Adding a Mechanical Repair Segment
If he were keeping track, Thomas Brummel guesses that he would have already checked off every item on his lifelong “bucket list” about a dozen years ago—except one.
At 61, Brummel has lived a life that would make any avid reader of National Geographic jealous; actually, those readers have likely seen some of his work. Brummel has photographed the glacial Lake Linda Cave in Juneau, Alaska. He’s spent weeks exploring “underground treasures” in Belize’s Actun Itzmemne. He’s hung out of helicopters to shoot photos of ice formations in Lake Michigan. His pictures have appeared in multiple publications, and he’s done work for the Discovery Channel as well.
Somehow, in the midst of his explorations (and a 30-plus-year side career as a firefighter), Brummel has successfully run his family’s South Side Chicago body shop, Autopro Collision Clinic.
And that’s where the last item on Brummel’s imaginary list comes in: As he approaches “that certain age,” Brummel is hoping to retire, but not until the business his grandfather started more than 60 years ago has a secure future.
That goal was in jeopardy in 2009, a year after the economy slumped, and the second in a string of mild winters in the Windy City—winters that turned area body shops’ normally hectic-paced winter into a slow season.
“In all our years, we’d never had trouble with bringing in customers or filling our bays,” Brummel says. “All of a sudden, it was a massive change. We were suddenly looking at empty bays, and our sales were dipping. We were reaching a point where we had to do something or we’d have to start laying off some employees.”
Simply put: Brummel needed to find a way to bring in more work for his shop. The answer, he felt, was in diversifying his business.
Brummel was asked once why he stayed dedicated to collision repair through his years of exploring. Certainly, there were simpler professions to earn a living, the person had said.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” he says, “and I really got to thinking about it. The thing I kept coming back to with it was that I liked people, I liked being around people, and I liked helping them.”
That very thought has served as the foundation since the business opened—at its current location—in 1952. Brummel’s grandfather built the shop’s reputation on quality work and customer service. His father carried that tradition on, and when Brummel took over the business in the 1980s, that was his focus, too.
As the business evolved through the years, Brummel’s passion for tools and technology led to the company being at the forefront of new vehicle work in the South Side area. Throughout the 2000s, Brummel says the company often worked on the models from the next vehicle year, the shop’s reputation often trumping any warranties or relationships those customers had with dealerships. And despite the business’s surrounding low-income demographics, Autopro slowly turned into a high-ticket, low car-count profit center, climbing to well above $1 million in sales out of the 9,000-square-foot, nine-employee facility.
When the economy plummeted in 2008, so did new car sales. And with that, Brummel’s regular flow of new-vehicle work dried up almost entirely.
“It was pretty simple: If people weren’t able to buy new cars, we weren’t going to be working on new cars,” he says. “Car count went down, but so did average repair order. We were taking in vehicles we normally wouldn’t work on just because we didn’t have enough work.”
To top it off, 2009 was a mild winter in the Chicago area. The same could be said for 2010 and 2011. Brummel and his staff spent three straight years “just scraping along,” trying to get enough work to keep the shop operating in its current state. Brummel wanted to do anything he could to keep his staff intact. The longer he held on, though, the more he could see that his business’s future looked anything but bright.
In late 2011, Brummel decided a change was needed in his shop’s work mix. He wanted to diversify his shop’s offerings to give his loyal customer base additional reasons to come into the shop. He had the staff and the bays waiting for the work—so any expansion of the shop’s services would not require an extension of the business’s footprint.
Throughout the recession, Brummel noticed his clients holding onto their vehicles longer and being more reluctant to actually fix the physical damage they would have in the past. One thing they were in need of, though, was routine mechanical repairs and maintenance.
“I started looking at it and it sort of hit me that for years and years, we’ve always just subletted out that work to other shops—even really minor, small things,” he says. “We never did any mechanical work. We never felt the need.”
Adding a mechanical segment to the business, though, wouldn’t be a cheap fix; it would require tooling, additional equipment, marketing, training, and possibly even a new employee.
“The one thing mechanical has going for it, though, is the high margins,” he says. “I was looking at shops in my area, and talking to some people about it, and labor rates for body work in the South Side were around $48 or so. For mechanical, it was more like $98.”
Brummel began formulating a strategy to equip his shop to handle all but heavy mechanical work in house, and to do it in a way that would benefit his collision business.
“After all, that’s what we were,” he says. “This needed to be something that helped us on the collision side. That’s what our reputation was built on, and that’s what people would come to us for.”
Brummel started by discussing the transition with the owner and staff at G&L Automotive Inc., the local service shop that Autopro had an unofficial two-way work referral agreement with for years.
It was then that they came up with a plan: Brummel himself would do a sort-of apprenticeship at G&L to “get his feet wet with automotive repair,” learning how to do the work himself and better understand workflow and systems. Brummel, who didn’t want to take any of his current employees away from their work at Autopro, would then create the full slate of processes for his shop and train his front staff.
The catch in the training agreement: Autopro would only do light mechanical work, and now has an official agreement to refer all heavy work to G&L.
Brummel says it took roughly three months for him to get a full feel for the mechanical side of things, splitting his time evenly between the two shops on a daily basis. In the meantime, he made a list of necessary equipment purchases—things he didn’t already have from his collision work. Because of his already strong focus on technology, Brummel was able to avoid large purchases involving diagnostic equipment. In all, he says he spent about $10,000 on new tooling, mostly on a slew of smaller, handheld tools.
He also added a mechanical technician to his staff, and began including mentions of mechanical work in all of his standard marketing materials for new-customer acquisition and to his current customer base. And he put in inspection processes for his staff to work on upselling between the two segments.
In 2012, Brummel began seeing immediate effects of taking on the mechanical work. Anecdotally, he says it gave many of his current customers a reason to come in more often—and for his shop to upsell work.
Statistically, the initial obvious changes were in car count. The shop quickly rose back to its prerecession numbers of roughly 90 vehicles per month. Mechanical work now makes up 30–40 percent of the company’s gross revenue; although, Brummel says it’s “very rare” for any job to not involve both segments now.
“We have so much crossover on our jobs,” he says. “And, because we’re very close with a lot of our longtime customers, we’re able to adopt a new sales approach: We do the inspections and tell them what they need, but we then ask them what their budget is and we then develop a plan—both mechanical and collision—that can work in there.”
Meanwhile, the collision business picked up again in 2013. As the bays began filling up quickly, Brummel put all of the mechanical equipment and tools into mobile carts. Now, instead of taking up a bay or two, Brummel’s mechanical tech is mobile throughout the shop.
In 2013, Autopro had one of its best years in terms of sales in company history and, Brummel says, turned a profit in 11 of 12 months.
Brummel says that it’s very easy for a longstanding business to grow complacent. And even though he was always focused on new technology and training for his staff, he never did anything to advance the shop’s offerings.
“We’re in an industry where you have to keep growing and you have to keep moving forward or you fall behind,” he says. “Adding something on to your business, anything, is going to help you serve your customers better, and that’s going to help your bottom line.”
And it’s helping Brummel check off that last item on his list. With the business picking up steam once again, he says he’s looking forward to a relaxing future.
“I’ve always promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those people that died in my shop,” he says. “We have to build our businesses into something that can last beyond us. That’s what I’m trying to do.”