Integrity, family atmosphere, web marketing fuel growth at second-generation shop
Portland, Ore.—John Spinnett has a simple philosophy that guides his work as general manager of Steve’s Imports, a collision and mechanical shop just off I-205 in Southeast Portland.
“My biggest concern is that everyone feels they are cared about,” Spinnett said. “When people pick up their car and pay their bill, we want to leave kind of a family feeling with them. So they come back in here looking forward to seeing us, rather than devastated because they’re dropping off their Mercedes and it’s going to be a $1,000 bill. I’ve worked with family my whole life, and I like to think of everybody as family, because family are the people you are more loyal to. And if you treat employees and customers like you love them like family, it all works out for everyone.”
Spinnett has indeed worked with family his whole life. His father, Steve Spinnett, founded the shop in the mid-1970s at age 19 as he realized the mechanical and paint work he was doing on air-cooled Volkswagens had unintentionally put him into business for himself. John’s brother Tommy is a technician at the shop, and his sister Rebekah works in the front office.
The business, as its name implies, has focused primarily on German and Japanese import vehicles, offering complete mechanical and restoration services as well as collision repair.
“In the collision shop, you’ll see everything from a newer $100,000 Porsche right next to 1960s Volkswagen and then a Mini Cooper,” Spinnett said. “Right now we’ve got two Volkswagens 40 years apart, a late-model Rabbit with collision damage right next to an old Volkswagen Type 3 we’re restoring.”
As Spinnett has expanded his role in the business over the past five years, his father had been able to step back somewhat, even winning a second term this past fall as mayor of the nearby town of Damascus. More recently, however, Steve Spinnett has been more involved again, running Trafton Foreign Auto, another Southeast Portland mechanical shop the company acquired this past December.
Though John Spinnett learned the trade in his father’s shop, he realized he wasn’t the gifted mechanic that his father and brother are, and told his father he felt he needed to take on a different role in the family business.
“It was hard to do that, because we’re a car place; we work on cars. It should be in my blood,” John Spinnett said. “But I set down my tools one day and said I’m going to try something else. And my Dad said, ‘Okay.’ That’s when I started playing with marketing.”
In an effort to distinguish the shop from the many others in the area, Spinnett has focused on search engine optimization and web and social media marketing as well as more traditional marketing.
“That stuff changes so rapidly it’s hard to keep up with the changes in the automotive industry and the web industry at the same time,” Spinnett said. “So it’s a matter of forcing yourself to branch out. We all tend to stick with the same idea and do something the same old way. I’m thinking there’s so much technology out there, let’s do things a little differently. I like to think of us as a business that’s ahead of the curve in marketing.”
His efforts appear to be paying off, with the company experiencing growth over the past five years, even during the recession. Spinnett’s success has led other companies in some business groups in which he participates to seek out his help, just as he has sought out mentors in the group who are successful in other business endeavors.
“My dad and I have been involved in Business With A Purpose, and then I have a core group of successful business people that I’ve also met through my local church who I can call anytime I have a question,” Spinnett said.
Steve’s Imports occupies about 8,500 square feet in two buildings at its primary location, and between that shop and the newly-acquired Trafton, the company employs 15 people.
The shop uses the Audatex system for collision estimating, and Spinnett said a core group of dealers stand out to him in terms of parts service: University Volkswagen-Audi, Kuni BMW, Dick Hannah Honda, and Carrara Motors.
In addition to adding three lifts in recent years, the shop also switched to BASF’s R-M paint line to better match the quality of the finish of the import vehicles it paints in its Spray-Tech booth.
“Industrial Finishes has been our go-to people for that,” Spinnett said. “They’re a good company to work with. They’ve really set us up well, with quality product and being competitive with price.”
Looking to the future, Spinnett would like to greater maximize use of the shop’s property, adding on to one of the buildings to add additional work bays. After that, he said, he could be interested in adding a third shop, and has a market in mind for that.
His marketing efforts may help fuel that growth, he said, but only if coupled with the honesty and integrity his father has instilled as a cornerstone of the family business.
“Whether I’m right or wrong, if I’m honest about it, it will all end okay,” Spinnett said he’s learned. “In every interview we do with potential employees, we give them a little test. We ask, ‘Would you lie for me, if I asked you to?’ We really hope they say, ‘Absolutely not, I’d be out of here.’ Because our theory is: If you lie for me, you’ll lie to me.”