Doing the Impossible
In 2000, Dave March shipped a 1964 Amphicar from Hawaii into Orange County, Calif., to restore in the family garage.
Traveling 40 mph on land and just 3 mph on water, the Marches challenged themselves: What if a car could travel as fast as a boat on water?
Back in 2000, it seemed impossible. But over 10 years of hard work and labor later, the Marches’ WaterCar Python reached 60 mph on water, setting the Guinness World Record for fastest amphibious car.
For Dave, owner of Fountain Valley Bodyworks in Fountain Valley, Calif., and his two general managers, Mike Honrath and son Michael March, nothing is impossible. In fact, in Dave and Michael’s quest to become “the biggest and best shop in the world,” they just went ahead and made that sentiment part of their motto: “We Do the Impossible.”
“We’re not just fixing cars any regular old way,” Michael says. “We’re on the leading edge here. We’re fixing it better, faster and cleaner every step of the way. It’s been like that for 40 years. That’s just how we do it.”
With a team of 100 employees repairing over 600 cars a month in two facilities—75,000 square feet for collision work and 25,000 square feet for light repairs—that generate $12 million in annual revenue, Dave and Michael are taking every step in making Fountain Valley Bodyworks the “biggest” and the “best.” And they’re achieving it through meticulous research, state-of-the-art repairing stations, comprehensive marketing strategies, consistent training, and exemplary customer service.
Building a Base
It’s hard to believe a small one-man shop in 1974 grew into the 100,000 square feet of shop that has repaired over 550,000 vehicles in its lifetime. But that’s just the kind of businessman Dave is.
“My dad started with the American dream: a one-man show,” Michael says. “He would both sell the repair and do the repair. And then everybody started bringing him more and more cars. ‘Take it to Dave’s,’ people would say. Everyone trusted him because he genuinely cared.”
At the time, Fountain Valley was a moderately sized town in Orange County, totaling 31,000 residents. Now the population has doubled, and the Marches’ shop has benefitted from it. As more and more people filled the area, Dave slowly added to his small team, quit performing body work and started managing more effectively, allowing him to turbo-charge his marketing approach with charismatic TV spots and by promoting the shop’s amphibious vehicle work to a growing population.
“As that works, you have to get into a bigger building, and then once you expand, you get into another building, and so on,” Dave says. “Location has always been crucial to us. We’ve always wanted to be on a main street. We’ve moved three different times, but each time it was really easy to transfer the business from the older location to the new bigger one. And then, using advertising, we boasted about being bigger and better.”
Yearning for the days when he and his father would repair motorized scooters, dune buggies and dirt bikes in the family garage, Michael left his corporate job to aid his father in growing Fountain Valley Bodyworks into the two mammoth facilities that exist today.
The History of the Watercar
The amphibious vehicles are built from start to finish in Fountain Valley Bodywork’s body shop, starting from a barrel of resin and a roll of fiberglass. The company test drives and inspects the vehicles daily.
2002—The March family develops the initial vehicle: a 2002 WaterCar Camaro. The car utilized a late-model Camaro body and that was powered by a 2.5 Liter turbocharged Subaru boxer engine with 300 horsepower. It drove 125 mph on land and 40 mph on water.
2006—The next model was the WaterCar AmphiGator, which was built for practicality, meaning it would still maintain high speed performance on land and sea, but there was no need to have a boat ramp for entry.
2010—The WaterCar Python was built for speed and comfort, using the best technology from the Camaro and AmphiGator. The Python was a mix between a Dodge Ram truck and a Corvette and could safely go up to 60 mph on water. To date, the Python holds the Guinness World Record for the Fastest Amphibious Vehicle.
2012—The Panther was produced to be the first commercial WaterCar to go to market. The Panther is the most reliable and safest amphibious vehicle with a 3.7 Liter Honda V-6, and enough ground clearance to insert into the water without a boat ramp. The WaterCar goes up to 80 mph on land and 44 mph on water, and goes from land to water in less than 15 seconds.
Bigger and Better
As the facility and its customer base have slowly grown, so has the staff size, nearing 100 employees the Marches send to several training classes a year, keeping them up-to-date on industry trends and efficient enough to keep the shop’s high car count up—Dave offers bonuses and incentives to his employees based on CSI scores.
Managing that many employees between two shops—which includes over 50 technicians, several estimators and a whole front office staff—has “been a challenge,” Dave says, but as he has become more hands-off and started delegating duties to his managers, his shops have become well-oiled machines filled with motivated employees that keep cars rotating as quickly as possible.
Dave says the decision to keep all the work to two locations within blocks of one another stems from the family’s desire to touch each and every single car that comes through the shop. Dave and his staff of managers—the shop has a technician-to-manager ratio of 8:1—do a 45-minute walkthrough of the daily workload to start each morning.
While Dave has slightly sacrificed his ARO by adding an express center, it has allowed him to bring in light repair work that may have gone to smaller surrounding locations. Because of the amount of accidents that occur on the shop’s busy road and the bumper specials offered by the smaller location, the express shop makes up about one-third of Fountain Valley Bodywork’s total car count and annual revenue.
And because he chose not to split up into various smaller outlets, Fountain Valley Bodyworks has been able to embody its mantra of being “bigger and better” to the public.
“It’s an advantage at this point,” Dave says. “Now when people see us, we’re big enough and impressive enough that they’ll automatically trust us. They realize we dominate a whole city block and we do it all.
“By being big enough, the vendors and parts people we have, they really want our business and we’re able to send them enough business to where we can lean on them and they do everything they can to support us, which helps when we need a special part that’s challenging to find. It helps us get the car out the door more quickly.”
Because of its size, Fountain Valley Bodyworks is able to perform all of its repairs and maintenance work in-house without subletting any work out.
“This way, we can watch the repairs every step of the way,” Michael says. “It’s not that we don’t trust other vendors. It’s just when somebody else touches a car and my name goes on it, I want to make sure it’s right. If there’s an alignment issue, it’s not because the alignment shop screwed up, it’s because we screwed it up and I know how to get it fixed. I’d say we’re bit of control freaks just to ensure the quality is there.”
Investing in Equipment
In addition to training, no investment is too small when it comes to the latest equipment for technicians. Michael says equipment is the shop’s biggest expense, which has allowed the shop’s technicians to move cars efficiently through the system.
“With most shops, you get one frame rack. And if the car is on that frame rack, you can’t put another car on that frame rack, it only takes one car at a time,” Michael says. “Well, for us, we have almost 30 frame racks. Our goal was to have, in each stall, at least one car lift. Some bodymen actually have two car lifts in their stalls.
“We don’t figure out what middle-of-the-road welder we can get—we want the best welder you can get and we’ll take several of those. We take that very seriously. We want to make sure every tech has it available. If they’re waiting for equipment, then they can’t make sure that car is moving right along.”
Dave’s drive to find and implement the best equipment for his technicians is exemplified by his trips throughout Europe and Japan 30 years ago, when he researched how other countries were fixing cars and how he could apply it to his own shop. He brought back “technology the U.S. hadn’t seen before,” Michael says.
“Europeans were just so much more advanced than what we were,” Dave says. “So when it came to painting and equipment, they were just taking a car all the way down to a skeleton. Their metal work was really good. So we were able to pick up a lot of the cutting edge equipment they were using—all the downdraft booths and the majority of unibody all started pretty much in Europe. That was great to be able to see.”
“[Fountain Valley Bodyworks] was one of the first shops to bring heated downdraft paint booths into the state of California,” Michael adds. “We’re talking 30 years ago. Even to this day not everybody has heated downdraft paint booths. And he bought two of them. It just makes the paint work that much better.”
The Friendly Referral
Fountain Valley Bodyworks’ growth can also be attributed to the Marches’ thorough all-encompassing marketing strategy, which has undoubtedly aided in the shop winning the Orange County Register’s “Best Body Shop in Orange County” five years in a row.
Through radio and television spots that have been preaching the shop’s motto for over 30 years now, the Marches have spread the word about facility’s unique operation and newly implemented express shop beyond Orange County and into Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Irvine.
And if you happen to be travelling down Newhope Street, you’ll probably notice Fountain Valley Bodyworks logo: a giant smiley face, 20 feet in diameter, beaming over the thousands of cars that pass daily through one of the busiest shopping strips in Orange County. The smiley face, which was implemented 12 years ago, has quite literally become the face of the business’s pitch to customers.
“It represents all our happy customers,” Michael says. “To date, we’ve repaired [more than] half a million cars. We’ve had that many happy customers driving around in their cars. When you come in, we want to make sure everybody is greeted with a smile and leaves with a smile.”
On top of it all, the shop’s social media presence is growing every day. Not only has Fountain Valley Bodyworks accrued over 3,300 Facebook likes by consistently updating its page, but Michael says the shop’s ongoing WaterCar project—which has its own separate blog—has tallied more than 40 million YouTube views.
But despite all of the unique exploits undertaken by the shop, Michael says the company’s biggest marketing tool is a simple one: the “friendly referral,” which Fountain Valley Bodyworks has incorporated into its site, posting written testimonials from each and every customer on the home page and video testimonials about their individual experiences.
“Our home page has our smiley face—everything is all about the customers and making sure they’re happy and educated on how we repair their car and that we did it correctly,” Michael says. “A lot of shops say it, but that’s what we live by.
“People will walk up to us and say, ‘Everybody knows that in Orange County, if you have a wreck, you call Fountain Valley Bodyworks.’ We’re like the Ghostbusters. We’ve been around for 40 years, so that name that has traveled more than a lot of other shops. That’s just our presence here.”