow truck, as employee of the month (he's not shy about his achievements), as de facto manager of the complaints department.  I would love to someday get shirts, mugs, and ball caps made that say, " Phil Simmons: Leader Extraordinaire".  Really, the possibilities are endless.

Recently, I received a letter for none other than Phil Simmons, explaining that he quite possibly was the heir to a $47,000,000 fortune.  The sender was willing to share the inheritance 50/50 as he was, understandably, the discoverer of the money.  Now, I suppose you are probably loathe to read much further, but I think this letter is with a quick 5 minutes of your time.  After all, it is so much more amusing considering that the person who is to benefit the most from this windfall is Phillip J. Simmons.  Phil is a hero, a savvy business man, and leader in the community, a shadow! He is all that I long to be.  And he's now very likely one of the richest auto shop-owners in the Lakewood, Colorado area.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

My New Polyester Suit

I am pretty excited...I finally have the chance to grow that bad mustache I've always dreamed of having, but which was forbidden by my wife, and grease my hair back.  You're probably wondering what hair I am talking about. Well, it'll be the hair on the brand new toupee I'll be purchasing until my comb-over fully comes in. My dreams of being a bonafide car salesman will have come true.

Back in July we purchased Rocky Mountain Roos after nearly a year of back and forth with the previous owners getting the details ironed out.   It was a crazy bit of business going through a car inventory, new equipment and new staff while trying to keep everything on the down low so as not to worry customers and employees of the new business.  There is nothing trickier than explaining that there is a new sheriff in town and he's still planning on looking out for your best interest, despite the sleazy patina that is known to surround every known dealership and salesperson.

Car sales is a new experience for us and is, deceivingly, not as straightforward as it would seem. While people show up with the expectation of buying a vehicle, and while we fix vehicles to the best of our ability, things inevitably go wrong.  The crystal ball in our shop is decidedly dark when a customer puts 1000 miles more than we have on a car, and a check engine light pops on despite the 300 miles we may have driven it.  How could this possibly have been predicted?  Now that it has transpired, what is the best course of action?  We want to take care of our customer, but this vehicle is virtually unknown to us as it wasn't owned by anyone of our acquaintance prior to its arrival at the dealership.   Inevitably there is bound to be disappointment on both sides.  In this regard I've had to swallow some pride in often times sending vehicles out on a wing and a prayer knowing that I've done everything I could make sure we are selling quality automobiles. Still, I am constantly seeking out new ways to try and make this business run better, more efficiently, accurately and with less icky feeling.  So many people have given suggestions, and I think we are finally starting to narrow down the focus to a better experience.  More details to come...

Another rather exciting adventure that I've gotten to enjoy is attending auto auctions regularly.  If you've never been to an auto auction, then give me a ring and I'll take you with me.  With fast-talking auctioneers' voices blaring at top volume across 6 lanes of cars, boatloads of cowboy hats, mullets, and dad jeans it is a rare snapshot of the American car industry.   With ears ringing I have examined all types of vehicles that were pushed with Mad Max outfitted trucks through shiny garages with less than 1 minute to make a decision about whether to buy a car.  While you can look at cars prior to purchase, there is no way to drive them at any sort of respectable speed or look underneath. Every time you make a bid, you just cross your fingers that the purchase you have made has been done so in a profitable way.

When I started Lube and Latte I spent a lot of time wringing my hands and worrying about how things would play out, and after 10 years we finally had everything working in a controlled and efficient way.  I always knew that learning something new took time, but never realized how much effort it would take to acclimate myself to someone else's way of doing things.   Now I do!  The question is now just, do I mold my ways of doing things to a new business or does it mold me?  10 months later those answers are coming and I am excited about how this business will change with a new and exciting vision of what car sales truly can be.  Hopefully no one will have to wait 10 years to see what that is!

Monday, June 12, 2017

The dirty business of book time

The other evening my wife and I had a couple and their kids over for dinner and drinks and the husband, who owns a successful sprinkler repair company, asked me how we charged people for repairs.  He wondered whether we used a computer program to figure out the amount of time needed for a repair or if we just charged customer for the amount of time each job actually took.  This is of course an excellent question and a horrible trap.  It is also a very common question that I get asked when I work with customers, especially ones who have some knowledge of how to repair their car.

I've skimmed this subject in other blog posts, but I've never really explained how the whole situation plays in both our favor and the in the favor of the customer.  In our shop we use a system called Mitchell, created by the company Snap-On.  If you've ever messed around with your car you are probably familiar with Snap-On and their wildly expensive equipment which is considered the top of the line for anyone in automotive service (it is not considered strange for a standard wrench to cost $80 from this company!  Not a set...a single wrench!).  Because we repair many different makes and models of cars, the software that Snap-On provides tells us exactly how long a certain repair will take.  For example, most brake jobs bill out at one hour which, when done correctly by a fairly new mechanic, is about how long it takes.  For the seasoned technician, this is about double the time it takes. But, some cars are manufactured with brake calipers that require special tools or even scanners to put on something as simple as brake pads.  On these cars, Mitchell has designated longer repair times to compensate for these special tools or procedures.  In these cases Mitchell is the mechanic's friend.  In the case of the customer, this is occasion to yell, "how much for friggin' brakes?"  In other scenarios Mitchell will rebel against its friend, the technician, by designating an alternator replacement as a mere two hours, and in this instance it is the mechanic who may receive the poke in the eye from the sharp stick when, four hours later, they are still putting the car back together.

Of course, as technicians become more familiarized with a particular type of vehicle, even with a four hour alternator job, the work becomes easier and faster.  Now, the four hour job is actually done in two hours or (gasp!) less than two hours.  For technicians on flat-rate, which is to say those being paid by the job and not by the hour, this knowledge is crucial for bringing home the bacon.  If you are a slow technician relying on this pay scale, it is brutal.  I've mentioned that we pay our technicians on salary rather than hourly, and therefore it is the shop owner who eats dirt when repairs go over time. However, when mechanics become adept at repairing a specific type of car, or just doing a specific type of repair, this works out for the shop.  Which brings us back to the original dilemma: to charge for how long the repair takes or how long the books designates the repair to take.

So, for a business like sprinkler repair, there is no book to go by and everything is estimated at how long the owner of the business thinks it will take.  But, for automotive repair shops that do this (and they are the exception not the norm) it is akin to shooting themselves in the foot.  All the time energy and money that has been put into training technicians to do repairs more efficiently helps make up for those years when that certainly was not the case.  Even then, book time is no guarantee that the repair will go as planned.  See below.

That is Glen in that truck, and no, he doesn't sleep there at night, and yes, he is always that happy-looking.  Glen is actually happy because he is paid salary, but the dude taking that picture...he ain't as happy.  This is what happens when a bolt breaks off in an aluminum engine.  So, we went from a fairly straight forward engine repair to pulling the engine completely out of this truck.  Not only that, be we had to buy a specialty $550 dollar tool to extract the bold and insert a sleeve for a new bolt. The customer, however, is only getting charged book time for the original repair.  While this is not really our fault, and we could charge the customer, we aren't.  And, that is just how it goes.  For every job that goes swimmingly and where we make money, there are jobs like this that balance the scales and put us in the hole. Now, there are occasions where the book time is incredibly far off from what the actual repair take, and in those cases we will often cut the labor time down for the customer, but usually the book time is accurate.  The sad part is, the book time doesn't even account for all of the specialty tools and research that is required to do a repair correctly.  The upside is that the longer a shop has been in business, the more of that equipment we have on hand, and the more efficient we can be.  After ten years in business - I think we're doing ok.

Friday, May 5, 2017

I am Lamont!

A while back I was speaking with my older brother who lives in Seattle about my nieces, one who recently became an undergrad student in nursing and the other who aspires to do the same.  I was curious why two girls whose mother and father had nothing to do with the nursing profession would gravitate to this vocation.  His response was that they had a steady diet of Gray's Anatomy growing up which had thus imprinted itself in their psyches. My brother then went on to explain that Michael J. Fox's character on Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton, had somewhat influenced him to become a financial planner.  My parents, who were by no means poor, did face many financial struggles taking care of three rambunctious boys while working full time jobs that didn't pay a whole heck of a lot.  My father, I like to joke, was the most honest, worst paid lawyer in the Denver area.  My mother was a psychiatric nurse who, I can only assume, used most of her education figuring out how to handle the three boys who were constantly at each other's throat.  My older brother was cognizant at a young age of their struggle, enough to make a promise to himself that he would figure out how to save money and never put his family through the stress that our family went through. He was Alex P. Keaton: ever diligent about money, well dressed and pragmatic.  You can call him if you want - he's a good financial planner.  

What this discussion did for me, however, to spark an interest in what television shows may have influenced my decision to open an automotive repair shop.  While I adored The Dukes of Hazzard, I can't say that Uncle Jesse always working on The General was highly influential.  I also loved Knight Rider and it's true David Hasselhoff and I could be doppelgangers (his early years obviously!) but he didn't spend much energy wrenching on K.I.T.T.  Taxi definitely was part of the television archival cannon, but I really loved Tony and not so much Latka. No, I'm actually going with Lamont from Sanford in Son.  He was the voice of reason and sanity, always trying to figure out ways in which to solve problems. Although I'm not necessarily sane, I am Lamont.

A few days after talking with my brother I went on errand to empty out our storage unit in our trusty old truck, nicknamed "punkin" for its stunning mix of color, namely orange and rust.  As I drove along in the rusty bucket of bolts with the broken windshield wiper, bent door, sagging window regulator, and the bed jammed full of trash, the realization hit me like a lightening bolt. Suddenly the Sanford and Son theme was playing in my head.  I snapped this picture of Punkin in front of our sign and sealed my fate - as Lamont.

While I have offloaded my duties at the shop of running scrap metal to recycling yards and picking up used parts, I still have spent a good share of time at junkyards. When I used to go I always asked myself, "is this really what someone does with a college degree?"  But of course the answer is yes, this is what you do, and I actually love it.  I'm not sure if when I got into this profession I knew what was in store for me, but in 10 years I've learned a ton.  I think back to our early days in business and feel slightly embarrassed by our naivete.  But I've made the changes necessary to feel like I've created a good shop with a solid reputation.  Hopefully someday there will be a show based on my life, a sort of Sanford and Sons reboot.  Maybe David Hasselhoff can play the old coot.  Roll credits!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Three things you should never say or do at an automotive repair shop

In the years before I owned an automotive repair shop I said some things that, in hindsight, were regrettable.  We are all guilty of walking into businesses in which we have some modicum of knowledge that leads us to believe that, should we reveal our knowledge to the owner or manager, will convey that we are well versed in whatever trade we are talking about.  Often when we leave these places the employees and owners and managers have a good laugh and say, can you believe that dude?  Did you hear that lady? I'm still that guy if I try and talk to someone well-schooled about wine, or plumbing, or gardening or half a million other things.  And, I'm faced with myself every day at work when people stand before me and do the same thing.  The good news is that now I can tell you a few things to never say or do to an employee of an automotive repair shop and lessen the chances of getting poor service.  Also, I would like to say that when you bring mechanics beer, or doughnuts or some other delicious thing, your car will forever more be treated with love!

1. "I looked on the internet and it looks like you only have to do is ________ to fix the car."

Listen, I don't know what kind of work you do, but I just want you to transpose this sentence to your vocation.  For example, to a lawyer: "I just looked on the internet and all you have to do to write a Will is state that when I die all my stuff goes to Bob." Or, to a website designer, "Hey, I saw on YouTube that all you have to do to make a website is write a bunch of algorithms."  Nothing undermines a job worse than these blanket statements.  Automotive technicians, just like lawyers and computer programmers, have years and years of training and hands-on experience.  By just saying to them you have figured out how to fix the car by watching a 5-minute video may be construed as insulting.  What the person you just handed your keys to is thinking is: if it is so easy, why are you here in our shop?  Just keep this internet knowledge to yourself because you may be right and it will help you understand the process; and if it is wrong you can ask a well-educated question about whatever conclusion the shop does finally come to.

2. "I just went down to the auto parts store and I found I can buy that part for a lot cheaper than you're selling it for."

Yes.  It's true.  You certainly can buy a part a lot cheaper yourself and this is common knowledge. But, as I've stated in other posts, what is it exactly you are getting for the mark up on the part from the repair shop?  What you are buying is a warranty, a guarantee, and an installation by a professional using the right tools for the job. Certainly there are things that the majority of the population can install themselves (batteries, light bulbs, etc.) but it would blow you mind to see the number of parts we've seen installed incorrectly and that have cost customers quintuple the cost as if they had just had it done in a shop in the first place (that halogen headlight you just installed, did you get even a smudge of grease from you finger on it? Well, it's going to go bad on you two weeks from now!).  We had a customer recently who put a wheel bearing on their car and didn't get the axle all the way back in the transmission after the replacement, and that cost him a NEW TRANSMISSION!

3. Do not, I repeat, do not go and watch over the shoulder of the person doing the repair unless you are their good buddy!

I know, I are worried that the fine guy or gal fixing your vehicle may damage it, install a part incorrectly or not do the repair at all.  Believe me, if you feel this way, you need to find another shop with people you trust.  As in example #1 above, just put yourself in same position on your job.  If you are a chef at a restaurant can you imagine the customer you are serving standing right behind you as you cook?  If you are a teacher can you imagine having a line of parents at your back everyday, watching as you teach their children?  What you are doing, by talking to and hovering over the technician performing the repair work, is creating anxiety which translates into poor workmanship.  Fixing cars can be a delicate business requiring finesse, fine motor skills, rational cognitive thought and tons and tons of patience.  If you want to see how the repair was done just go home and watch a YouTube later (see #1).  A better way to handle this is to ask the technician to come out after the repair is completed and show you what they did.  Any tech worth their salt will be proud to show you how they fixed your car.

These are just three examples, and I'm sure I could blather on and on, but I won't for everyone's sake. In future posts all add some other tips about keeping your repair shop on your side and hopefully making the performing of repairs on you automobile less painful.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fuses: You Know How to Replace Them, Right? Right?

In preparation for this post I had a number of ostensibly entertaining puns, similes and whatnot floating around my head that I thought would spice up this article. But as I sit here writing I realize that putting those in would demean you the reader and make me seem patronizing.  I'm not going to go low brow on you - I aspire to greater heights with my sarcasm; which I'll just save for my daughters who don't understand it anyway.  I use the same sarcasm with my employees but they don't find it amusing because some of them have short...uh...attention spans (See? I didn't do it).

A common refrain heard in my shop, and surely shops around the globe is, "It's not working.  Can you just put a new fuse in there? I'm sure it's just a fuse.  What? You need to research it and there may be some time involved? Ugh! I'll just do it myself".  Perhaps you may have even uttered these fateful words yourself. To answer your question, certainly, you can replace a fuse.  After all, it is just a little two-pronged wire encased in plastic which channels electricity from one wire to another. But before you do your magic, take a look at the picture below.

You see that part that looks all melty and disfigured (yeah I just said melty - what of it)? Well that, friends, is the result of someone putting just a slightly incorrect fuse in their car and burning up a wiring harness that cost them around $200 to repair.  This is just a portion of the wire that needed to be run from the fuse box where it began to the tail light where it ended. To give you further food for thought, this easily could have started a fire in the car because the wire runs under the carpet of the vehicle. To hammer the point home consider this: the customer was really lucky this wire didn't take out the whole harness which would have resulted in a repair in the thousands and not just the hundreds.  All due to a little tiny blue fuse that anybody can replace.

If you think I'm being dramatic, which I frankly wouldn't blame you for, chew on this. We had a similar situation about a year and a half ago where someone replaced a 15 amp fuse with a 30 amp fuse for their dome light.  As a result, there was a fire inside the car where the wire channeled up through the roof of the vehicle, and the car was totaled!  The insurance adjuster who came out to inspect the damage just shook his head in regret.

I bet you're wondering if I'm implying you need to go to the mechanic every time a fuse blows.  Or else you're saying, "this guys is full of sh%&!"  Well, relax! I'm not saying that, but I'm also not full of sh#*. Every owner's manual has the correct fuse listed for those equipped on your vehicle and when you replace a fuse it should be with that or another guide specific to your car, lending you the guidance that is required. Don't just get on the internet and believe everything you see when it comes to this stuff (wait, you're probably reading this on the internet...well, you get the point) - make sure you are using literature specific to your car.  And, if you have to take it to a shop, then just do it and don't feel embarrassed about it.  Nine times out of ten our shop and others are going to replace that fuse for free.  But, if there is a charge to get it figured out, consider it money well spent. More often than not there is a reason that the fuse blew in the first place.  And, for that, you are going to want to find the cause.