Quality staff and tool investments drive all-makes business model
Richmond Heights, Mo.—Nestled away on a side street, Gray’s Auto Service is far from quiet. Owner Bruce Gray says that he can’t even begin to put a number on how many customers they service each week.
“We have around 5,000 regular customers in our computer, and a total of around 10,000,” said Gray, adding that business is better than ever.
Gray’s opened in 1957 as Gray’s Richmond Heights Shell, started by Gray’s father, and is in its second location. “We moved to our current location because we needed to expand, so we now have 4,000 square feet and eight bays.”
“I have a great group of technicians,” said Gray, and when asked if he sublets any work, he laughed, and said, “No, we have other shops call us all the time when they can’t repair a vehicle. There is nothing we can’t fix. I have one technician that has a photographic memory, one that has done it all, another that is always teaching himself new tricks, and one young helper who has decided that he wants to be a full-time technician. He has enrolled for classes at Meramec Community College to take the first steps.
“Vern Perry is the best mechanic I’ve ever known. He will fix a car no one can fix,” he said, adding that Rick Austin, Chris Roberts and James Townsend are his other technicians, who are also joined by Diane Bruns, the service writer.
Gray has a close personal contact at Meramec Community College as one of his former technicians is currently a full-time professor.
“One of my best employees ever, Josh Walker, is now a professor at Meramec. It comes in handy having him available if we need his expertise, and he has come by multiple times to help us if we see something we’ve never seen before.”
He said his techs have kept up with changing technologies through some of Walker’s advice. They also attend other training seminars, offered by multiple vendors. Identifix’s Direct-Hit is regularly used in shop, as well.
Gray said he has sourced parts from Fillmore CARQUEST for as long as he can remember going back to when his father ran the business.
“Jim Voss at Fillmore is about the best parts guy I know. If someone can’t find it, he will,” said Gray, adding he also relies on Al’s Automotive. “A lot has changed in the parts business through the past few years. Bruns likes to do everything online as far as ordering parts. I am from the old school and still would prefer a call in. Usually the guys at the parts store will have some advice about particular parts that we can’t get by ordering online.”
As technology advances, Gray has adapted by purchasing new equipment. “We just updated our diagnostics by getting a Snap-on Solus Ultra. It was well worth the $6,000. It can diagnose all domestic vehicles and most European models. It has really put us ahead of the curve for diagnosing vehicle problems.”
Much of his shop is equipped with Snap-on products through Snap-on sales representative Howard Logan. “I just find the quality of their tools to be better than most”, said Gray, adding that job specific tools are becoming more prevalent in the industry. “We just bought a pipe expander set to do custom exhaust jobs and a new ball joint removal kit, along with an evaporative nitrogen smoke tester.”
Other changes that Gray has seen in the industry include the emergence of more advanced evaporative and emission systems. “We are really good at getting cars to pass emissions testing. If another shop can’t get it to pass, we can usually make it happen. I would say it is one of our specialties.”
Looking ahead to the industry’s future, Gray said, “I just wonder if future shop owners and technicians are going to be willing to do what we do. We can do it all. We aren’t afraid to take on heavy labor. I wonder if young technicians want to be good diagnosticians, as opposed to being good mechanics, because of the way technology has changed things. I can see a lot of small shops subletting work to brand-specific dealerships if we don’t have young technicians willing to tackle the heavy stuff.”
Another change Gray has seen in the industry is in advertising. “We have tried all kinds of advertising in the past and none of them really seem to pan out. The best thing to happen has been social media. We have gotten more new business from social media than we ever got through traditional advertising. When someone mentions us on Facebook others notice and it spreads from there and we don’t have to really do anything.”
Business at Gray’s is going strong and the key to success is simple, he said. “I treat my staff like family. Everybody wants to work here. I feed them lunch often and have a free soda fountain where it is all you can drink. My techs also get to work in air conditioned bays.”
Gray said he offers commission-based incentives and bonuses to his technicians for selling needed services to customers. “We will do anything to help a customer get their car fixed, it’s that simple. The customer is always right and we intend to provide quality service when the car comes through the door.”