If you ask Chuck Miller, owner of Hixson Transmission and Total Car Care, in Hixson, Tennessee, to explain the secret of his success, he’s quick to credit the intervention of the Almighty.
He might be right. But a close, objective assessment reveals that there may be a more worldly explanation to his business achievement.
For example, when asked about his business philosophy, here’s what Chuck had to say: “It’s 100% about your customers. We don’t sell price; we sell service! Our job is to make our customers comfortable when they come in. I treat my customers’ cars the same way I would my mother’s or my wife’s or my daughter’s.”
“Every car that comes in — if it’s been over 5,000 miles since the last time it was here — gets a complete inspection. We look at the brakes, we look at the tires, we look at the hoses and air filters… everything on the car to verify that it’s going to be safe and that they aren’t going to have any issues with it.”
“Cars are fixed in the back of the shop and that’s the way you earn your money, but that’s not where you build your business. Being the best technician in town isn’t going to make you successful. It’s about how you treat your customers.”
Of course anyone can talk the talk. But Chuck works hard to walk the walk. His waiting room is immaculate, with comfortable furniture and a nice area rug, a 42” flat-screen TV and DVD. There’s no doubt ATRA CEO Dennis Madden would be pleased to discover that their restrooms are spotless.
Apparently their attention to detail is getting them noticed: Hixson Transmission was nominated for Best of the Best this year by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “It was phenomenal because the companies we were competing against had been in business for 30 or 40 years,” says Chuck. Hixson Transmission finished in the top three.
A REMARKABLE BEGINNING
As a young man, Chuck never intended to open an auto repair shop. In fact he went to college and earned an associates degree in industrial technology, focusing on electronics.
So how did he go from those beginnings to become a repair shop owner? “I answered an ad,” says Chuck, by way of explanation.
“I was working in what I considered to be a dead-end job when I came across an ad from a nearby transmission shop looking for an R&R tech. At the time I knew very little about cars — I worked on my own cars and my friends’ cars, but that’s about it.”
His education in electronics turned out to become an incredible asset when faced with today’s cars. “I got into this business in 1994 when electronics were just beginning to take over, and even though I didn’t understand a lot about cars, I did understand the electrical side of things. It turned out to be a great fit.”
He enjoyed what he was doing so much that when his boss asked him to move into the office and become a service writer, Chuck made him promise that he’d be able to move back into the shop if it didn’t work out.
But things worked out so well that the owner decided to open additional locations. Chuck was supposed to take over the second shop, get it up and running, and then move on to a third location.
But when they opened the second shop, the economy took a tumble. The owner wanted Chuck to come back to the original shop, but Chuck was ready to move on. So they worked out an arrangement for Chuck to buy the Hixson shop, which was the beginning of God’s plan for Chuck’s success. He opened Hixson Transmission and Total Car Care in March, 2005.
SPEEDY’S OIL AND AUTO
In addition to his main repair shop, Chuck also owns three quick lube shops, operating under the name Speedy’s Oil and Auto. Owning these shops works out really well for him because the quick lube stores have a high car count, and that provides them with the opportunity to refer work to the Hixson repair shop.
While the quick lubes have turned into a valuable marketing tool, Chuck didn’t plan on opening them originally, and certainly not as an in-house referral service. How he got involved in this part of the business is an interesting story in itself:
“The first quick lube store I took over was right next door to my transmission shop. It was closed, and the owners came to me in 2009 and asked me to take it. I wasn’t really interested, but they offered to lease it to me for a deal I just couldn’t refuse!”
“We’re located on a good street with a lot of traffic, and I started getting the car count up. About a year later, a guy with a quick lube shop in Soddy Daisy came to me. He didn’t want to operate his shop any more, and when he tried to sell it, everyone told him to ‘go see Chuck.’”
“He came to me and I looked over the store and the numbers. I ended up buying the shop and the business for considerably less than the property appraisal. I looked at the numbers and said, ‘how do you not?’”
“So I got that store up and running well. Then, right up the street from my transmission shop there was another quick lube store that had been closed for about seven years. The bank owned it and they came to me and asked me to buy it.”
“I told them ‘I’m not in the quick lube business. These other stores just happened.’” Chuck feels as though God laid out the stepping stones, and all he had to do was have faith to take the path.
Today all three of Chuck’s Speedy’s Oil and Auto locations are doing great, and they’re sending additional customers to Hixson Transmission. It’s a business model that works for him.
“When the economy tanked in 2008, a lot of shops cut back on their advertising budget; I doubled mine,” explains Chuck.
Of course that budget includes their web site —www. hixsontransmission.com — where they proudly display their catchphrase: “If your car needs fixin’, go to Hixson!” Maybe not Shakespeare, but it’s memorable and probably sounds right at home in Tennessee.
According to Chuck, the timing was great to advertise, because no one else was buying, so he could negotiate some terrific deals. “We were seeing tremendous gains — 25%… 30% a year — and I think a lot of that was because every time you turned on the radio… every time you opened the newspaper… we were there.”
Chuck also gets some great publicity through several local TV stations. “Channel 3 and channel 9 will have me on one of their morning shows about every five weeks or so to provide some advice for car owners.”
“Come winter, they’ll bring a crew to my shop and do a live shoot where we can explain about tires and tread depths, and how to prepare your car for the winter. Around the 4th of July, we’ll do a show on how to get your car ready for a long trip.”
Another way Chuck gets his shop name out is through his weekly radio program, The Car Clinic, which airs every Saturday morning from 8 to 9AM, on WGOW, FM. There, Professor Overdrive (Chuck) sits down with Doctor Diesel (Mike Perkins) and answers callers’ questions on the air.
Of course, some of those questions require more than a quick answer over the phone; in that case the shows hosts will recommend the caller take his or her car in for service. If it’s nearby, they’ll recommend bringing it to Hixson; otherwise, they’ll recommend a shop that’s closer to the caller’s location.
“The show gives us credibility,” says Chuck. “When I’m on the radio, talking about cars in a personal sense, people think, ‘hey, this guy cares about me, he cares about my car, and he cares about my business.’” And that’s the kind of message that attracts customers to a shop.
Chuck is a big believer in working within his community to give back and to help get his name out there: “Twice a year we’ll have a free Safety Inspection Day in the parking lot of the church across the street. We’ll get started at 8AM and broadcast the radio show live from there.”
“From 8 till about noon or one o’clock — depending on the time of the year — my guys will be there with scan tools and pressure gauges. People will come by and we’ll check their cars. And we’ll hand them a report indicating what we found.”
“There’s no charge; we’re not trying to sell anything. It’s like I tell them on the radio: ‘If you have a mechanic you know and trust, go back to him and show him the report; let him fix your car.’ It’s just my way of giving back to this area that’s given so much to me.”
“And sure, we get new customers from it. Customers come by, they talk to us, we start to build a relationship, and it builds business for us.”
Chuck also delivers a meal to the firemen at the station behind his shop on holidays when everybody else is enjoying time at home with family, and they can’t because they’re at work to protect our families. It’s just a simple way to give back!
They offer a ladies’ clinic; a program for women to learn about their cars. “When we first started it, we were doing a program about every six weeks; these days it’s only about three times a year. We’ll get up to 10 women who come in on a Saturday morning.”
“We’ll discuss some of the basics about their cars, then we’ll go out to their cars, raise their hoods, and show them how to check their engine oil, how to check their transmission fluid, coolant, and brake fluid, how to look at their belts, check their tread depth… so they have a basic understanding of their cars.”
“We give everyone who attends a free, pink T-shirt that says ‘I know what’s under my hood!’”
All of which seems to have made a real difference for Hixson Transmission: “When I opened this shop, there were about five other transmission shops within five miles of us,” says Chuck. “Today, we’re the only one left.”
Chuck attributes his success to a higher power, and we’re in no position to dispute that. But there is little doubt that his business model lends a lot of credence to the expression that the Lord “helps those who help themselves”.