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Expanding on a Niche

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The Saab owners don’t roll through the shop like they used to, but when they do, Dirk Owens says they always have a story.

“My Saab [was] cruising up the snowy hill while all the other cars were sliding around,” Owens, operations manager at Addison Auto Repair & Body Shop, describes one such story. “A Saab owner will get into their car and they just say, ‘Nothing drives like a Saab.’”

At one time, the Swedish premium car manufacturer was popular enough to fuel Addison Auto Repair & Body Shop in Denver all on its own.

But times have changed. The Saab brand became less and less popular, company ownership changed several times, and, unable to secure a buyer in 2009, GM announced it would officially wind down production of new Saab models. All the while, Addison has found itself adapting to declining sales, culminating with Saab’s file for bankruptcy in 2011.

Through the years, owners Jim and Brenda Addison have made adjustments, adding new makes and models to their collision repair and mechanical work, retaining their small base of Saab owners, and, most importantly, utilizing the Internet for 21st century marketing strategies in ways that keep both old and new customers coming to the 30-year-old shop.

Embracing the ‘Cult’

If a certain ornery, crabby manager hadn’t thrown a peanut machine across the shop, Jim Addison may have never opened his own shop.

But, as fate had in store, Jim’s first job out of college in the 1970s at a local Saab dealership in Denver proved promising after the parts manager’s temper tantrum—and subsequent firing—helped Jim earn a promotion to the front line.

“I really didn’t know much about cars, let alone Saabs,” Jim says. “I got thrown into this without a lot of experience, but I kept at it.”

Believe it or not, according to Jim, Denver has continually had one of the highest populations of Saabs in the country (excluding the East Coast). And, as Jim bounced around from one unorganized Saab repair shop to the next, he realized he and his wife, Brenda, had an opportunity.

On top of it all, Jim knows how loyal Saab car owners are to the brand, which set up a unique opportunity to form a relationship with a specific niche in the market.

“We like to call them a cult,” Jim says, laughing. “They hold rallies and everything. They’re a special breed.”

So in 1982, when the Saab 900 was booming and Saab was still producing millions of cars, Jim and Brenda bought a 5,000-square-foot building and tried their hand at Saab repair and maintenance.

While business thrived at Addison Auto Repair & Body Shop for years, the shop’s Saab work correlated with Saab’s slow and crippling demise. In 1986, the shop added Volvo to its repair line-up; in 1995, it added Japanese makes and models; and then, by 2000, Jim and Brenda had to completely embrace all makes and models.

However, strangely enough, Saab has stayed with the Addisons, even accounting for 20 percent of the business just five years ago. Thus, the owners have had to adapt, finding unique ways to deal with a dwindling Saab presence and attract new customers outside the loyal base.

New Ways of Finding Old Parts

While Saabs are no longer in production, two to three Saab owners will still waltz into Addison every week, hoping the only Saab shop for miles in every direction can help them out.

And while the shop is always happy to oblige, for the last several years, it has definitely had to reevaluate its parts procurement policy and resort to new-school methods of finding old-school parts.

“We have our normal parts procurement system—then we have our Saab parts procurement system,” Owens says. “Jim has got a plethora of old Saab parts stashed around here, just because the business has been going for 33 years. But that’s dwindling, and we need to reach out to other shops.”

While Addison can call up any local parts distributor for other makes, a Saab repair requires the shop to, believe it or not, flee to eBay to find a random dealership or mom-and-pop shop from around the country that has the part a Denver Saab owner needs.

“You just have to set that expectation with the customer right away, that these parts are tough to get and may take a couple days extra to get,” Owens says. “Your regular in-town parts distributor, if you get a wrong part, you just call them and they ship another one.

“With these Saab parts, you're kind of going out on a limb if it's not a Saab-authorized dealer. If it's a weird part, sometimes there's no chance you'll find it with a regular dealer and you start going into the aftermarket.”

A New Marketing Strategy

Just as Addison had to reevaluate its part procurement policy, the decline in Saab repair has led Jim and Brenda, who have been steeped in the Saab tradition for over 30 years, to start downplaying their Saab expertise in the early 2000s and promote Addison as a one-stop shop for all makes and models.

“Adapting is key,” Jim says. “The shops that don’t adapt don’t make it, and the ones that do adapt do make it. We’re living proof of that.”

Addison Auto didn’t need much of a marketing strategy before the Saab demise because, through years of hard work, Jim had established Addison as the go-to Saab shop. But with times changing, Brenda stepped up to the plate, working with a local marketing company to completely rebrand Addison as a shop that isn’t just an expert in Saabs alone. 

“I’ve revamped the website about three or four times now,” Brenda says. “In fact, we’re working with a new marketing company now that specializes in repair shops, and I think the website will probably get a design update.”

The idea, Owens says, is a “full-scale marketing approach.” On all ends of the spectrum, Addison tries to show up, whether it’s through the mail in neighborhood newsletters; through monthly email newsletters written by himself; or through the Internet, from engaging customers on Facebook to landing pages on Google to responding to reviews on Yelp. If you’re looking for a body or mechanical shop in Denver, Addison wants to show up.

While it may seem like a tall task, one way the owners of Addison say they set their shop apart from others is by responding to reviews—especially the negative ones—online.

“Some people will pay companies to go on and do canned rebuttals, but we try to do them personally to make it seem more real,” Brenda says. “People really appreciate that and respond to that on a deeper level.”

“It's more expensive to get a new customer than to maintain an old customer,” Owens adds. “So especially when people have problems with our service, we try to get in touch with them. The reviews online are just the first step. We usually try to reach out to them physically to hear the whole story of what really went wrong and try to make it right for them.”

Displaying Your Expertise

Ironically, the mentality that Jim and Brenda applied to retain its Saab base for years is translating to attracting new customers—show them that you’re the expert, and they’ll follow your lead.

“People are automatically skeptical of repair shops,” Owens says. “There’s an inherent distrust there. But if you can show them that you really know what you’re talking about, and if they see that somewhere online, they’ll be more inclined to trust that expertise and take your word for it on estimates.

ONE-STOP SHOP: Jim and Brenda Addison have worked to make Addison Auto Repair & Body Shop a full-service business that serves a wide range of customers. The business now does $4.6 million in annual sales, $3.3 million of which is collision work.

And it’s worked: Addison has steadily increased its revenue over the past 10 years, adding more collision and mechanical work with new makes and models, reaching $3.3 million annually for body work and $1.3 million annually for mechanical.

Since 2009, Jim’s contribution to the Internet world is a monthly newsletter he compiles for customers, each of whom are asked to give their email addresses after each visit.

The newsletters themselves are very informative and engaging. Jim lets his personality shine through in the text, which almost reads like an opinion piece. He spouts his opinions and advice about defective airbag recalls, how to check your brakes, how to deal with hail damage and what makes a good auto repair technician.

The goal of each newsletter? To not only relay the shop’s expertise, but to remind the customer that the shop is genuinely invested in helping to maintain vehicles properly.

“On average, a person will get in an accident every seven years,” Jim says. “Body shops, since people don't use them regularly, if they liked it the first time, they'll probably come back again. And if we can stay fresh in their mind, even seven years later, and they know we are the true area experts and we care, they’ll come back to us.”

A Strong Core Base

By writing those newsletters each and every week, Jim has actually built quite a dichotomous relationship: New customers know he can help them with any make or model—but, if you have a Saab, you know Jim’s the go-to guy in town.

“Our customer base, since we've been around for 33 years, knows Jim really well,” Owens says. “Almost every one of them has a story about working with Jim so his personality definitely comes across and it's a selling point for people to come to an independent shop rather than a chain shop.”

Jim’s passion always did and always will rest with the Saab brand, which gave him his start years ago. 

“It’s funny,” Jim says. “We spent such a long time building a new base that we forget about Saab work we’ll get weekly. But they’re both going strong, and we’ll seamlessly transition between repairs.” 

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