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Pretty much everything about Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury is big.

The dealership is Georgia’s largest-volume Ford dealer, with $146.35 million in revenues last year and more than 250 employees. It occupies a 28-acre campus in Morrow, Georgia, as well as a satellite dealership lot in nearby Fayetteville, and sells new and used cars and parts as well as offering service and collision repair. The dealership boasts multiple waiting rooms with digital TVs, Internet access and observation areas, in addition to a 1950s-themed restaurant called the T-Bird Café and a children’s play area. A separate parts distribution facility handles the dealership’s wholesale parts business.

And then there’s the collision repair center: a freestanding, 50,000-square-foot facility with 26 metal/body repair bays, 18 paint bays, four detail paint bays and four downdraft paint booths. According to owner M. Allan Vigil, it’s the largest collision repair center in the Southeast. In our bigger-is-better, size-matters society, Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury (AVF) appears to be a beacon of automotive success in the greater Atlanta area. But recently, Vigil made an unusual move: He downsized.

Closing Shop

In June, Vigil closed the Fayetteville location’s collision repair center and consolidated the dealership’s collision repair operations in the five-year-old Morrow location. (AVF has been in business for 27 years, but moved from its original Jonesboro location to Morrow in 2003.)

The reasoning behind the decision was largely practical: Fayetteville is what Vigil describes as “an old country town with a town square,” and the dealership is in the heart of its downtown area. Vigil realized that if he wanted to expand the 6,500-square-foot collision repair center, he’d run into some serious zoning restrictions. Plus, he needed a Quick Lane—a Ford Customer Service Division service concept designed to quickly handle maintenance and light repairs—in the Fayetteville location. So it made sense to turn the Fayetteville collision shop into a Quick Lane and move the collision repair business to the state-of-the-art Morrow campus.

Hand-signed letters were mailed to 500
customers alerting them to the move.

Fayetteville collision director Kim Stephens now serves as assistant collision manager under collision center manager Tom Thompson; her estimator, Angela Gosdin, and two technicians also made the move. The Morrow shop is now the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. home of 23 employees. Together they repair an average of 350 cars a month. Annual gross retail sales for the shop are about $4 million.

While 2008 certainly has brought challenges for collision repair shops nationwide, thanks to recession fears and the rising price of gas, Vigil says the economy didn’t factor into the decision as much as the need for the Quick Lane in Fayetteville and the superior facility in Morrow. And despite stiff competition from “hundreds” of other collision repair shops in the Atlanta area, he’s anticipating increased volume—anywhere from 15 to 30 percent—in the Morrow shop as customers follow.

Hand-signed letters were mailed to 500 Fayetteville customers alerting them to the move. In fact, some customers have already had their cars towed the 18 miles from Fayetteville to Morrow. “That’s a testament that people like the work we’re doing,” Stephens says.

“I think we’re going to gain more than we’ll lose because we can do better quality work here and get it out faster,” Vigil says. His team leaders will play key roles in those efforts. “Tom is more mechanically inclined, and he can spend time with the technicians and get production and quality up. Kim’s expertise leans more towards customer service,” Vigil says. “I think what we’ve done is merged the best of both worlds.”

Thompson agrees, citing fresh ideas, new blood, more energy, and more talent to draw on as immediate benefits of the merger.

Of course, consolidating two shop staffs hasn’t been without its challenges. Chief among them: “Dealing with personality differences and trying to make all employees feel as if we are one team with the same goals,” says Stephens. “We’re just jumping in and figuring it out together—there’s no one right way of doing things.”

“With any new hire there’s a certain amount of adjustment that has to be made on both sides,” Thompson admits. “[But] I think we all have the same intentions; we want to make Mr. Vigil a profit, and work the way that he operates. He’s very honest, very customer-oriented, and we all have that framework to work within.” The “new” employees, he adds, “aren’t ‘Fayetteville people,’ they’re Allan Vigil people.”

Taking Care of Business

With more employees in one shop, AVF has positioned itself to be bigger and better after all, and Vigil expects the Morrow shop to excel in its number one goal: customer satisfaction. Lots of companies make that claim, but Vigil has the awards to back it up: AVF has won the Ford Motor Triple Crown for customer satisfaction twice, in 2002 and 2003, and won local Consumers’ Choice Awards for business excellence in 2005 and 2006.

After 27 years in business, Vigil knows a few things about running a successful collision repair shop. In addition to customer satisfaction, he cites quality, efficient production and working with insurance companies as two crucial elements. Dealing with the insurance companies, he says, “is the nature of the beast.”

But customers come first. “The reputation that we have is: ‘We do good work, and we take care of our customers.’ I’m a big believer in repeat business and referrals,” Vigil says, adding that a high percentage of the shop’s business comes from those avenues.

Vigil knows that a pet peeve of many shop customers is being out of the loop when it comes to the timing of their repairs, so it’s a shop mandate to keep customers updated, usually via every-other-day emails, on the status of their cars.

Follow-up is another part of the customer service equation. In Fayetteville, Stephens contacted customers one week post-job to ensure their satisfaction, and then again a few months later. While that practice hasn’t been in place in the Morrow shop, it’s one she’s determined to implement. “I’m going to start back-tracking,” she says, “and get more detailed and personal with it.”

Change for Good

Another element that Stephens plans to bring to the Morrow shop is a focus on breast cancer awareness—specifically in the form of a custom-detailed Warriors in Pink Ford mustang that was displayed in front of the Fayetteville shop for a week last March.

Stephens had a customer whose husband bought her the car—which includes a pink pony ribbon fender emblem, pink stitching in the leather, and a pink stripe at the bottom of the doors—in 2006. She kept in touch with the owner, and asked if AVF could detail the car as a way to promote awareness of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its Race for the Cure event, of which Ford is a sponsor. “I told her I wanted to do something different, and step outside of the box of [just fixing] wrecked vehicles,” says Stephens.

AVF’s technicians donated their time, working over seven days to add bright pink racing stripes down the front of the vehicle and detailing the back. When finished, the car generated local newspaper coverage as well as interest from the community. Stephens says the shop fielded lots of questions about Ford’s sponsorship of the Foundation and Race for the Cure, and they handed out more than 100 fliers letting people know how to get involved.

“We did this to show that Ford cares—that we all care—about breast cancer awareness,” she says.

Stephens also believes it helped bring new customers, and not just women, into the shop. “People would ask about the vehicle and then say, ‘I want you to fix my car.’”

Ford’s support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation is a good fit for AVF given that it has women in several key positions. In addition to Stephens and Gosdin, AVF’s director of operations, rental manager and director of marketing and communications are female, as are three of its salespeople.

AVF is involved in other charitable works, too, sponsoring a Little League team and giving away a car to a local high school senior every year.

Family Ties

AVF doesn’t just value customer loyalty, it values employee loyalty as well, and strives to create a family atmosphere. In fact, some employees are family: Vigil’s son Michael runs the Fayetteville dealership, while daughter Dawn is the director of marketing and communications.

Employees with long employment histories at AVF are honored with their photographs on the wall in the showroom. Nineteen have been with the company for 20 or more years; 17 have been with the company at least 15 years, and 30—including Stephens, who joined the company in 1998 as a cashier—have logged a decade or more of service.

That family atmosphere helps set the stage for superior customer service. “It’s all personal,” Stephens says. “We get to know our customers, so the next time they come in I remember that they have a daughter named Kathy and a son named Andrew.” The personal touch “makes a huge difference” in an industry where customers are often unhappy because they wrecked their cars. “Good service goes above and beyond any paint color match or tire alignment. People want to know that they can trust you,” Stephens says. “We’re not in the car business, we’re in the customer service business.”
 

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