‘Time Changes Everything’
How a Chicago-area shop is coping with changing times.
As an old Western swing song says, “Time Changes Everything.” If you don’t think so, just ask Bob Berger.
When Berger started in the automotive service and repair industry, cars were simple. And for a long time, the automotive world didn’t change that much. But along came computers. And that rapidly changed vehicles and the industry’s way of doing business. Then other forces impacted the industry – including the economy, declining car sales, government bailouts and ever-changing technology.
The whole industry has changed, says Berger. A far cry from when he opened his first shop.
Like so many others, he started his business in an abandoned service station and grew it into what it is today.
Last year, his shop – Hubbard Woods Motors in Winnetka, Ill. – celebrated its 50th anniversary.
In 2008, it was recognized as one of the top 10 shops in the country by Motor Age magazine.
And in January of this year, AutoInc. cited Hubbard Woods Motors as having one of the top 10 websites in the nation.
So the shop is doing well. But like other shops, Hubbard Woods Motors has had to change with the times.
For example, for 35 years, Hubbard Woods specialized in Volvos. Worldwide, Volvo is synonymous with being one of the safest and most reliable vehicles one can buy (see related story on page 26). A little more costly than many American-made cars, but to most of Hubbard Woods’ customers, that isn’t a problem. Because Winnetka, about 16 miles north of downtown Chicago, is one of the most affluent suburbs in the nation.
So Hubbard Woods prospered, just working on Volvos. But the Swedish-built Volvo was acquired by Ford Motor Co., then sold in 2010 to a Chinese company. And consumers’ perception of Volvos changed. Some feel the vehicle’s quality has diminished, says Berger.
Some former Volvo fans have zeroed in on other makes of vehicles. And since Volvo now offers a 5-year warranty that covers everything (even wiper blades), owners are taking their Volvos back to the local dealership. All that has cut into Hubbard Woods’ business.
Noticing a decline in new Volvo customers, it became apparent to Berger that his shop needed to expand its market. “Mini Cooper was a growing segment of car sales, so we began working on those,” says Berger. “And shortly after Saab filed for bankruptcy in 2011, we added that brand too.
“Volvo remains our core business, but our shop needed to add the other makes. I sincerely think, though, that the changes we’ve made will ensure our continued success for many years to come.”
The challenges of changing times make Berger remember when life was much more simple. “Prior to the ’80s, not much in the way of equipment and education was needed to launch a garage,” he says.“Empty gas stations were plentiful and easy to get into. About all you needed to get started were a tach-dwell meter and a timing light.
“If you had gas pumps and a steady flow of customers, it was fairly easy to keep your bays full of profitable work. All it took was the power of observation while checking oil, hoses, belts and tires, and all the while being honest with your customers. If you focused on doing the right thing for your clients, the money followed.”
Today, says Berger, business is much more complicated (and competitive) and technology is changing with the speed of light. A shop must adapt to survive.
At some point, says Berger, most survivors come to the realization that their business is not about fixing cars, but about making a profit.
“Making the break from being a mechanic to being a CEO is difficult,” he says. “It means taking the toolbox home and learning computer skills and marketing expertise. In other words, stop working in the business and start working on the business.”
Berger also advises shop owners to take advantage of all the help that’s out there.
Berger says his awakening came about 10 years ago when he and some other shop owners formed a 20 Group to share their concerns about their businesses. “I can’t tell you how beneficial it is to have 19 of your peers pore over your data, ask pointed questions and share constructive observations and suggestions. Their knowledge and experience is invaluable in solving issues and overcoming obstacles you face every day.
“I wish I could have had this kind of oversight when I started in business. It would have saved years of hard knocks and trial and error.”He credits his 20 Group and organizations such as the Automotive Service Association and the Automotive Management Institute with providing him management know-how and assistance in meeting the challenges of changing times.
Name of Shop: Hubbard Woods Motors
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