When most people consider opening an auto repair shop, they usually look for sites near their homes, in neighborhoods they’re familiar with. It isn’t all that surprising an approach: They want to take advantage of the relationships they’ve developed over the years.
But Ben Pricket, owner of Lake City Auto Care in Hayden, Idaho, had a different idea. He wanted to open a business somewhere in the mid-west… basically nowhere near where he’d grown up or was working at the time.
“This is the area where I wanted to live. The shop was good, but it was the place that sold me. I knew I could change the transmission shop into whatever I felt the market needed, but I couldn’t buy the landscape… I couldn’t buy the view… this area of the country.
“I wanted to raise my kids in a smaller community, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is unbelievable. My wife and I are always afraid our kids are going to take where we live for granted, because it’s all so breathtaking… the lake, the mountains, and the bike trails, the boating… the recreational opportunities are here.”
“I’ve never been a technician, never ran a shop, never been a service advisor at all,” says Ben. Before buying Lake City, he was a regional sales manager for Dorman for the south Texas region. So why open an auto repair shop?
“I’d been visiting hundreds… maybe thousands… of repair shops all around Texas and Louisiana, and I could always tell what made a shop successful. The places were always cleaner, they were well kept, the staff was always dressed nicely.
“I have a degree in administration and automotive aftermarket management from Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. My roommate’s family owned an auto repair shop, as did a lot of my friends’ families. These shops were run well and they provided a good living for them.
“I’d always been told that, if I didn’t do something before I turned 40, I’d probably never do it. I didn’t want to raise my family in Houston; I’d been looking for a shop in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and so on out west.
“I found this shop for sale on line in 2013. I went out and looked at it in June 2013, and met with the owner and his family. I fell in love with Coeur d’Alene almost immediately. I had an offer on the table by November, moved here in March, and we closed the sale on April 1, 2014.”
Transmission and General Repairs
When Ben took over, he started out doing transmissions and mufflers, just like his predecessor. But it wasn’t long before he recognized the benefits of expanding his service model.
“I learned pretty quickly that customers that came in with transmission problems would often have other things they needed done to their cars. I had a technician come to work for me who was experienced in general repairs, so I decided to stop turning those jobs away.
“I figured those people came here to get their cars fixed, and fix them we will. We started doing more general repair work, and around September 2015, I changed the name of the shop from Lake City Transmission and Muffler to Lake City Auto Care.
“I had a new web site designed and purchased a new URL — www.lakecityautocare.com — and January 1, 2016 we began answering the phone, ‘Lake City Auto Care.’ It was sort of a rebirthing process for the entire operation. It’s been a good move; we picked up a lot of new business.”
One thing that Ben has embraced is the use of remans. While they still rebuild their rear-wheel drive transmissions in house, nearly all of the transaxles that come in get replaced with a reman; that’s about 20% of their transmission work.
The reason for using remans when they’re working on transaxles? “To begin with, it turns the bay faster; there isn’t as much down time on the hoist,” says Ben.
“For a lot of units, you start buying valve bodies and pumps… I’ve done the math… I looked at the cost of paying a rebuilder, and the difference between a custom rebuild and a reman is maybe $160 or $180. And, instead of the bay being down for three days, we can pull the transmission out, replace it in a day, and it frees up the hoist.
“And the reman companies give good warranties; we’ve had no problems with them. I think we’d be doing the customers a disservice by not getting their cars back to them faster.”
As an ATRA Member, Ben is thrilled to be able to offer his customers the Golden Rule Warranty. It’s one of the many reasons that he’s proud to display the ATRA logo on his web site.
But for Lake City Auto Care, the Golden Rule coast-to-coast warranty is only the beginning. “We had a local, commercial customer who wanted us to go with one of the reman companies. When I asked why, he said, ‘The warranty’s so good.’ So I told him, ‘If you want a 100,000-mile warranty on your rebuild, I’ll give you one.
“We’re ATRA Members, so our customers get the 3-year, 50,000-mile Golden Rule Warranty. But if we build it here in the shop, I’m going to extend the warranty to 5 years, 100,000 miles. The first 3-years/50 is nationwide through ATRA. The additional two years and 50,000 miles is strictly a local warranty, but it’s there.
“I tell my customers, ‘Call around. They may be a few bucks cheaper… they may be $800 cheaper. But if you take your car to the local chain center, they’ll give you a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty. I’ll give you a 5-year, 100,000-mile warranty. It’s your car, it’s your decision. You decide if that $800 is worth another 88,000 miles and four years.’
“We even do that with diesel trucks; stuff that gets worked hard.” And for many customers, that additional warranty tells them all they need to know about Lake City and their work.
There are all kinds of ways to put your name out on the street, and all kinds of ways to help the customer deal with the inconvenience of auto repair. Lake City has a program that combines both: free loaner cars.
“We’re the only shop in this community to have its own fleet of loaner cars. We have six loaner vehicles; we’ll have a seventh in the next couple weeks, and they’re always gone.
“We even have a loaner pickup with a ladder rack that we can lend to commercial customers when their work truck is here, so they can put ladders and lumber on it. It has our name on it — it says ‘Lake City Auto Care, Loaner Work Truck’ on the door, and it has our phone number and our web address. I did the same thing on the little SUVs that we have.
“Those loaners have been one of our biggest benefits. I’d recommend it to any shop. It’s easy to do: We started out with one and we added another and another. The cost is really minimal when you compare it to the benefits.
“Being a transmission shop, our customers may have to give up their cars for two, three, maybe four days. By putting them in a loaner car, we can alleviate so many other problems. People eat it up; it’s unbelievable.
“When I approached my original insurance company about loaners, they told me my insurance was going to be $4000 a year per car. I told them, ‘No one would do it at that price; go back to the underwriters.’
“And they came back, ‘Oh, we can do it. Here’s what you need to do: You need a form where the customer signs a release of liability. It’s a long form that says their insurance will cover any damage if something happens. You take a copy of their drivers license and a copy of their insurance card; make sure they’re valid and aren’t expired, and keep them on file. Once you do that, it’s about $500 a car.’”
CAUTION: Never accept legal information directly from a magazine; not even GEARS. Always check with your attorney or insurance agent to make sure you’re protected properly under the laws in your area.
Free Telematics Mechanic Advisor
One program that has been working out extremely well for Lake City is their Telematics Mechanical Advisor program. What’s that? It’s a dongle that plugs into the cars’ data link connectors, and provides information about the vehicles to the customers through their cell phones, and to Lake City through their service account.
“The dongle looks no different from the ones that the insurance companies use to watch how you drive,” explains Ben. “It just provides different data.
“Each device costs me $29. Initially we were selling them; finally I decided that, when it comes to my best customers, the ones I really want, I’m going to give it to them as a marketing expense. We plug it in and download the app to their phone. We enter the mileage and put in the oil change information. There are four categories: tires, brakes, oil change, and service. And we can set up the intervals for whatever we want.”
For example, they can measure the tire tread depth, and enter it into the initial setup. The program will estimate when it’ll be time to replace those tires, based on the miles driven.
“Every time the customer gets into his or her car, it begins to count down the mileage. When you first start out, you’re in the green for service. As you go, it’ll go from green to yellow, and as you go, the system will send you alerts. When it gets into the red, it sends alerts faster.
“We have a shop login site where we can log in and see how many miles the car’s driven, and then we can call the customer and say, ‘You remember we put you in for 5000 miles between oil changes? It’s been 6000 miles since then. Would you like to come in for an oil change?’
“It also keeps track of diagnostics. If the customer has an intermittent check engine light, it alerts us. We can log in and see what code was set, call the customer, and let them know whether it’s something serious or not. And if they need to come in, we can schedule an appointment for them.”
The program is offered through Mechanic Advisor in Boston, MA, and is on line at mechanicadvisor.com. The program costs the shop $100 a month for the service. The program will flag the shop of any problems or services necessary, and they can log on and check the details for each customer individually.
Ben Pricket traveled a long way to get to where he is today. But, when you look at the business he’s running, there’s little doubt that it was worth the trip… for him and his customers.