John Crowder has a tendency to dive into things; he certainly took the bull by the horns upon entering the auto repair industry. One caveat -- he had a background in that in 1970 his father bought out Bradham Automotive, and Crowder was raised around this institution of Alexandria, Va.
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“Our shop has been around for a long time,” more than 65 years, he notes. “We were known as the place where if no one else could fix it, you brought it to Bradhams.”
But by college Crowder wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, until Dad suggested giving the shop a try. Despite majoring in business administration, he started learning the trade from the ground up as a technician.
“My intention when I came onboard was to look into the future,” Crowder explains. “I really needed to know this industry because if I was going to do it, it would be at 100 percent.”
That look quickly clarified to him that things had to change; what worked well for the 1970s and ’80s was no longer competitive.
“I ran it for a little bit just using what I’d learned from my dad,” says Crowder. “But I knew I needed help, and I wasn’t afraid to ask for it, so three years ago we signed up with ATI (Automotive Training Institute).”
True to form, Crowder began absorbing everything ATI had to offer. “I didn’t have any excuses as to why something (ATI recommended) wouldn’t work,” he reports, “I just implemented it. It made sense to me, and we saw immediate results.”
At the end of those three years, Bradham Automotive is approaching triple the revenue it had at the start.
“It’s about building your business the correct way, making sure you’re hiring the right people that fit the model you want, developing the business culture so it all becomes self-sustaining,” he says.
Soon Crowder began rebuilding and rebranding Bradham inside and out, beginning with — what else — the actual brand.
“I had a friend design a logo for us; how does a place that’s been in business this long not have one?” he laughs. “We needed an identity, so we came up with a vintage look. Now we make sure that all of our branding is consistent, universal. Every sign looks the same, every card looks the same, every piece of material that comes out of here all looks the same.
He approached the Internet with the same resolve. “One thing that I think is extremely important — and there are still quite a few shops that aren’t embracing it — web marketing and social media,” says Crowder. “ATI has a whole marketing class for it: Google, Google+, Facebook, shooting videos for YouTube, things like that. It’s extremely important nowadays for shop owners to do these kinds of things. That’s what is driving the market, that’s what people are looking for: reviews, content. They’re gauging you off of what they see, and they’ve made up their mind before they even call.”
Of course Crowder sees the Washington, D.C., corridor as being highly driven by technology.
“I can’t comment on what might happen in a smaller town,” he concedes. “I’ve heard from other people that they still do direct mail, and that it works extremely well for them. In my market, it wouldn’t work at all.”
As profits began to increase, Crowder immediately reinvested it back into the business.
“We looked at it logically,” he explains, “What’s the most important thing to do right now and what can we afford? What are we saying to customers as they come in the door? I didn’t like our message; we completely gutted the waiting room area. After that we started working our way toward the back.”
That work extended to the staff as well.
“Fixing the car is expected; that’s the business we’re in,” Crowder points out. “So every week we go over a core value, and this week it’s on the fact that we’re in the customer service business. How can we make it more convenient for them--do we offer solutions? How do we treat them when they come in; what’s available to them here?”
Besides free coffee, soda, water and snacks in the new waiting room, Bradham offers shuttle service, picks vehicles up when necessary, takes people to the Metro train or even work; anything they can possibly do to make a client’s life easier.
“I feel like every time I try to change something, create a procedure, a process or a policy,” explains Crowder, “the first thing I always do is try to define the purpose: why are we trying to do this? As a team, how does this affect everyone involved? I think if you approach it that way, more people are willing to buy into and understand your concept.
“This was all new to me,” Crowder acknowledges. “I never had to have these conversations, never had to let somebody go. But it’s inevitable when you’re going to change that rapidly. I wanted everyone to go through this and come out the other side happy and look back and go, ‘Wow, look what we accomplished.’ But that’s not realistic; it didn’t happen that way. That’s life, and I think the sooner you come to terms with that, the better off you’ll be as a business owner.”
For Crowder has been finalizing his team for that vision of the future. “We took some things rapidly,” he admits, “but other things slow. For employees, we weren’t looking for warm bodies, we were looking for the right person for the position. We just hired a new service writer, picked because he’s not from the automotive industry. And we have another technician coming onboard. Right now we’re focusing on that and a succession plan. I’m going to take a step back and have my general manager, Josh, take over. He and I basically have a conversation once a week to see where things are at and letting him run with it.”
Run, perhaps even…dive?