The path to Salem Boys' door

Jan. 1, 2020
Arizona shop has paved its way to success through credibility
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When Mark Salem started on the radio airwaves in the mid-1980s, he was told that he was not allowed to mention the name of his shop during his car repair program.

Throughout the next several years, Salem never once mentioned his shop, Salem Boys Auto in Tempe, Ariz., rather, building himself up as a credible source and referring folks to other quality shops. It wasn’t a marketing plan, but it worked, and Salem Boys has built a reputation as a credible shop, and a tremendous customer base to match.

As Salem says, “If you develop credibility, they will beat a path to your door. But you better know how to fix their car.”

Fixing customers cars starts with training, and each technician is given an annual training allowance of $300 for training or ASE tests. All of the repair staff are ASE certified.

“If there’s a measuring stick out there with the credibility of ASE, then why wouldn’t you use it?” Salem says, adding he sets the standard being a Master Tech with an L1 rating. “I want them to feel confident about taking the ASE test and measuring themselves against the masses. When they reach master tech they are financial rewarded and then we are a better shop.”

Salem hasn’t always been in the repair shop, but he knows the training is key to succeed. He spent 10 years as a police officer in Arizona, where after 20 years, you have to retire. Because cars always had been a part of his life, he moved into car repair. The move also helped his psyche.

“When I got into car repair, every afternoon when I walked out of my office to my truck, I would look at what we call the done line and there was five, 10, 15 cars that are done and I needed that. That was more important in my life,” he says.

The Best of the Benefits
But the police training has helped him in the bays, because his technicians know they can’t pull a quick one on him with a customer complaint. In return, he takes care of the employees.

“Our employees are the mules that pull our wagons and without them, we are nothing,” he says. Recognition plays a big role in the shop because of this.

Several years ago, Salem and his wife Ranae won a trip to the Cayman Islands. While there, she bought him a Rolex watch. The couple decided that at each employee’s 10-year service mark, they would buy him or her a Rolex watch like those they owned. At the 20-year mark, they send the employee on an all-expenses paid 10-day Mexican Riviera cruise complete with paid childcare and spending money.

“This is what keeps them here. It’s the fairness, it’s the benefits. It’s that they’re family,” Salem explains. “I have financed marriages and divorces. I’ve financed children. I’ve financed education. We have a 401k plan that pays you 50 percent on every dollar, and if you’re not smart enough to understand that that’s a good deal, then you’re not smart enough to work here.

“We don’t micromanage the employees,” he adds. “Every single one of them has a key to the cashbox. Make somebody happy. Do something nice.”

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Making Someone Happy
Doing something to make someone happy extends into Salem Boys’ community service actions, too. The Salems have coordinated the area’s Secret Santa program for 21 years, working with other shops to buy items for the homeless, nursing home patients, group homes and other families in need. But Salem is quick to add that about 75 percent of what they do for the community is anonymous.

“We get tremendous satisfaction out of being blessed like we have been and being able to do that,” he says. For example, one client needed brakes but had no money. “The brakes got done and we told them that we had looked at the wrong car and the other car needed brakes and their car was fine.”

The other 25 percent is Salem’s effort to put a good face behind the industry. This ties back into his radio program, on which he recommends other shops for people to take their cars to for service. He also is a founder and past chairman of the BBB Auto Advisory Committee. Through this and his own Best Repair Shops in Phoenix website, he now highlights between 60 and 70 shops that are quality businesses.

If a customers go to a shop on his list and has a bad experience, goes through the BBB dispute resolution process and the shop still won’t make it right, Salem will publicly kick the shop off the list and refund the customer’s money up to $5,000 himself or make up to $5,000 in repairs.

The key is that he’s never had to do this.

“Most of my motivation has to do with improving our industry’s reputation to the general public,” he adds.

Marketing Credibility
All of this, plus his motto of developing credibility, has given his shop plenty of marketing. Salem says the advertising budget actually is zero, because they take advantage of several other routes. He speaks regularly to civic groups, car clubs and retirees about finding good, quality car repair, and not just at his shop. He has developed credibility because of this.

Salem’s daughter Alison now working in the shop’s marketing department also made her father take advantage of the free marketing through Facebook. Though reluctant at first, he set up an agreement with her to have her do it for him. She started getting e-mail addresses from customers so she could find out how their service was.

“And quite frankly, Mark has had quite a few dinners of crow in the last two months, because it turned into something much bigger than I ever thought it would,” Salem says of his conversion to Facebook. “People are stopping me on the street, because now they know what I look like. It’s opened my life up to the masses, and on one hand that’s really good, because now we have a personal touch.”

She i s not the only one who has developed a career through their father’s shop. Salem’s son Alan, after working at a tire shop, started his own specialty shop within Salem Boys’ Auto.

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“He started doing small tires, and then he got into performance and then superchargers and turbos, and it’s turned into a $3 million a year business. He’s learning his profit and loss statement,” Salem says. “He and I compete against gross profit on parts, gross profit on tires. We compete on bay compensation, square footage compensation. We have all these contests that we compete against.”

Salem says the addition is a natural progression, as some customers do think about going from auto repair to making their cars go a little bit faster or adding some fancy tires or wheels.

“There’s a risk and reward relationship here, but he has figured out how to overcome the risk with the reward and still sell the job," Salem says. "For him being 30 years old, he’s overcome the risk with the reward and there’s many of us in the industry who have not figured that out.”

Salem Boys has figured this out, moving from a six-bay garage it started in 1988 to a 20-bay “dream shop” in 1994. The shop won numerous awards for its design and environmental strategy, even though that’s sometimes difficult to share with customers.

“This is a very difficult subject for us, because number one, in Arizona being considered a tree hugger may not be a name you’re going to embrace. Number two, I’m a cowboy and we are not well known for environmental decisions,” Salem says.

But the shop’s recycling efforts, use of overhead lube guns and using vegetable oil in ground hoists all complement the overall green movement seen in shops across the country.

“We’ve received tremendous accolades but we’ve never used them for marketing because we’re scared. I’m just too scared to cross that line. I’m too scared that people will picture me with a parking lot full of Priuses,” Salem says. “I’m too scared that all the cowboys that drive from all over the state that bring their diesel Ford pickup trucks with steer manure on their kick panels, they won’t come any more.”

But that’s OK. Salem has worked hard to establish credibility for himself and his shop. And like he says, people then beat a path to his door for his employees to fix their cars.

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