How this veteran shop owner built his successful business by
making sure every customer gets the same experience.
Mark Simons is one of those lucky people who live their life in the right place, right time.
Simons, owner of Rolf’s Import Auto Service in Lakewood, Wash., has found his ideal job in his hometown in a profession that he describes as “something that I really love to do.”
Simons says he was managing a posh country club in Midland, Texas, in 2001 until “I got homesick. So I came home, and I started working with my father as a service adviser/assistant. It was only going to be short-term until I found a job in the club industry. After about two months, I stopped looking for another job, as I was completely content working in the automotive industry. I had found a home and was looking forward to honing my skills. So I learned all I could about vehicles, repairs and the importance of maintenance.”
Simons says that he also recognized the importance of the heritage he would ultimately inherit from his father. Rolf Simons started the business in 1970 as a two-bay garage in Lakewood and immediately joined an earlier generation of ASA.
Today, Simons has built it into a two-shop business with a second location in Fife, Wash., about 12 miles away. In all, Rolf’s has 12 staff members and annually bills more than $2.5 million while servicing more than 4,300 vehicles annually.
Mark Simons has built his business on customer service, specialty expertise and smart partnerships. “When we started, very few people knew — or wanted to know — how to work on foreign vehicles with fuel-injection engines, so people sent their foreign cars to my father,” Simons says, crediting the fact that personnel on nearby military bases in the Fife area often brought high-end cars back from their European tours of duty.
As foreign vehicles became prominent in the area, Simons saw an opportunity to expand by taking advantage of the dilemma that foreign trade-ins created for independent automobile dealers. He created alliances with local dealers to give his shop their pre-sale inspection work and to suggest that customers use Rolf’s for their service and repairs because of the shop’s specialty in foreign engines.
“That way,” Simons says, “we could open the shop with a $30,000- to $40,000-a-month income from the beginning.”
Today, Rolf’s specializes in “Luxury Performance Cars” such as Jaguar, Porsche, Audi, BMW and Volkswagens. In all, German cars account for more than 90 percent of his business. The remaining business includes high-end vehicles like Cadillacs and Lexuses.
Ultimately, Rolf’s success lies in its commitment to service and expertise. Simons makes a serious effort to keep his people ahead of technology and focused on top-of-mind awareness of customer service.
“We want to be a true dealership alternative, only with better customer service. Our service staff members are trained on their customer service skills. We have processes in place so that every customer gets the same experience. They include everything from how the phones are answered, the questions asked, the vehicles inspected and the repair order process, to the way the vehicle is delivered. We may maintain and repair vehicles, but we are in the service industry,” Simons says.
NAME OF SHOP: Rolf’s Import Auto Service and Rolf’s Service Center @ I-5
LOCATION(S): Lakewood, Wash., and Fife, Wash. Square footage of business: Lakewood, 5,000; Fife, 8,000
years in business: 16
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Lakewood, 5; Fife, 7
NUMBER OF REPAIRS WEEKLY: 42 per store
PROJECTED ANNUAL SALES: Lakewood, $1.2 million; Fife, $1.325 million
Simons credits his experience in the club industry as heavily influencing his belief in client service, even if it meant a rough start: “There were a lot of changes that were made when I came into the business,” he says. “Leading the staff and ensuring that the entire company was on board with the changes was difficult, but staying focused on the goals allowed us to overcome the challenges. Being able to adapt to the changing climate of the automotive industry is something that I feel I have been able to handle well by making sure that we have the correct technology and training.”
Simons believes that the emerging technological changes associated with smart cars are the No. 1 challenge facing the industry. The training and knowledge needed to repair today’s and tomorrow’s vehicles require that owners, managers, technicians and service advisers stay on top of the changes because being able to discuss them with customers is as important to customer service as it is to actually being able to repair the cars.
Right behind that issue is finding qualified technicians to continue to staff his shop. To help bring new blood into the industry, Simons’ crew includes a teenager from a local high school who works part-time while he learns about automobile repairs and the shop environment. Simons is hopeful that his work with local schools will help young people recognize the opportunity that the industry offers and that the right kind of students will want to stay in the Rolf’s family.
Simons reluctantly admits that all is not perfect in his otherwise perfect life: “The worst thing about being in this industry is when a customer has negative comments about you and your business,” he says. “We really are only trying to help, and sometimes I take it to heart. But then I think about the most important thing that I have learned in this business, ‘Stay open minded and don’t sweat the small stuff.’ I make an honest effort to make everything right. And if not, then I just don’t sweat the small stuff.”
That attitude is just about what you’d expect from a guy who’s in the right place at the right time in his life.