St. Peters repair shop marks a decade of growth
St. Peters, Mo.— Ask Hi-Tech Automotive owner Tim Helmick what has surprised him most about becoming a repair-shop owner, and he would say the amount of time he spends on the behind-the-scenes work required to keep his shop humming. Looking back, that would be his biggest “wow” as a first-time owner, he said.
“It’s like the old saying — there just aren’t enough hours in a day,” he said, adding that there are always “a lot of plates in the air that need to be kept spinning.”
Helmick founded Hi-Tech Automotive a decade ago out of a desire to provide customers with a repair shop where they are considered more than just a number, and where their needs are a top priority. He began with himself and a single employee, he said, and within a short span of time needed a service writer and more technicians.
Today, the shop, in the heart of bustling St. Charles County, is an AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) facility that employs two service writers, three technicians, a porter, and an “office gal” in addition to himself, who, he said, “wears all the hats on any given day.”
Helmick said that a goal for this year is to add a fourth technician. All of his technicians have some level of ASE certification, or are working on a certification, he said. Helmick and Tim Marquart, his lead technician, are both master certified.
As a facility that does just about everything except bodywork, Helmick said, the shop “covers the gamut from top to bottom as far as what we do.” Most of the vehicles the shop works on fall into the three- to 10-year-old category, he said, and about a quarter of the shop’s work involves diagnostics.
To see a car with 100,000 miles on the odometer is no longer out of the ordinary, Helmick said, and many of the cars he sees are approaching, or sometimes exceeding, 200,000 miles on the odometers.
“It’s not unheard of to see cars going to the 100,000 mile mark before they really need much done to them aside from tires and brakes and some small things (such as) oil-change services,” Helmick said.
To service his customers’ cars, Helmick said he relies on about a dozen suppliers, including Stone Wheel, Factory Motor Parts, and WorldPac, “which are probably my top three.”
To keep everything running smoothly, Helmick said he uses R.O. Writer’s shop- management software, which not only allows him to track and manage his shop’s business, both day-to-day and long term, but also helps him stay in touch with his customers.
“They love that you’re reaching out to them, even if it’s just to say ‘thank you,’” Helmick said. “I’ve been told many times, ‘I’ve been to many shops over the years, and no one has ever come back and said thank you for your business.’ So that little touch alone begins to set you apart from the next shop.”
An unexpected niche
Servicing European cars is now about 40 percent of Hi-Tech Automotive’s business, Helmick said, with the remaining 60 percent divided between domestics and other imports.
The “European” part of his business has grown organically rather than intentionally, he said, in part because Marquart, unlike himself, has previous experience with European makes and was willing to work on them. Now that the shop has a reputation as a service point for European cars, business also continues to grow by word of mouth, he said.
Focusing on scan tools
To service his customers’ cars, whether foreign or domestic, Helmick said he and his technicians have eight scan tools, including scanners from Snap-on (a Solus) and Autologic.
“As you service more vehicles, having the right scan tool is key,” he said. “It gives us the ability to cover the things we run into.”
Having all those scan tools is by no means inexpensive, Helmick said, but “having the ability to essentially do what the manufacturers do sometimes also sets you apart from the next shop.”
When it comes to acquiring new scan tools, Helmick said he asks himself two questions: “Are we struggling with cars where we’re seeing repeat failures, yet the scan tool we have is not giving us the information we need to diagnose the problem in a timely manner?” and “What can we gain by having this equipment?”
Time is indeed money, Helmick said, “so whatever I can do to make the best out of that time, that’s what I want out of a scan tool.”
Reflecting on the past 10 years, Helmick said he set out to open a business with nothing more than his own experience, some help from family, and some promised support from friends and potential customers. He began just as the economy was sliding into recession and kept his focus on providing his customers the best possible service.
“At the end of the day, if I have customers who are satisfied with what we’re doing for them, then I would say we’ve reached our goal,” he said.
A satisfied customer is a customer who is willing to return and give you another opportunity to service their vehicle, Helmick said.
“I don’t look at it as something I deserve,” he said. “If people are willing to come back to us, because they understand that we care about them and their safety when they’re on the road with their vehicle and their family, then that’s a job well done.”