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A stress-free shop

'Alignment with core values' shapes shop's goal to ease customer stress
Wednesday, February 3, 2016 - 09:00
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'Alignment with core values' shapes shop's goal to ease customer stress

At California’s Gustafson Brothers Inc. they describe themselves as an all-inclusive vehicle repair operation, serving Orange County’s motorists by providing a vast array of body shop and mechanical services along with hosting professional continuing education classes for repair technicians, insurance personnel and smog abatement testing technicians.

In addition to involvement with charitable and civic activities, much emphasis is placed on nurturing a strong team atmosphere specifically aimed at easing stress levels for employees and customers alike.

At a glance
Gustafson Brothers Inc.
Name of shop
Huntington Beach, Calif.
John Gustafson
3 (1 body shop and 2 mechanical shops)
No. of shops
Years in business
No. of employees
No. of DRPs
Square footage
No. of bays
5 days
Average cycle time
Average repair order
Average weekly volume
No. of customer vehicles per week
$11 million
Annual gross revenue
Paint supplier
Frame machines used
Ultramate and CCC One
Estimating systems used

By pursuing these elements Gustafson Brothers is able to deliver world class service; 97.5 percent of customers surveyed say that they would refer friends and family to the shop. Out of 1,071 online customer reviews – which can be notoriously tough given the anonymity afforded by the Internet – 941 of them award the business five stars, with 77 others issuing a four-star rating.

“We pride ourselves on being cleaner, brighter and more user-friendly than our competition,” says owner John Gustafson, who is a certified ASE Master Technician, a Bureau of Automotive Repair certified instructor, a certified I-CAR instructor and a state-licensed continuing education insurance instructor.

“We work very hard to improve the image of ‘body shops,’” Gustafson points out. “We work as a team to deliver value correctly and on time. As a team we follow our core values and work daily to reach our objective to become the organization that provides ‘world class’ customer service with ‘zero defects and zero stress.’”He has been saluted with the Alumni Pillar of Achievement Award from Golden West College for his contributions to the auto industry, and in 2012 the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce bestowed its Business in Excellence Award on the shop. The operation was also honored as the Farmer’s Insurance Shop of the Year in 2014.

Gustafson characterizes his concept of delivering customer satisfaction as “a composite of many things – professionalism, courtesy, responsiveness, a neat appearance, a friendly atmosphere and a genuine concern for the customer – things that cost little, but are so important to the customers.”

Striving to consistently meet and exceed customer expectations, he notes that it is “the responsibility of every employee to be pleasant, have a positive attitude and provide prompt and professional services” to the patrons at all times.

“We care about our guests, and we care about each other,” says Gustafson. “Our philosophies are simple and that’s why they work, and why we are successful. Our biggest strengths are meeting the customers’ needs. It’s really as basic as that. To meet their needs we work toward our objective and keep each other in alignment with our core values.”

John Gustafson, owner

These core values involve adhering to “the highest standards of ethics and integrity,” according to Cynthia Varnell, the company’s marketing and public relations manager who also assists in the human resources department. “The trust placed in us by our customers, our employees and our community is not taken lightly. We will not take either professional or ethical shortcuts. Since the future of Gustafson Brothers rests squarely on the knowledge, imagination, skills, teamwork and integrity of our employees, we value these attributes above all.”

Such sentiments result in a pronounced pattern of sound relationships with insurance carriers. “We don’t have those battles because they know we’re honest and upfront, and we document everything.” Varnell adds that “we maintain strong relationships with our insurance providers by working together to ensure ultimate customer satisfaction. We believe that if we both work with the customer’s best interest in mind, everyone will be successful.”

The company’s vision and core values culminate in the customers expressing high praise at the conclusion of the repair. “The insurance company looks good and we look good.”

Adding value

As you might expect, maintaining positive relationships with parts and materials vendors is another key priority. “We keep an open dialog with all our external stakeholders,” Gustafson reports. “We share with them our ‘world class’ vision and our ideas for growth and ultimate customer satisfaction. Together we work to accomplish those goals.”


Free technical and management training for shop owners and techs of all levels.


Lean production strategies are utilized throughout the operation, aided in the implementation by guidance from paint supplier PPG’s Green Belt consulting program. “We took it and ran with it,” he notes.

“We earn a profit from work that adds value to our customers’ lives,” says Gustafson. “Our ability to perform with excellence depends on maintaining a financial position that enables investment in the future. By providing technology and training for our employees, we give our customers the best value at every service or repair.”

It is especially important that the company is “recognized as a good corporate citizen and an asset to the community,” he says. A commitment to enthusiastically supporting an assortment of charitable and civic causes coincidentally enhances the shop’s marketing strategies while augmenting a significantly positive presence achieved through word-of-mouth recommendations.

“We believe in giving back to the community that supports us. Through our efforts we have not only improved the neighborhood in which we live and do business,” says Varnell, “but we have also built a reputation as an organization that is trustworthy and compassionate.

She adds that “we have a steady stream of mechanical customers, and our body shop is always top-of-mind in the event they ever need our collision repair services. We also utilize social media, e-newsletters and direct mail.”

Attracting top talent

Ongoing efforts are employed to expand the shop’s training center “for the development of current and future team members and our industry as a whole,” according to Gustafson.

Leveraging educational reimbursement programs, I-CAR classes are conducted by the shop along with free instructional sessions for insurance providers. “Smog Tech Training” and “Smog update classes” are also provided to interested students from throughout the area. “We are dedicated to helping our participants advance their careers in the automotive industry,” he explains, citing the satisfaction derived from offering these types of opportunities.

“Many automotive professionals are introduced to our facility when they attend one of the various training workshops we offer on site,” says Varnell. “We have an excellent reputation in the industry, and quite often top talent comes to us. We maintain relationships with our tow drivers, delivery drivers and parts suppliers, and when there is a need we let them know.”

Recruitment opportunities are additionally posted in online forums. “We also offer a referral bonus to our employees if they refer someone who gets hired,” she says. “We believe this is our most successful tool because our employees understand our work culture and ethics. They also have a vested interest in helping the new hire succeed.”

Learning and adapting

The beginning of the business goes back to when brothers John and Frank Gustafson started repairing vehicles as part of their family chores as teenagers. “Neighbors began to take notice of the boys’ skills and started asking if they could repair their cars as well,” says Varnell. Volkswagens and Datsuns became a specialty of sorts in the 1970s.

“Once older brother John graduated from high school and started attending the Automotive Technology Program at Goldenwest, he decided to use his love of repairing cars to make some money. Frank would come in after school to work on the cars. The brothers became successful by meeting the customer’s need. As the demands grew, they grew; as the cars evolved, they evolved,” Varnell recounts. Eventually people started requesting body repairs, “and once again they adapted and learned” this aspect of the industry.

“Finally their dad got sick of them fixing all the cars in the driveway, so he told them they had to get out. John located a dirt lot in Huntington Beach, and that’s where Gustafson Brothers was born,” she says. “They didn’t have a loan or any substantial financial backing. They were just two kids with ambition who understood customer service to its core. They were resourceful and eager, and they learned and adapted to meet the customer demands.”

Most of the facility’s construction was handled in-house. “John Gustafson loves to learn, grow and build,” says Varnell. “He studied on his own and got a contractor’s license. He is highly motivated and self-taught.”

As time went on, love intervened: Frank was frequently visiting a girlfriend who lived in Parker, Ariz., and the brothers became aware that the Grand Canyon State offered yet another business prospect. “As a team, they searched the area and found a body shop owner looking to retire.” Financed with a loan through a Lake Havasu City bank, they bought the company with Frank assuming the helm of Brothers Auto Body. For the first few years John provided operational expertise from California, and Varnell reports that Frank’s shop has grown to become “the best-equipped and most-trusted shop in the area.”

Kinship connections remain in place as several relatives are employed at the Gustafson Brothers shop in Huntington Beach. “The relationship is easy to balance because early on you learn that we are all family,” says Varnell.

“If we care for each other and treat each other with respect we can all be successful,” she observes. “When you think about it, we spend more time with our work family then we do with our traditional family.”

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