'Field of Dreams' for Iowa Shop Owner Means Building Downtown Service BaysPosted 12/13/2003
A message like that from the city fathers would have been the kiss of death for many businesses. But it wasn't to Steve Beckley and Beckley Automotive Services in Des Moines, Iowa. Beckley has always had an optimistic outlook, and the 1999 notice from Des Moines officials to move (to make room for a highway project) just opened the latest phase in his business' seemingly unstoppable growth.
A Shop Worth Copying
For proof, just look at Beckley Automotive Services today: a brand-new, fully air-conditioned, 22-service bay, 10,200 square-foot Bosch Service Center with 12 employees. A AAA-Approved Auto Repair facility, an ASE Blue Seal shop and a member of Motorist Assurance Program as well as ASA, Beckley was nominated for CARQUEST's 2003 Excellence Award.
Beckley Automotive Services is situated in downtown Des Moines next door to a hospital and the world headquarters of a major insurance company. Some 55,000 people commute to within a mile of its front door. A special deal with the city allows Beckley to pick up, drop off and service cars for 8,000 municipal parking ramp clients.
Inside, Beckley Automotive Services, built new to Beckley's plan in 2001, features plenty of windows, high efficiency shop lighting, a sealed and sloped floor, and full equipment including automatic fluid exchangers, R12 and 134A air conditioning service machines, computerized tire service and alignment equipment, and lab scopes and scanners - all provided by Beckley. To illustrate the equipment investment, Steve Beckley points to scanners from Autodiagnos, Volvo factory scan tools he says many other shops wouldn't have.
Among the 22 bays are dedicated alignment, tire and car wash bays. Each bay comes with overhead oil/ air/power lines, computer and phone ports, a Rotary in-ground Smart Lift and a remote door opener. Beckley Automotive Services sports 11 shop computers running Windows 2000 and the Mitchell OnDemand 5 ManagerPlus garage management system. The shop's technical library is connected online to Bosch BSC (Bosch Service Center) Support, CARQUEST, Delco TSS support, Identifix and i-ATN.
Steve Beckley is a big believer in training. He has passed five levels of Bosch's technical training and earned Bosch's highest Service Excellence Program rating. Beckley has also earned an Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM) certificate from the Automotive Management Institute and taken five other auto service management programs (Bob Cooper, Elite Service Training; Terry Greenhut, Automotivation; Horizon Training; Management Success; and Bob O'Connor & Associates). Beckley takes great pains to select his technicians, looking for honest, clean-cut producers who are motivated to improve their skills and grow with the company. He has set up his own Web site, www.beckleytech.com, dedicated exclusively to attracting talented new techs.
"The quality of the applicants today is amazing," Beckley declares. "We're seeing 10- and 14-year dealer pros who have been squeezed out by slow sales."
A Long and Winding Road to Get Here
The sale of the building in 1985 led to another opportunity only two blocks away, this one with 15,000 square feet (Beckley used 7,500 of it). From 1985 to 1999 Beckley gradually expanded the shop to eight service bays plus a wash bay and eight employees, and added a customer waiting room, a lunchroom and an upstairs office. Along the way he survived the Upper Midwest floods of 1993, which saw him and his techs moving most of the cars to high ground, hoisting a Ferrari, a Jaguar XKE, several Mercedes and BMWs and all the tools on the lifts, piling all the computers in the upstairs office and fleeing four feet of onrushing water from the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers in a frantic midnight rescue operation. Beckley serviced his first car 10 days after the flood hit.
In 1999 came the fateful message from the city of Des Moines that they would have to move to permit highway construction. That's when things REALLY got interesting for Beckley. The City Council saw Beckley's shop as the type of business they wanted to preserve in the downtown area (many car dealers and tire stores had opted to move to the suburbs). Local businesses offered similar encouragement. The city chipped in with financing and rezoned a block for the new shop, and added the plan to service cars parked downtown by commuters; banks and construction companies agreed to help out; and Steve Beckley began work on a master plan to expand service to domestic and Asian vehicles. That in turn triggered a name change to Beckley Automotive Services, reflecting the broader service coverage. He moved into the new shop Dec. 26, 2001.
"It's been a crazy couple of years," Steve Beckley says. "I've never done anything like this before, and for awhile I wasn't able to pay attention to the business the way I need to. I feel like I'm starting over in a new business. We put everything on the line, mortgaged the house and all, and it's been a strain, but it gave me a vision for a big, bright future.
"From 1999 to 2002, my company was the 'poster child' for small business relocation in Des Moines. It's been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to work with the mayor, the chairman of the City Planning Commission and the City Council for the past three years. Now it's back to business, and I look forward to spending more time in both my industry affiliations and my community."
Good Suppliers Help
Beckley says his relationship with Bosch has been a key factor in his success. "I pursued them, totally," he declares. "I heard about the Bosch Service Center program in the mid-1980s. I wanted it for the training and the recognition. I've taken all of their schools, and it's been the backbone of my education. As for the identity, the words 'Authorized Bosch Service Center' are all it takes to establish instant credibility.
"In the United States, both AAA and Bosch are the models in credibility with consumers. We adhere to AAA's 12-month/12,000-mile warranty on repairs, as well as their estimate and dispute resolution policies. As a Bosch Service Center, many of the Bosch remanufactured components we install are covered by Bosch's warranty, which obviously helps with our shop guarantee. But if we weren't a BSC I'd still sell their products. A lot of them are OE applications, and I never have to think twice about either the fit or the quality of the job."
Robert Bosch Corp. appointed Beckley Imports Ltd. the first Bosch Service Center in Iowa in 1988, and Beckley won a Bosch-sponsored trip to the Indy 500 for excellence in service the next year. In 1990 he was chosen a charter member of the Bosch Service Council, serving a three-year term. At the end of that term, missing the camaraderie with fellow service dealer operators, Beckley cofounded with Steve Louden what he claims was the first "Twenty Group" of independent shop owners with several of his Bosch Service Council friends, to exchange information, trends and service tips. Additionally, Beckley has been an active member of ASA since 1988, helping form his local chapter.
A Talent for Marketing
Steve Beckley appears to have adopted this as his personal challenge. He tried radio spots and space advertising in the Business Record, a downtown business publication, without notable success. He says he has now returned to direct mail - but on a scale most shops never tackle.
Beckley Automotive Services has in-house capability to print thousands of direct mail postcards. Beckley prints as many as 40,000 copies, four to a page, in advance; he then overprints the current message in black and mails about a thousand cards a week at an average cost of 25 cents each including postage. The messages are specific and keyed to events such as Spring Specials. Various mailing lists are employed, some targeting domestic and Asian car owners and others owners of European vehicles.
In an effort to retain long-term customers who purchase new cars, one of Beckley's recent mailings addressed keeping the new car warranty valid while still servicing the car at an independent shop, and included a warranty checklist for customers. "I know my customers, and we've surveyed them," Beckley asserts. "Our average customer car is eight years old and has 88,000 miles on it."
Reflecting on Success
Free time? It doesn't sound as if Beckley has any. But the dynamic shop owner manages to squeeze in a stunning variety of other activities. He and his wife have seven children and three grandchildren (some of the children have worked at the shop over the years). Beckley belongs to Cross-Trainers, a downtown Christian businessmen's organization, and is active in Grace Church of Des Moines (he and a team took a mission to Jamaica this past August). In addition, he is a world-class archer (past Iowa and national champion), rides motorcycles, raises Nubian goats on a 10-acre farm, is a published automotive service writer, and pursues desktop publishing and marketing (he creates all of the shop's marketing materials, including the Web site) and digital photography.
Beckley lists five major reasons for the success Beckley Automotive Services has experienced:
Looking Down the Road
Challenges he faces include filling his 22 service bays with good technicians, a task he describes as "very demanding - financially, emotionally and time-wise." He is quick to assert, though, that "today we have a good core of people." Also a challenge: dealing with the increased regulation that comes from being a "light industry" firm in a downtown environment.
"Getting good training, tools and repair information, which I hear other owners are troubled about, has not been a problem for us," Steve Beckley adds. "I find these resources are plentiful if a shop owner is willing to pay for them."
Beckley's future plans for Beckley Automotive Services? "I want to fill this place up with 10 technicians and a total staff of 18 people by 2005. Then I'll think about the next step. I'll be 55 years old then. The downtown is big enough to support another shop like mine - there are 55,000 commuters and we can only handle 5,000 cars a year - so we might expand, but I'm going to concentrate on filling this shop up for the next two years."
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