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The Importance of Being Auto Centric: Repair Facility Is on a Quest for Excellence

By elevating your level of professionalism, you attract the better customers, says Tom Ham of Auto Centric in Grand Rapids, Mich.
<p>By elevating your level of professionalism, you attract the better customers, says Tom Ham of Auto Centric in Grand Rapids, Mich.</p>

Tom and Deb Ham’s Auto Centric repair facility is located in Grand Rapids, Mich., a state bordered by four of the Great Lakes. Since opening in 1978, this upper-tier repair business exemplifies the definition of both grand and great.

“People want their problem solved the first time, and as reasonably as possible,” says Tom. “They want a clean deal, without complications, so that they can move on with their lives. That’s what we strive to deliver, each and every time. It’s really that simple.”

Tom says that Auto Centric actively pursues “the better” customer. “Some shops, intentionally or unintentionally, tend to attract the ‘crappy’ customer. If the shop is dark and dirty, or otherwise presents a less-than-inviting image, this tends to attract problem customers. We paid quite a bit of attention to our waiting room and overall appearance, and it makes a difference.”

Tom offers this advice, “If your shop is clean and orderly and makes people feel welcome and comfortable, you tend to automatically attract the better customer. This can eliminate about 90% of crappy customers. It’s a simple strategy... by elevating your level of professionalism you attract the better customer.”

The company’s quest for excellence is evident, exemplified by the shop’s success. (Auto Centric was one of five finalists for Undercar Digest magazine’s “Top Shop in the USA” award two years in a row.) Automotive repair magazines, especially Auto Service Professional, are important sources of information for Tom and Deb, and they pass along the magazines to their technicians.

Tom says, “ASP definitely gets read. It’s got better content and speaks the language. I know my technicians read it cover-to-cover, and it’s one they keep.” Tom was quick to add that he is now digitally reading trade publications and their website offerings.

To help others in the industry succeed, Tom founded and is heavily involved in the Automotive Management Network. Currently with more than 10,000 members, the network helps repair shops manage their operations.  For details, refer to automotivemanagementnetwork.com.

Three key elements make up Auto Centric’s parts sourcing program: quality, speed and warranty. “Naturally, we’re adamant about buying only top-quality parts,” says Tom. “We focus on using only parts that are OE or from OE suppliers. Our number one source is NAPA, which carries lines of parts manufactured by OE suppliers. We only use parts that meet or exceed OE specifications.

“Speed is essential. It’s obvious that I’m referring to delivery time. You simply cannot have customer vehicles tied up while waiting for parts. That’s something that can quickly frustrate the technicians and can result in customer inconvenience,” says Tom.

On the subject of delivery time, Tom says he recently experienced a real eye-opener that could have a game-changing effect on this industry. Deb had ordered a clothing item from Amazon.com, and it arrived that same day!

“Things are changing. Consider that Amazon also sells automotive parts. It’s something to think about. Parts stores need to start getting it together to offer faster delivery times. We’re not about to wait for a parts store to deliver something within one to three days when we may be able to buy the same item through Amazon and have it the same day,” warns Tom.

Tom notes that his technicians routinely attend formal training courses when the need arises, primarily at a Chicago-area Bosch Service Center training facility. “The Bosch training is superb, and when needed, our technicians attend for several days at a time. But what’s interesting to note is that people are inadvertently training while they are working, as they encounter a problem that they’ve perhaps never dealt with before, and as they devise solutions for various issues. Quality technical trade publications coupled with the information explosion via the internet has obviously helped in this regard, too, with information available on a need-to-know time frame.

“A technician learns something new every single day.”    ■

Auto Centric

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Owners — Tom and Deb Ham

Business founded — 1976

Number of bays — 6

Number of certified techs — 4

Shop size – 4,400 square feet

Number of vehicles serviced/month — 150

Hourly labor rate — $95

Average job ticket — $400

Gross profit — approximately 60%

Annual tool and equipment expenditures — $10,000 to $40,000

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