Factory-trained tech embraces entrepreneurial spirit in Lakewood
Lakewood, Colo.—A customer pulls into the parking lot of Front Range Automotive, an O’Reilly Certified Auto Repair Center, with a check engine light on. Not unusual in and of itself, the notable part is the alacrity with which owner Rolf Pickering responds.
Armed with a case containing various OBDII connections and a scan tool, Pickering ascertained within minutes that the BMW X3’s throttle position sensor was not properly communicating to the ECM, and is likely due to low battery voltage.
“Front Range is amazing,” said the vehicle’s owner Andrea Sowell, a customer for two years. “I can stop by without an appointment. He makes me feel like he’s got my back.”
For decades, Pickering worked behind the scenes on countless vehicles at franchise dealerships in New York and Colorado, and as an independent import specialist in Denver, servicing Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volvo, and more. In 2006 that changed when he opened his two-bay shop on Kipling Street. “I got tired of working for other people,” he said, the spark for venturing out on his own.
“I have control of my own destiny. I enjoy learning more and more about the automotive industry.”
That includes the technical aspects of electronics, fuel injection, engine management, and hybrid-powered vehicle design.
Today, Pickering and his four-man crew service approximately 125 vehicles a month, with an emphasis on European makes, with the remaining balance in Japanese and the domestic Big Three.
“We take each day as it comes,” Pickering modestly said, but what makes a big difference is the shop’s knowledge and level of preparedness. Every two years Pickering and his crew attend WORLDPAC Training Institute (WTI) courses, ranging in topics from diagnostics, disassembly and reassembly procedures, A/C systems, drivability, and more.
Factory diagnostic software is a must for Mercedes-Benz and BMW, he said, which are loaded on a laptops. An iScan J2534 pass-through device is also necessary equipment for programming new parts. Most replacement parts require re-flashing and re-adapting to the car — anything that adjusts or talks to control units.
Another important scan tool is the shop’s new Snap-on Zeus that has graphing capability, is able to test components, contains an oscilloscope, and works on a wide range of makes. A Launch Tech scanner is also used to pull codes.
The amount of technology a shop has to be equipped with is creating a barrier to entry for many would-be shop owners, he said, which he predicts will force many future independent shops to offer limited services or specialize in a few makes.
Even with the latest training and tools, Pickering said he still gets stuck from time to time. He relies on mobile diagnostician Rob Brago, owner of Colorado Diagnostic Equipment, to get the job done.
While Pickering and his son-in-law Chris Harlan man the front office, technicians Sid McKinny, and father-son duo Bruce and Dillon Brockopp perform their work in the shop’s two bays.
Relationships with reliable suppliers that have the right brands and ample inventory are a must to service customers quickly, he said, pointing out that he relies on Western Automotive Warehouse Distributors (WAWD) for batteries, suspension, and brake parts.
WORLDPAC and O’Reilly Auto Parts are also key partners. Preferred wholesaling dealerships include Christopher Dodge, Larry H Miller Ford and Volkswagen, Prestige Imports, and BMW of Denver, and Mercedes-Benz of Denver.
Being able to offer a nationwide warranty with each job is also important, he said, pointing out that with his O’Reilly affiliation he can offer up to a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty on repairs. All Jasper remanufactured engines installed come with a 3-year/100,000-mile warranty. Transmission work is sublet to a nearby shop.
Being in the same location for 12 years has helped Pickering establish a loyal following, but new faces continue to find their way into the shop.
Harlan helped redesign the shop’s website, a draw to customers who read social media reviews, he said, and a place most people look before visiting the shop. RTD’s light rail W line, which opened five years ago, has resulted in multi-housing units being constructed nearby, increasing the local vehicle population.
Regardless of how customers find Front Range, Pickering said that they usually become repeat customers because of the shop’s honesty and fairness.