George's Sierra Shell: Fueling a Successful Future

Jan. 1, 2020
No one knows exactly where or when it started, but since the first blacksmith decided to sell gasoline to a growing fleet of horseless carriages, the history of the gas station has been intertwined with that of the automobile. Once as commonplace on
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No one knows exactly where or when it started, but since the first blacksmith decided to sell gasoline to a growing fleet of horseless carriages, the history of the gas station has been intertwined with that of the automobile. Once as commonplace on corners as Starbucks (now facing its own changes), true full service stations are few and far between these days. One notable exception: George's Sierra Shell in Fontana, Calif., which not only has survived, but thrived.

Bought by George Whiteman in 1972, back before the first national gas crunch, the station evolved with the market by adding a convenience store.

"(But) it's ongoing," laughs Doug Whiteman, who took over for his father about 20 years ago. "Every week when I come in on Monday morning, there's something new, like the (increased) reliability of cars and dealerships being a lot more aggressive toward this part of the market."
But tenacity and quality has its rewards. Because his father built a core customer group through years of hard work, the station was able to survive until his son decided to re-focus its efforts on service.
"There are 900 quick lube places that can do it cheaper than us, but it was a matter of offering service through these tough times," Whiteman notes. "Even now with this near recession, we are 42 percent over last year in June. Most people at this point are putting money into their cars, where two or three years ago they would have just bought a new car. So we are doing well."
One of the new services the station offers is pickups from a customer's house. "(After) we check the car, we will fill it with gas, wash it and deliver it back to the customer," Whiteman explains. "There's a hospital very close to us, as well as a school district office, and we provide this service to their employees. The convenience of a doctor being able to just have his (or her) car picked up while at work I believe is a large part of what we provide."
Before developing this service program, Whiteman first joined a consulting company specializing in the automotive repair industry.
"They were a huge help," he says. "They taught me what my labor rates should be if we were going to offer this or that, and how we could pay for it. That helped to give us the confidence to go out and sell a job that a person needed and not just lowball or match a price (from a competitor)."

Whiteman also focused on his front office.

"We try to do everything a dealer's doing, only better," he says. "When you walk in here, you are greeted with a smile. You are not told to hang on, it's clean, and we have a TV, video games and toys for kids. The first impression is so important; if you can make a friend and build trust, the rest of the game is easy. I will put as many people as I need to in that front room during the drop-off period between 8 and 10 (a.m.) to take care of customers so that they are not waiting. That's real important to me and something I learned from my dad."

Whiteman likes to relate the story of how when one of his old customers got sick, his service writer Heather took lunch to her.

"Obviously, we didn't make any money there," he explains. "But I think over the years that is what my dad instilled in me, besides being honest and warranting the work."

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