Embracing change, adapting to market
Los Angeles, Calif.—Robert Keirstead of 26th Street Auto Center foresees big changes ahead for the automobile service industry. “Young people don’t want to drive anymore,” he said. “They want to use ride services like Uber and Lyft. And the experts are saying every manufacturer is going to have some form of autonomous vehicle or electric car or hybrid on the road by 2020.”
Keirstead aims to change with the industry.
“If you want to be around a long time you need to diversify,” he said, “and you need to keep up with technology.”
Diversification has broadened his business profile. For one thing, he started up a mobile detailing service catering to customers on the West Side of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. For his core business, however, he has invested substantial money in tools and equipment for his shop. He estimates he has spent some $30,000 per year over the past three years to keep his shop up to date. “I’ve always tried to buy the best tools that I could afford.”
Keirstead is concerned that manufacturers will more tightly control diagnostic strategies in the future, thus making it harder for the independents to service and repair cars. He therefore sees wheels and tires as an increasingly prominent area of profit for an independent repair shop like his.
“We’re working on high-end cars with expensive rims, so we invested in two Hunter machines,” he said, referring to his Hunter Revolution tire changer and his Hunter Road Force Touch tire balancer. “We want to give our customers confidence in our services and encourage them to see us as a true dealer alternative for tire sales and service. This is why we’ve invested so much in tire equipment.”
The tire machines have brought in new business, too. “Used to be the largest rim size we could handle was 20 inches,” Keirstead said. “Not anymore. We can go much larger now, and the run flat tires are easier to handle. One man can do the job.”
Yet, diagnostic tools still figure prominently in Keirstead’s work mix. He is fully committed to Farsight diagnostic equipment.
“The fact that I can call somebody on the phone who can walk us through a problem and mentor us gives us the confidence to work on problems we have no experience with. Farsight has turned out to be everything we’ve been looking for in terms of diagnostics. It’s an incredible system.”
Trade shows such as the SEMA Show and AAPEX have proven valuable in helping Keirstead keep up with technology and find new tools for his shop. “When I attend I walk every aisle,” he said. “Its how I identified the equipment I have in the shop today.”
For shop management, Keirstead uses Mitchell 1 software, enhanced by Bolt On Technology’s Mobile Management system. “It’s on our tablets. We take a picture of the customer’s license plate and if they’ve been here before it pulls up their VIN and history and the write up only takes a couple of minutes. Also for vehicle inspection reports, you can take pictures of what you’re seeing and e-mail them to the customer.”
“It’s a personal thing, too,” says his wife and business partner, Jackelin Orozco. “When you get the customer’s license plate number into the system it tells you their name — customers really like it when you greet them by their name.”
His operation may be small, but Keirstead has created a team-oriented environment that uses each of his tech’s skills in ways that are complimentary to one another. Anticipating the growing reliance of computers for problem diagnosis, he said he “hired a young guy out of one of the technical schools. He’s great with computers. On the other hand, my more experienced tech is great with mechanical work. They generally work together on a car and when they do, they learn from each other.”
“There’s a lot of money in this area. A lot of Range Rovers and BMWs and other expensive cars. We’re trying to focus on European and higher end Japanese cars, such as Lexus and Acura.”
That requires training, and Keirstead is as progressive in his approach to training as he is to new tools and equipment. “WORLDPAC has really great training,” he said. “We also attend Snap-on training, and if we’re slow we’ll pull up the Farsight website and learn something from there.”
Keirstead sees the cost of training as an investment that he’s willing to make time and again to learn what he needs to know.
“We went to a Toyota hybrid class a few years ago. I wouldn’t want to say it scared us off, but with all the safety requirements and tools it certainly made us step back and think about what we were getting involved in. Then about a year ago we attended another Toyota hybrid class, which was taught by someone who owned a shop and he was able to talk to us in a more common language about the technology. Suddenly, it wasn’t so intimidating anymore, so we went out and bought the specialized equipment necessary and we did our first hybrid battery exchange two or three weeks later.”
Keirstead’s diversification efforts, his forward thinking and his willingness to take on new challenges is paying off. “Other shops are sending me the work they can’t do,” he said. “Why are they doing that? It’s because we’ve made the investments in tools and training and they haven’t — we’re equipped to do the work.”