Bonnie Estes (left) runs the show at Vanguard Automotive Repair with her daughter, Shelby Clark, who helps out on occasion.  Senior Lead Technician Pierre Indarte has been running the shop floor at Vanguard for the past 16 years.Technician Matt Parker specializes on Volkswagens, Audis and a wide range of Asian brands at Vanguard Automotive Repair.

Bonnie Estes rises to the challenge

Marin County shop flourishes by asking the right questions of the right people

San Rafael Calif.—After a disruptive divorce that left her with sole ownership of the business, Bonnie Estes built Vanguard Automotive back up from challenging circumstances to become the No. 1 Women Owned Automotive Repair Company in Marin County. Within just two years, she was able to make a profit and get out of debt, by making a series of strategic moves that paid off.

When Estes purchased Vanguard in 1986, the business had been in existence for more than three decades. Although she knew little about running a repair shop initially, Estes has prospered by working with a business coach, creating a presence in the community through outreach and taking on the service departments at car dealerships nearby for what she said is sub-par work in many instances. 

To keep this 3,200 square-foot shop with four bays and two technicians clicking along, Vanguard repairs an average of four to six cars daily. Well-known for working on Volkswagens, Audis and a wide range of Asian brands, this small shop stays busy by emphasizing quality and follow-through, Estes said.

To stay on top of its game, Vanguard uses the consulting services of Ray Kunz at Automotive Coaching and Training Group (ACT), a relationship that has “greatly benefitted” the shop in many ways for the past decade. “I initially interviewed three other companies that offered automotive coaching and I chose ACT because Ray agreed to come here to the shop every month,” she said. “Before working with ACT, I purchased the Mitchell ShopKey system and stopped handwriting invoices. Acquiring the system was a great step and it is a great system, because it keeps evolving with all of the changes in the industry. Ray entered our lives and has turned it all around for us, by showing us how to do things correctly.”

Working with top companies has really helped Estes along the way, she said. “We recently got our website completely redesigned by Kukui, based on Ray Kunz's recommendation and their changes to the site had the phone ringing almost instantly. We are not afraid to invest in things that will help our business and that includes ongoing training, blogging and networking in the community.”

Positioning her shop as an anti-dealership alternative, Estes often finds herself re-doing work performed at dealerships and other shops. “I’m not afraid to take them on and call them out for bad repairs,” she said. “That’s why we will never upsell or recommend a repair unless it’s absolutely needed. If the vehicle requires a minor repair or nothing at all, we tell the customer and in some cases, they’re surprised. We don’t care about the size of the job; we just want to do it right.”

The two technicians at Vanguard are at two different stages in their careers, but by splitting the work strategically, it works “beautifully,” Estes said. “Our senior tech, Pierre, has been here 16 years and he has more than 40 years total experience, so he gets the lion’s share of the more complex jobs. But Matt our other tech has been here for more than six years and is also extremely adept, so it works well.”

To create the technicians of tomorrow, Vanguard Automotive Repair mentors young auto tech students and Estes speaks at local high schools about the trade while sitting on the board at the College of Marin. “We had Kacey, a young lady here this summer, and she learned a lot in just a short time,” Estes said. “We want to encourage kids to get into this industry, because there is definitely a need for new, qualified people.”

Getting involved in the local community, networking with other businesses in Marin and being a green business is a few things that Estes is justifiably proud of. “I saw the benefit of it immediately, so I joined the San Rafael Chamber and have served on the committee for Green Business in San Rafael. I received my Marin County Green Business Certification after a series of inspections with the water district, PG & E and the county. Also I belong to many networking groups, including the Business Networking Institute and Marin Women at Work and these associations have given me a lot of public exposure which also increased my business. As a woman, I encourage and educate all my customers, especially women. I work super hard to listen and build trust and that's why we're in the great position that we are today.”

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.