From left: Fitzgeralds front end staff Jim Hughes, service advisor, Dan LaRose, owner, and Patrick Faubion, service manager, make customer service priority one.Technician Parker Olson pulls an Interstate battery from the large selection batteries and other parts that the shop keeps in stock.Technician Jose Garcia prepares to balance a tire on the shop’s new Coats 1300 Direct Drive wheel balancer. Technician Henrik Alexanians uses one of the shop’s computer stations to access AllData and obtain repair information. John Franklin, a vintage, classic, and late-model vehicle repair technician and fabricator for 40 years, installs a custom cold air intake on a twin-turbo Cadillac, which will produce 1,200 horsepower.

Employing the latest shop management software helps Fitzgeralds improve the bottom line

Shop marketing includes customer referral cards, $10 customer appreciation restaurant cards, and free oil changes with a smog check

Costa Mesa, Calif.—When Dan LaRose purchased Fitzgeralds Auto Care Center in 2000 from Don and Carmen Fitzgerald, who founded the shop in 1963 in a gas station up the road before moving to the present 5,500-square-foot location a few years later, they were ready to retire.

“Business for them had slowed to a trickle,” he said. “So when I took over it was almost like starting from scratch. They had no marketing strategies and were using old shop management software.

LaRose, who started as a tech in the 1970s as a teenager, said he spent lots of time in the back room of a couple gas stations, but most of his career was with independents.

“I learned a lot from those shop owners and did some time as a Snap-on Tools dealer, which taught me a lot about business and myself.”

To keep the shop running smoothly front to back and vice versa, LaRose now uses Mitchell 1 and recently added Bolt On Technology’s “Jump Start,” which integrates with Mitchell 1 and assists repair shops in growing their business faster and more accurately with hundreds of new and improved service categories, as well as built-in jobs, service descriptions, and notes.

“Bolt On looked at thousands of auto shops nationwide and consistently found that they were not using all of the features available in their management systems due to the immense amount of time and effort that goes into manually customizing them,” he said. “Jump Start can automatically set up the management system for a shop, without any additional costs or fees.”

LaRose has also instituted numerous forms of marketing including customer referral cards, $10 customer appreciation cards at a local restaurant, and free oil changes with a smog check.

“Being a STAR Certified Smog Inspection and Repair Station, and especially being just around the corner from the DMV, is part of one of our biggest marketing tools,” he said. “We offer a free oil and filter change with every smog test. This helps take the sting out of the cost of the smog test and gives us a chance to show new customers how we operate.”

The shop has a Clayton chassis dyno, which came with an SPX Bar97 machine that was recently replaced with an ESP gen3 machine and DAD from Opus.

“Most smog checks are $59, all-inclusive, and everyone eventually needs a smog check for their vehicle. So why not get a free oil change, too,” LaRose said. “Naturally, we also perform a free 40-point inspection on the vehicle, which generates considerable additional work.”

Hybrid repairs are a growing profit center for the shop, LaRose said, adding that they have done just about everything from engine repairs/replacements, to transmission replacements, to HV batteries and inverters.

“I think the toughest challenges for us come from the manufacturers,” he said. “Information and parts for many hybrids is limited and parts can be expensive. There isn’t a lot available in the aftermarket and much of it is of questionable quality.

“Trial and error has taught us how to deal with many of these problems, like when to use dealer parts or aftermarket parts. We’ve found hybrid work to be a good addition to our existing business.”

LaRose said the shop has worked on a couple electric vehicles (EVs) but noted that they have found there isn’t that much to do to them.

“Maybe once they get a little older and things start to wear out we might see some work, but now I think they’re really too new for any of them to have any real problems,” he said. “We didn’t really start seeing any hybrid repairs until they were 10 years old or older.”

The shop positions itself as a dealer alternative, so LaRose has the latest diagnostic tools for the job, including a Launch Tech X431 Pad II, an Autel Maxisys, a Snap-on Solus, and even an old Mastertech engine analyzer.

“We update our software when we feel it’s necessary but not annually. Often we just replace an older scan tool. We work on a variety of vehicles, so we feel having a few different brand scan tools suits us better and is more economical than trying to keep all the factory scan tools we would need,” he said. “I can’t say we have a favorite scan tool, we use different tools for different jobs/vehicles.”

LaRose recently hired a technician with decades of experience who specializes in repairing and restoring vintage vehicles, and fabricating performance engine products for muscle cars and late-model vehicles, which he said is generating a lot of business from those segments.

The average car count is about 280 per month with an average RO of about $385, LaRose said, noting that growth has come from both an increase in car count and a higher average ticket.

“We have had 10-percent growth every year for the past several years. Although, 2018 was pretty flat, especially the fourth quarter, LaRose said. “There are several possible reasons for that, including people spending their money on gifts for the holidays, and trading in their old cars for new cars.”

The shop has been an AAA-Approved AAR for 11 years, and a member of ASCCA for about five years.

“We participate in most AAA promotions and we work hard to take care of AAA members,” he said. “After being with AAA for a few years, we’ve established a very good working relationship. They give to us by way of referrals and recommendations every bit as much as we give to them. They have been a big part of our growth.

“I think ASCCA’s biggest benefit to us is the contact and comradery with other shops. We have a good relationship with several of the local shops, but ASCCA allows us to expand and connect with shops throughout the state.” 

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.