Brand specialization in Palo Alto
Palo Alto, Calif.—Kurt Meissner found himself in an unenviable position in 2011. His father, Gary, who owned Meissner Automotive in Palo Alto, was diagnosed with advanced cancer and passed away seven weeks later.
Although a biology major in college at the time, Meissner decided to pursue the automotive business and assumed the shop’s reins, where he had been a service writer and assisted his father where and when needed.
“My dad never wanted me to be a mechanic,” he said, “but I learned how to be a shop owner on the job. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned from them. Now, seven years later, I’ve got it dialed in.”
The shop is more profitable today than it ever had been, and specializes in Japanese and European cars. The average repair order for Japanese models hovers around $650; European AROs range from $900-$1,000.
“For us, we’re more profitable working on specific lines, and our techs know what they’re doing — there’s no lack or loss of confidence,” said Meissner, who added that Mercedez-Benz are some of the most challenging cars to work on. “They’re almost a specialty vehicle. To the degree that vehicles have become more complicated, I don’t see how there could be a technician who knows everything about every car.”
Meissner’s labor rate has risen from $135 in 2011, to $168, compared to local dealerships that charge up to $210. “We’re a good deal, and I beat them on their estimates, too,” he said.
As the service advisor with two techs and an apprentice tech, Meissner and his team turn out 130 cars a month with 2018 revenues of approximately $800,000.
His advice to new shop owners? Be very thorough with every customer’s car. “Give them the full report card, whether they’re going to like it or not. Be honest. Every vehicle that rolls through here has solid documentation so we know what’s going on with it. It helps sales, but it also gains customers’ trust — it makes a difference when you take the time to educate them.”
He will be adding digital inspections this year through his shop management software Winworks. Meissner also had the four-bay shop remodeled over the holidays when many customers went out of town and business was quiet: replacing the bay floors and fresh paint in a building that dates to the 1950s.
There’s been a thinning of the shop herd in the Bay Area, he says, as repairers are closing shop and/or retiring, while at the same time no new shops are sprouting up. It’s also an expensive area for staff to live in.
“It’s very hard to find technicians and the real estate is cost prohibitive, as are the necessary equipment investments to tool up. Homes around the corner and down the street are selling for $2 million on average.”
Meissner averages 30 percent new customers a month, and his website, built by Kukui, is an important tool in attracting them through search engine optimization, Google Adwords, and 5-star online reviews, of which there are many. “There’s always new people coming in. Everyone has a smartphone or tablet and they do their research. We do a good job of attracting them and for them giving us a chance.”
For VW/Audi, Meissner uses Ross-Tech (“super fast and super inexpensive”) and Autologic diagnostic tools, saying the VW ODIS is “clunky.” His techs will often advise Meissner on recommended tool and equipment investments, whether it’s a scan tool or walnut-shell blasters to decarbonize Audis and Volkswagens, and he’ll break out the checkbook.
“If it will help productivity and make our life easier, then I have no problem.”
At the end of the day, his staff gets along with everyone and there isn’t any “drama.”
Longtime Shop Foreman and Tech Donato Manalo has been with the shop for 28 years. Tech Dennis Roth has been a tech for 40 years and is the shop’s leading diagnostician. The apprentice tech, Kevin Macowski, who is a customer’s son, had been with the shop for three years while he attended De Anza College and has since graduated and remains today.
The majority of their training is sourced through De Anza, past training with Perfect Sky for hybrids, and shop consultant Ray Kunz, of the Act Group, who visits the shop once a month and speaks with Meissner regularly.
“Ray was a huge help in learning how to charge correctly, mark parts up properly and shop organization, such as work flow. If I didn’t have him or Matt Pataky, of Sunnyvale Foreign Car, in Mountain View, to bounce questions off of, I don’t know how everything would’ve turned out.”