A Mom-and-Pop Makeover
How these California shop owners learned to save their business and the rewards of keeping it all in the family.
Twelve years ago, Debbie and Gerry Vicario were awake in the middle of the night talking about a big issue: closing down their business. The husband and wife, co-owners of One Stop Auto Care Inc. in Los Angeles, admitted they had never really understood the finances of their operation. Then, serendipity stepped in.
As Debbie tells it, a sales rep from NAPA came into their shop and over the course of the conversation, the rep invited Gerry to a “Fly with the Eagles” shop management class offered by Elite Worldwide. Gerry came back, Debbie says, brimming with ideas about the changes he planned to make.
“That’s corporation stuff,” Debbie remembers telling him. “We’re a mom-and-pop place.” Gerry didn’t listen.
First, he rebranded the shop from One Stop Tire & Wheel to One Stop Auto Care. Then, the couple started setting goals – and met them. He taught her about repair orders (RO), technical average repair orders (TARO) and profit margins. And he started coming in at 7:30 every morning to check out the vibe of the employees and see what kind of day they were going to have. He also learned the value of spending money on marketing.
“You name it, and we’ve done it,” Debbie says. “Groupon. Yelp. Amazon. RepairPal. Snapchat. Instagram. Facebook. We knew social media was a big thing, and with our industry changing so much, we needed to get busy. Now, if we have a bad review on Yelp, it helps us get better.”
In fact, the value of learning in all areas of the operation hasn’t been lost on the Vicarios, which should have been standard operating procedure from the beginning, Gerry says. He began working in his uncle’s tire repair shop and studied architecture in college before opening his own shop in 1989. He and Debbie started the business with $5,000 of their savings.
“I borrowed the tools, balancer, tire changer and compressor,” he says. “My wife had a full-time job to help pay the household bills, and I started getting a lot of management and customer-service certification.” But not enough, at first.
As a lesson to today’s aspiring shop owners, Gerry admits that if he could redo one thing about starting out it would be to get more training before launching the business. In fact, Gerry believes learning should even carry over into educating your customers about their vehicles’ needs. One of the biggest challenges his shop and the industry face, he says, is teaching the new crop of consumers about the need to maintain their vehicles.
“People depend on them to get to work, take the kids to school and everyday activities,” he says. “So what we do is more than working on a car. It’s helping people. We hope to save them money through regular maintenance.
“We want to see them coming in for maintenance services and not being pulled in by a tow truck. A tow truck means only bad things: a lot of inconvenience, a lot more expense and maybe less safety when they’re stranded on the side of the road. And the most important lesson I’ve learned that I could pass on to others is that a well-maintained car makes everyone happy.”
That might be how Gerry and Debbie choose to make One Stop Auto Care stand out from the competition, except that Gerry doesn’t exactly believe in competition. “Every shop is unique and offers something worthwhile to its customers. I treat my customer the way I would like to be treated by other businesses,” he says.
“What I like best about my job is fixing customers’ problems and the rewards of working in a family business. My wife is a big part of this business. She knows all the numbers of our benchmarks, and she can run the business if needed.”
“My father told me to get involved,” Debbie adds, “because if anything ever happens to Gerry, I would need to know what’s going on. However, the disadvantage is that at home, or even on vacation, we’re always talking or thinking about the business.”
Goal-setting also plays a large role in the dynamics of the One Stop Auto Care family. “I always have goals: weekly, monthly and yearly,” Gerry says. “But my biggest goal is to purchase the property that the shop sits on. Our youngest is 16, and when she goes off to college, we want to have the freedom to spend more time outside the shop.”
However, Gerry admits that running his own business these days is sort of a “best of times, worst of times” situation. The best being the opportunities to help people, and the worst being “the reputation the auto repair industry has. But I believe you need to surround yourself with the best people. And the biggest challenge I’m facing now is finding great people.”
Still, on those mornings when he’s in the office early, running the numbers, if he sees a problem, he’ll talk to the guys about it. And true to form, Debbie says, “Gerry treats everyone the way he would like to be treated, and that’s his biggest and best quality.”
And a useful marketing strategy, too.