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Zimmerman's Automotive: Dutch treat of a shop

Born into an area rich in repair, this family business revels in the name of its city, Mechanicsburg.
Monday, December 1, 2014 - 09:00
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As you can well imagine, Mechanicsburg, Pa., has a rich history of repair, ever since the early 1800s when wagon mechanics plied their trade along the old ferry road. Today, the region’s famous in the automotive world for the mega car shows at nearby Carlisle, but for Judy Zimmerman Walter, this history is far more personal. She claims that her career in the repair industry started at birth. 

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While that’s not literally true, it’s pretty close; her father Norman started Zimmerman’s Automotive only months after she was born, and her childhood is filled with memories of running through the shop barefoot to deliver messages, of pumping gas and selling candy, even writing up paperwork for inspection stickers. After high school she began working there fulltime, learning the business from the ground up. Today she is co-owner of the shop with her two uncles, overseeing daily operations as well as being the CFO for the corporation.

Early on, Judy became something of a pioneer when she began influencing the management style of the business by focusing attention on the shop’s overall appearance and presentation. “Women never came into the garage alone,” she observed. “My goal was to make the business a lot friendlier for women. I did things like decorate for Christmas, clean the restrooms regularly, tiled the office and waiting area floors, played music, banned all pictures of scantily clad women, burned a candle when things got too smelly from the shop and dressed a bit nicer.

“To me it seems funny,” Walter continues, “because I was doing that in the late ’70s-early ’80s,” long before the market caught up to her way of thinking. Not that it wasn’t already in flux; Zimmerman’s soon divested itself of gasoline sales to avoid being turned into a convenience store. To offset this, the company eventually evolved two more divisions: Car Sales and Quick Lube. Both came out of customers’ requests.

“(They) were saying ‘you fix our cars, why don’t you buy a car for us,’” says Walter. The hunt for specific cars turned into a small car lot. “Then in the ’90s the quick lubes were coming up, and our customers were talking about was how it was a pain to make an appointment just for an oil change. Actually it was a pain for the shop too, taking a tech off something else.”

By then they were building a new shop; a 900-square foot quick lube facility was easily added. “It was cutting edge,” says Walter. “We were the first one here to do that. It’s very convenient for my customers, and it’s worked out so well for us.”

Over half of Zimmerman’s income is generated by auto sales. “I can sell a car for $20,000,” she reports. “I can sell three of those a month and beat out the service department, but Service remains the core of the business. One of our philosophies is we don’t work on vehicles; we work on families of vehicles. Say my neighbor owns a Taurus, also has a BMW, and his wife drives a Volvo; I can work on all of them. A dealer can’t.”

Yet the newer divisions engage the company in other ways. “As a rule people are probably not going to buy a car online — not yet, anyway,” she notes, “but a lot of people will look online and then come out and buy. That brought the Internet to the forefront (of our marketing). We have a son who graduated with a degree in communications and marketing, and he’s helped a lot to get our web presence up there to where it should be.”

It also turns out that the Quick Lube was an effective vetting process for personnel. “I work with the local vo-techs,” Walter explains, “and hire guys or gals on the co-op program. They go to school half the day and come in and work in the Quick Lube for the other half. You’ll soon see who’s serious about really wanting an automotive career.

“Today I have two guys in my main shop and the manager of my Quick Lube who started that way. Training them takes time, but in the long run it’s worth it,” she resolves. “I’ve had guys leave, but if I’m not willing to take a chance and train someone, I’m never going to go anywhere.”

Her own daughter started with the company working in the lube pits, and eventually ran a satellite quick lube until it was folded back into the main branch. Today she is running Judy’s office, and she and some of Walter’s cousins make up the next generation of Zimmermans in the company.

“My dad always said when he went into business he had a hammer, a screwdriver and a wrench,” laughs Walter, but one of the tools she brings to the table are communication skills. “I meet with my guys every morning at 7:55 before they start. One of the things I tell them is to look at what we need next. I usually do a lot of research because I’m the one that gets out to the tool shows, keeping them informed as to what is available. For the last budget we made, my guys actually did the final pick between two different pieces of $7,000 equipment. All that comes from a long relationship with them.”

The same approach goes for clients. “We offer relationships, and that’s one of the big differences today,” she emphasizes. “If you’re going to spend $1,000 on a car, I would want to know the person working on it. Anybody can change oil; it’s the relationship that you give and service that you provide while doing it.

“This business is such a part of me,” Walter proclaims. “I grew up in the industry and I love it! I know I’m a sick puppy, but that’s life; there are days where I know I have to face tough stuff, but in the long run I still love going to work in the morning.”   

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