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  Mechanical Feature

Hybrids: Is It Time for Your to Specialize?

Posted 6/15/2006
By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM

Why not take the plunge into the hybrid world? Sales of hybrids are only going up, and as warranties expire on existing hybrids, real opportunities exist for independent shops to gain more business.

Toyota will become the largest automaker in the world by the end of this year. Why Toyota? Scott Van Batenburg, my older brother, bought a new Toyota Corona in 1966, drove it during college and after he got married. He loved that little Japanese import, and it influenced my thinking about cars. I was 15 years old then and remember it well.

Back then, Toyota was not taken seriously by the Big 3.

In 1972, Honda imported the Civic, a quirky, small front-wheel drive car that was the butt of many jokes. I remember a Honda salesman commenting on the rubber strips that hid a series of spot welds near the roof edge, saying: "This car is so small, they had to put the body side moldings on the top." Funny? Sure, but it tells us that those who mock things that are different and that they don't understand and don't take seriously can end up missing the boat.

Filling up a Honda Accord hybrid when gas was cheap.
Fast forward to 2000. Hybrid vehicles were being looked at the same way. The first hybrid sold in the United States, the Insight, was one of the weirdest-looking cars since the Citroen SM. I ordered my Honda Insight in 1999. When I got the car, it was like trying to fall in love with an ugly dog at the pound. It needs a home but it has a face only a mother can love.

The first hybrids were strange. Engines shutting down and starting up on their own. High tire pressures, dashboard readouts that kept you informed of your fuel economy and high voltage. Labels that reminded techs "you will die" if certain covers were removed. These "high breds" had high voltage battery packs that no one knew how long they would last, not even the OEMs.

Ignore hybrids, dismiss them, hate them or embrace them, but they are here and Toyota, soon to be the world's largest auto manufacturer, loves them.

I interviewed four shop owners from across America for this story. I believe these shop owners have vision, and they look to the future of automobiles while servicing the cars of today. These shop owners and many others specialize in hybrids and are clearly planning ahead.

Now, a word about specialization: You can specialize in a particular service, like transmissions, and still provide other services. Van Batenburg's Garage Inc. was my venture into the aftermarket. Opened in 1977, "VBG," as it was known, worked on just three makes: Honda, Toyota and Datsun. Specializing was a good business plan. It allowed VBG to have proper tools, information and training, and we were able to fix cars efficiently most of the time. Once I received management training, the profitability part was easier to achieve as I realized most customers are willing to pay more at specialty shops than general repair shops.

VBG was known as a credible and proficient shop. It was a model that worked for more than 26 years. I closed VBG to focus on my other business, ACDC, and also family. My wife, Deb, and I adopted a teenage boy from foster care, and something had to give.

Craig Van Batenburg of ACDC explains how a Honda Insight inverter operates.
Meet the four shops that decided to specialize in hybrids and their varied reasons for doing so:

  • Andy Fiffick, a former Ford Motor Co. employee, has six shops in the Cleveland area that specialize in hybrid service. This is not to say that all they work on are hybrids. It wouldn't be possible to specialize primarily in hybrids since they make up less than 1 percent of the cars on the road. When he bought RadAir 20 years ago, the shop was specializing in radiators and air conditioning. Andy first thought of hybrids when he attended an Automotive Management Institute (AMI) class in Florida that my wife and I - both accredited automotive managers (AAMs) - were teaching.

    In August of 2004, Andy's shop ordered a Ford Escape hybrid, and it was delivered in April of 2005. My company, ACDC, was hired to train the staff and the first ACDC-qualified hybrid center was ready for business. Its marketing has included articles in the newsletter RadAir sends to its customers. The publicity Andy's shop has received has been great.

    The company hybrid was entered in the Tour de Sol hybrid fuel economy event in the spring of 2005 with Andy and Dusty, an employee/friend, behind the wheel. They won first place, and the bragging rights to go with it. MPG was 42.98 over a 548-mile run.

    Next year, RadAir will do more promotion as more hybrids enter the market and warranties on existing ones expire. It was not a large expense to get into the hybrid market. In fact, the added free publicity has more than offset the up-front costs.

  • Slipstream Automotive is located in Boulder, Colo. Bill Pichardo is the owner, and he and his tech, Matt Schweiterman, also entered their Honda Insight in the Tour de Sol, and drove from Boulder to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Bill already had an interest in hybrids. Alternative fuels and electric cars were a natural for him so when they attended a class that ACDC taught at Vision in Kansas City, Kan., the hybrid lantern was lit. Seems that once hybrids get your interest, and you buy one for yourself, there is no turning back.

    I have mentioned hybrid specialization for years in the classroom to anyone who makes decisions. If you're interested, I would suggest that you seriously consider buying a hybrid, add your company name and logo on the doors and then learn as much as you can. Next, hang out a sign and go for it. Slipstream did exactly that. Bill said they have picked up about a dozen hybrid customers in the last year, and even more referrals, not to mention the publicity they've garnered. Plus, Bill believes in this technology and the benefit it has on the world we all live in.

  • Mechanical
    Two Toyota Prius vehicles are in for service. Hybrids need servicing just like any other car.
    D.J.'s Auto is owned by a bright, middle-aged New Englander: Danny Pothier. A five-bay shop in a small central Massachusetts town, it is one of the best shops in town. ACDC is only 30 miles away so Danny and I have known each other since ACDC started in business back in 1998. After being around the ACDC hybrid fleet, it was just a matter of time before Danny printed new business cards that included hybrids on the bottom line.

    Are there lots of hybrids in Leominster? No, this is mostly a blue-collar town. But Danny knows his business needs all the customers he can get. He feels that one customer who goes to get his car serviced at the local dealership is one too many. Danny and his crew have been staying up on the latest technologies that are non-hybrid related, so adding hybrids wasn't too hard as they were well trained to start with. Hybrids just add more electronics with the high voltage thrown in to keep it exciting. Danny doesn't drive a hybrid yet, but I can sense him getting ready, most likely when GM offers a hybrid SUV.

  • Art's Automotive is located in hybrid country, which would be Berkeley, Calif. It is almost uncool to not drive a hybrid if you live in the area. Politics, the environment and economics are what the owners of hybrids talk about when you ask them why they bought a Civic, Prius, Insight, or any of the other hybrids on the market today.

The global warming concern and our dependence on imported oil are reasons most often mentioned as to why these owners bought a hybrid. What does this mean to Art's Automotive? His shop must be tuned in to customer concerns such as fuel efficiency, the war in the Middle East, renewable energy, clean air, bio-fuels, and many more auto and non-auto related issues.

Hybrids are purchased by intelligent and successful people who choose to buy them when they could afford any car they want. Making them feel accepted is important and Art knows this. Art's techs are all hybrid trained and Art owns a hybrid himself. He has a great Web site that educates and helps promote his business. His shop only works on Toyota and Honda hybrids, of which they see a lot.

The demographics of hybrid drivers are important. According to a recent survey from "Hybrid owners have higher income, much higher than the average car buyer - approximately $100,000 a year versus $85,000 a year - for the average buyer. They're more likely to be female, and hybrid drivers are a few years older than the average car buyer - closer to 50 rather than the average age of 40." This is a great population to invite into your shop.

Larry's Auto Works in California holds a hybrid class with ACDC's Craig Van Batenburg.
For under 50 bucks, you can get a green banner to hang out front that says "Hybrid Service." Simple and to the point. Will your bays instantly fill up with hybrids? Of course not, but you will not have any hybrids to service if you don't let the world know.

And what about Van Batenburg's Garage? It is safe to say we were the first aftermarket shop in the hybrid business in North America, maybe even the world. In 2000, ACDC taught its first hybrid class. It was three hours, and I had a hard time filling the time with my hybrid knowledge. So we all drove the Insight at break time. I think we had six techs show up, three of whom worked at VBG.

It was a start. Later that year, ACDC and VBG hosted a hybrid rally, consisting of six Insights, and I held a consumer class on hybrids. VBG was on the hybrid consumer map, and overnight we were in the news. One of our young techs borrowed the Insight for prom night. Six years later, the Insight is still drawing looks (it pays to be odd) and amazes people with its fuel economy and advanced technology. Even though VBG is no longer in existence, the lessons learned can be passed on.

If you are "just" a general repair shop, ask yourself what will set you apart from the rest of the shops out there. Stats tell us that 7 percent of your customers have left you and gone back to dealerships in recent years. Dealerships are the competitor you should be the most concerned about. Don't leave your customers behind by dismissing hybrids. The number of hybrid sales are growing every year. If you plan on staying in the repair business, hybrids need to be part of your business plan.

Will you go into it deeply like Art's Automotive, add it to your business card like D.J.'s, buy a hybrid and compete in a mileage race as Slipstream did, or add it to all your shops and make a marketing plan around hybrids as Andy did with RadAir?

No matter how you plan on integrating hybrids into your techs' lives and service writers' knowledge, I am sure of one thing: There is a hybrid owner in your future who is waiting to bring you his car. Waiting just makes it harder to catch up.

Colby Horton Craig Van Batenburg, AAM, is the owner of the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC),, and delivers management and technical seminars nationwide. He formerly owned Van Batenburg's Garage Inc. in Worcester, Mass., for more than 25 years. Van Batenburg is ASE master and L1 certified, with advanced skills in hybrid drive systems. You can reach him by e-mail at

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