A&J Automotive Repair and Fleet Services, a family fleet success story
I recently had to the pleasure to interview Adam Inocelda, co-owner of A&J Automotive Repair and Fleet Service. When I visited the shop, I noted that it was very organized and well-lit. They had plenty of lifts, tools and equipment. Most of the bays were full. Early into the interview, I realized that their success hinged on some unique business practices.
ALLDATA: Thanks Adam for sitting down with me to share your business success tips. The first question I have for you is, how long have you been in business?
Adam: We opened in 2009, so we’ve been in business for about 13 years.
ALLDATA: Has it always been a family-run business?
Adam: Yes, it’s been a family-run operation from the beginning. In the shop, it’s just my brother Jon, my dad “Pops” and me. We started out with a small loan from Pops when he retired from the fire department, and we just kept building up the business from there.
ALLDATA: So, is it just three of you or have you hired other techs?
Adam: Over the years, we’ve tried to bring techs in at entry level and train them to do preventive maintenance. Unfortunately, they didn’t work out for numerous reasons. We quickly found that there wasn’t a lot of good techs to choose from, and we wanted to preserve the reputation of the shop, so it was almost easier to do it ourselves. My brother and I were able to make some scheduling adjustments to handle the workload and still grow the business.
ALLDATA: Have there been many challenges in operating a family-run business?
Adam: For us, not really. We work smoothly together. My brother Jon and I are twins so growing up, we’ve always had a unique connection and we get along very well. And then, everything we learned about the automotive business, and in life, was from our dad.
Before opening the shop, we had many long discussions with him. Pops would say, "If I'm going to fork out this money, what's your business plan? How do you guys plan on doing it? Who's going to do what? I'm here to do a little side work, but I'm not running this business."
A lot of the fleets are going to the lighter weight vehicles like NPRs, IPRs, a lot of the Dodge and Mercedes Sprinter vans and the light-duty international and Freightliner trucks. They're adding more drivers and smaller trucks which is great for us and makes good business sense for them.
It was easy to delegate who did what. I did most of the heavy-duty work and the diagnostic stuff. My brother did a lot of the preventive maintenance, bookkeeping and all the financial stuff because that's what he was interested in. He’s great at making sure the bills are paid and the business stays profitable.
ALLDATA: Do you specialize in any specific type of service or repairs?
Adam: We mostly specialize in fleet maintenance for businesses that have 10 or more vehicles. Most of the businesses we’ve gained as customers over the years had tried to maintain their vehicles on their own but were falling behind on preventative maintenance and important paperwork for the California Highway Patrol’s (CHP) Basic Inspection of Terminals (BIT) program. Since they don’t have to prove the maintenance work was done, they would just fill out the program sheets. Well, that becomes a real problem if a driver gets pulled over for a CHP inspection and asked for their program sheets. The officer will see that all the inspection items on the sheets were marked as “good” but there are numerous things wrong with the vehicle.
All we had to do to get their account was to offer to maintain and repair their vehicles properly, keep accurate maintenance records, fill out the program sheets correctly and manage a maintenance schedule for the entire fleet. Almost every fleet owner saw the value and signed up. Once we got them in the door, it was easy to keep them as customers.
ALLDATA: So, you guys became a one-stop shop for these fleets.
Adam: Yes, and it became a great way to drive steady traffic to the shop. Once we began taking care of their vehicles, it turned into, "I need you" instead of, "I'll bring it to you when I want to”. The intention is to just keep the ball rolling and keep the two of us busy. We do thorough, accurate inspections, fix what's wrong and keep them coming back for more work.
ALLDATA: Do you have any other types of accounts or programs?
Adam: One of our biggest accounts that we have is the local fire department. We have a unique program with them. When the firemen are in the firehouse, they're there for two days at a time. So, what we do is we offer them a free pickup and delivery service while they’re “in-house”, give them a discounted rate on parts and labor and we deliver their vehicles back to them before they get off their shift.
ALLDATA: What a great idea!
Adam: Oh yeah. I want to say there's probably 70 firemen working in the fire stations nearby, so we get their vehicles and their family’s vehicles. And, weird as it may sound, we've been working on a lot of boats lately. Many of our customers have boats. They just bring them in on trailers and we winterize them, do preventive maintenance, impellers and a lot of bellows on outdrives. Many boat owners don't realize that the bellows need to be replaced every five years. If they aren’t done, the boat can't be insured. All we need to do is start a conversation about their boats and ask them about the bellows. It’s easy money.
ALLDATA: That’s a great way to keep the revenue stream going.
ALLDATA: When it comes to vehicles, do you work on different makes and models?
Adam: Yes. We work on just about anything. A lot of the fleets are going to the lighter weight vehicles like NPRs, IPRs, a lot of the Dodge and Mercedes Sprinter vans and the light-duty international and Freightliner trucks. They're adding more drivers and smaller trucks which is great for us and makes good business sense for them. It’s a lot cheaper to operate, insure and maintain the lighter vehicles, and there’s fewer accidents. The money they save allows them to expand their fleets to provide better customer service. And they can park more vehicles on their lots.
ALLDATA: Do you use a customer management system?
Adam: Yep, we use ALLDATA ManageTM Online. It’s so easy to use once you get familiar with all its features. We couldn’t be without it now. We especially like the email feature and use it to send welcome emails, thank you emails, reminders, and stuff like that. It’s one of the main ways we stay in touch with our customers… and it’s automatic. That saves us a lot of valuable time.
ALLDATA: Do you use the email feature to remind your fleet customers when it’s time to bring in their vehicles for scheduled maintenance?
Adam: Yes, it’s easy. We just create the reminders in the program. There's also a weekly calendar that that shows us what's coming in next week and the reminders that went out over the weekend. We also really like the parts ordering feature in ALLDATA Manage Online, especially since we deal with four or five different parts distributors. I can see everyone’s inventory and their pricing in one place instead of wasting 15 minutes per call talking to each one individually. Then it’s just a matter of who can get us the parts the fastest.
ALLDATA: So, how many parts deliveries do you get per day?
Adam: We’re lucky. We get parts delivered anytime throughout the day.
ALLDATA: How much of your work is customer pay?
Adam: Non-fleet customers make up about 60% of our work. The fleet work keeps the doors open and the customer pay is our bonus income.
ALLDATA: That sounds like a good balance. Do you stock a lot of parts?
Adam: We do stock fluids, serpentine belts, oil filters, air filters, batteries and spark plugs. We prioritize what we stock by the amount we sell, which is in a report we get from ALLDATA Manage Online. For example, we stock only the top-selling 25 oil filters. We always have five of each. With spark plugs and air filters, we stock the top 10 and we stock the top 10-12 battery group sizes. People don't realize it, but many of the manufacturers are using more off-the-shelf parts lately so 10 air filters can service like 30 different makes and models.
ALLDATA: That’s interesting. Why reinvent the wheel, right? It makes sense to standardize service parts. It saves them a lot of money.
Adam: Yeah. You just don't need to carry a lot of inventory anymore.
ALLDATA: Okay, so we're going to shift gears a little bit and talk about life outside the shop. Are you guys involved in any educational or ROP programs?
Adam: We occasionally visit our local Universal Technical Institute to give presentations. My brother and I used to teach courses there, plus we're alumni, so we have a lot of credibility with the students. We've had students come to the shop for a week or so to see first-hand what we do. They don’t really do repairs, but they shadow us. That gives them a good idea of what to expect when they get out there on the job.
We prioritize what we stock by the amount we sell, which is in a report we get from ALLDATA Manage Online. For example, we stock only the top-selling 25 oil filters. We always have five of each. With spark plugs and air filters, we stock the top 10 and we stock the top 10-12 battery group sizes. People don't realize it, but many of the manufacturers are using more off-the-shelf parts lately so 10 air filters can service like 30 different makes and models.
ALLDATA: Do you participate in any other outside activities together?
Adam: We do. It’s a good way to take the load off. You know, if you’re together in the shop all the time and never get together outside of the shop, then the only thing you have in common is the shop. It really boosts morale to do fun activities together outside of the business. And, if there's any problems to discuss, or if you just need to throw some creative ideas around, it's easy to do while we're golfing, picnicking or fishing.
ALLDATA: What do you think makes your shop successful?
Adam: I think the biggest thing that’s made us successful is our communication. We always know what the other is doing. And our service writer knows what they can and can't take into the shop. Communication with our customers is super important too, especially when it comes to bidding diagnostic time.
We start with a one hour estimate then call for additional time if necessary but never go over two hours – maybe three at the most. You know, once you’ve invested more than six or seven hours into a diagnosis, and still haven’t figured out the problem, you’re not doing the customer or yourself any favors – even if the customer agreed on the extra time. In rare cases where we couldn’t figure out the problem, we only charged for the first hour, even if we spent two. We give the vehicle back to the customer in the same condition it was when it came in. Then the customer can try another shop and we can move on to another job that pays well.
ALLDATA: Okay Adam, do you have any parting advice about fleet work?
Adam: You must have structure and be organized. If you have that, then you can easily manage a fleet business. Don’t be afraid of it. What’s great is that you can have a much or as little fleet work as you want. You can start small with two or three fleets and add more as you feel comfortable. Just make sure you thoroughly take care of them all equally.
Credit: Markee Fuller Photography
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