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Hybrid repair: niche market or wave of the future?

Independent repair shops need to stay current to survive.
Thursday, June 26, 2008 - 23:00

Independent repair shops need to stay current to survive.

Craig Van Batenburg isn't a betting man, but the two times he's taken a gamble he's come out on top. In 1985, Van Batenburg bought an independent Honda repair shop — years before Honda Civics and Accords became a common sight on U.S. roads. And in 2004, he sold that shop and began a new career teaching technicians how to maintain and repair hybrid vehicles. Not surprisingly, that gamble paid off for Van Batenburg, too.

"I'm not really a betting man," says Van Batenburg, who runs his business, the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), out of Worcester, Mass. "I don't bet unless I know I'm going to win. In this case, I bet on the right horse before the numbers were even in. I knew, when I sold my shop, that I'd be busy for the rest of my life teaching hybrid repair."

Van Batenburg's once far-out sounding prediction is well on the way to coming true. According to a recent survey released by R.L. Polk & Co., nationwide registrations for new hybrid vehicles are on the rise — 350,289 hybrids were registered in 2007, which reflects a 28-percent increase from the previous year. The Toyota Prius continues to lead this vehicle segment with 179,178 total new registrations, or 51.2 percent of hybrid market share.

To put these numbers in perspective, consider this: In 1999, only 23 hybrid vehicles were sold in the U.S. But last year, that number soared to 1.1 million. Van Batenburg says that 450,000 hybrids will be added to the fleet in 2008. And with numbers like that, repair shops would be wise to add hybrid work to their shop's repertoire.

"If an independent repair shop wants to stay in business, hybrid repair is not even an option," he adds. "Repair shops might as well get with it, because hybrids are our future. And that future is here today. I wouldn't be in Nebraska teaching hybrid classes unless this was more than a trend."

Andy Fiffick, general manager of the Cleveland, Ohio-based RADAIR Complete Car Care stores, has done more than just see the future — he's embraced it. Fiffick hopped on the hybrid bandwagon in 2004, when he purchased a brand new hybrid Ford Escape for his family. Fiffick liked the gas savings so much that he even purchased two hybrids for his delivery fleet. Shortly after that, he began sending his technicians to hybrid training classes — including Van Batenburg's intensive, four-day "Up your Voltage" classes in Massachusetts.

"It was a huge expense," Fiffick says. "I think it must have cost $10,000 for each guy I sent up to Massachusetts. But I'm very proactive when it comes to any kind of new training. I want my staff to have every bit of knowledge and every tool they need to keep up with the industry. Technology is changing so fast that if we don't stay on the cutting edge, we'll get left behind."

Although Fiffick says the Cleveland market has not seen as many hybrid sales as the rest of the nation, he's convinced that business will eventually pick up due in large part to the older models coming out of warranty.

"Once those cars come out of warranty, they're going to have to get their service done someplace," Fiffick adds. "And it won't be a dealership if there's an independent shop, an alternative, qualified to work on hybrids closer to them. And we hope to be that alternative."

Out in Santa Barbara, Calif., Nikki Ayers — co-owner of Ayers Automotive Repair — says that getting into hybrid maintenance and repair was a no-brainer.

"There's not much of a decision to be made," Ayers adds. "You have to be able to move with the times here. More and more people are buying hybrids. We knew we had to get involved in it."

Since she first started sending her technicians to hybrid training classes, Ayers has seen more and more hybrid owners bringing their vehicles back to the aftermarket for routine maintenance. She credits this to savvy marketing strategies and her willingness to publicize the investment she's made in her technicians.

"Sure, we lost a few customers when they bought a hybrid," she says. "But as they've learned that we've kept up with technology, they've come back. In fact, we had five of them in our shop last week."

Qualified aftermarket technicians can get the job done

For many hybrid owners, finding a shop to service their vehicle can be a big problem. Inevitably, many of them return to the dealership for maintenance and repair work, simply because they do not feel that independent repair shops are qualified to work on their more intricate — and yes, expensive — hybrids.

But that's just not true, says Batenburg.

"When you buy a new car, you're given a warranty that says you should have your car serviced at a dealership, but you may have it serviced at a qualified shop," he notes. "So, if you bring your car to a qualified hybrid repair shop, you'll get a qualified technician who you can trust will do a good job."

Currently, ACDC is the only organization that can designate an independent repair shop as a "qualified" hybrid repair facility. To become a qualified shop, Batenburg says the shop and its technicians must already be ASE certified. Beyond that, they must take Van Batenburg's four-day course, pass a test of his devising at 80 percent or better and already own a certain amount of hybrid scanning equipment. In addition, each shop must re-qualify every year to maintain its certification, as opposed to the industry standard of two years for traditional technicians.

"Consumers are concerned about service," says Van Batenburg. "Where can you get your car serviced? Too often with hybrids, you have to travel pretty far to find a shop that can work on your car."

Jerry Holcom, owner of S&S Service Center in Kansas City, Mo., agrees that many customers are afraid to take their hybrids to an independent shop, but offers a different explanation for the phenomenon.

"I've noticed they (the dealers) push the maintenance programs for the cars they sell," he says. "I'm losing some of my service business just because hybrid owners think they have to go back to the dealer. That's why I'm not seeing the business I could be seeing. My guess is that if they're pushing maintenance on regular gasoline-powered cars, they're really pushing it with the hybrids."

Why bother to get involved in hybrid repair, then?

Simple, Holcom says. He's a technophobe. After years of carefully monitoring what was coming down the pike and what his shop needed to be ready for, he decided to jump in and get involved with hybrid technology. That, and Van Batenburg's influence, has ensured that he remains on the forefront of the new technologies — and that he keeps his technicians up to speed, too.

"I think the customers have bought into it," Holcom adds. "The people who are buying these cars are the people who need to be driving them. Whether they are helping, or just think they are helping, they love the feeling of driving this car and helping with the environment."

And whether or not hybrid technology is the answer to the energy crisis, Van Batenburg says there's no way to get around the fact that it will save consumers money in the long run.

"Gas is not going to go down," he says. "Every report I've heard says it will be $4 by June. How can anybody that's middle class afford to buy fuel? We've got to wean ourselves off of gasoline."

The next step

Craig Van Batenburg, the nation's hybrid guru, is also a proponent of the electric car. In fact, he knows that hybrids are just a step away from electric cars and that by training technicians to work on a hybrid's electric drive, he's preparing them to work on the purely electric cars of the future.

"Hybrid cars are part electric, so it should be extremely easy to design a hybrid car to plug into your socket at night — hopefully with electricity from wind power," he says.

Wind power? That's right.

Van Batenburg just visited Bloomfield, Neb., where the residents broke ground on a wind farm that will generate enough energy to power the entire city. And if more wind farms were established across the Midwest, they could produce enough electricity to power the entire U.S. from coast to coast —homes, businesses and yes, even electric cars.

"A gallon of electricity costs just 75 cents," Van Batenburg adds. "If every American knew this, we'd all be driving electric cars right now. Not just driving hybrids."

Sound far-fetched? It's not. Mitsubishi and Subaru have already put pure electric cars on the streets of Japan, and are currently testing and perfecting them for an American market.

Available training

Financial workshop ATI "How to Work ON Your Business, Not IN It" will get shop owners started on the journey to financial freedom. Learn how successful shop owners have succeeded and what steps to take if you want your life to change. June 10 Philadelphia For more information, call (888) 471-5800.

Profits workshop ATI "ATI's Cash Profits Boot Camp" will help shop owners learn to establish a profit goal model, increase shop productivity, increase average repair orders, increase parts profits and much more. June 21 Cincinnati, Ohio For more information, call (888) 471-5800.

Sales training R.L. O'Connor and Associates At "Advanced Selling Skills for the Service Advisor," service advisors will learn how to increase sales during an interactive five-day sales workshop. A variety of exercises will teach participants proven sales strategies and skills to easily turn telephone calls into service calls. Jun. 23–27 Federal Way, Wash. For more information, visit www.rlocalendar.com.

Hybrid training Automotive Career Development Center Designed specifically for educators, "Up Your Training! Hybrid training for educators" is run by Craig Van Batenburg, founder of the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC). Spend four days with Van Batenburg and his skilled staff studying, driving, testing, scanning, servicing and taking apart hybrid vehicles. July 10-14 Seekonk, Mass. For more information, visit www.auto-careers.org For more information, visit www.aftermarketbusiness.com. Keyword: repair shop training

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