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Shop owner applies previous experience in aerospace to automotive diagnostics

Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 07:00
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Perhaps nothing better parallels the paradigm shift in automotive repair from the mechanical to the electrical than the career of G. William Fay. Owner of Bill's Auto Garage in Queen Creek, Ariz., Fay started his career in the aerospace sector “as a technician soldering circuit boards,” but now specializes in automotive diagnostics and drivability.

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At a Glance:
Bill's Auto Garage
G. William Fay
Queen Creek, Ariz.
Years in business
Total no. of employees
Square footage of shop
No. of bays

After serving for six years in the Marine Corps’ Communications-Electronics division, this Los Angeles native returned home to the private sector to help build fuel control systems for Pratt & Whitney 4000-series jet engines, but by 1990 the aerospace industry was drying up in southern California.

“I found myself with no job — but at the dawn of the computerized car age,” comments Fay. “I was in the unique position that I understood the electronics better than most mechanics did,” particularly when it came to diagnostics.

“I knew how to run a lab scope in 1986,” Fay recalls. “It wasn’t even really a diagnostic tool in automotive technology yet; people were using the big Sun tuning machines, watching primary and secondary ignition wave forms. But that didn’t do a lot for an ‘88 Buick 3.8 which had a bad crank sensor in it, or a magnet falling off a cam sensor, or a distributor-less ignition system that wasn’t working correctly.

“I think the whole industry was completely unprepared for the computerization of cars at that time,” believes Fay. “That was pre-OBDII, so none of the scan equipment was standardized; everybody had their own plug, their own diagnostic DTCs, their own way of doing anything. In the Marine Corps and aerospace industry I learned to work with a lot of things that didn’t necessarily have any kind of commonality.”

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As it turned out, Fay’s brother had recently bought a small shop in Rosita —coincidently called Bill's Auto Garage — and he needed help. “With a lot of electronics experience and minimal mechanical experience, I went to every type of school I could,” Fay reports. “Getting that place off the ground was tough, so I worked for GM dealerships in the day and wrenched at our place at night, training, training, training with anything I could get my hands on, learning everything I could.”

Fay and his brother ran the shop together for about 9 years before his sibling decided to make a go of it on his own. After buying him out, Fay ran the shop alone till 2003, when he himself decided on a change of pace and place. Selling the business in Los Angeles, Fay moved his family east to a semi-rural area on the outskirts of Phoenix.

Amidst bucolic cows and dairy farms, Fay just took it easy for the first two years. “I stayed at home and played house dad,” he recounts. “But then somebody asked, ‘hey, what are all those tools in your garage? Do you know how to fix cars?’ I started doing jobs on the side for friends and neighbors, and in less than a year I started having tow trucks show up at my house with drop offs. I thought no, no, no, this can’t happen here.”

Initially not wanting to go back into business for himself, Fay went to work fulltime at a dealership. But about eight years into that, his son, with ambitions, talent and training of his own, asked Fay if they could go independent, and in 2014 they opened a new Bill’s Auto Garage.

“We just have a teeny-tiny shop, so we have to make decisions about what we do and don’t do,” says Fay. “I try to stay away from the heavy line work—pulling engines, rebuilding transmissions, that sort of thing—I try to focus more on the diagnostic, emissions repair, and drivability issues; I don’t have the racks to tear down engines any more.

“But while it’s a small ‘mom & pop’ repair, I do a lot of work for other shops in the area,” Fay continues. “Diagnostics, programing, modular installation; I have 14 scan tools, a gas analyzer, lab scopes. (Out here) not a lot of people have good diagnostic equipment or techs to run them, so they send that work to me.”

There’s a saying about auto repair: in the old days it took a few minutes to diagnose a problem, a few hours to fix; today it takes a few hours to diagnose, a few minutes to fix. “I can’t agree more,” laughs Fay. “The first thing I do is a health check of the vehicle—full module scans, looking for any TSBs, recalls, Sis—before I pick up a tool. That’s your first hour and I do tier diagnostic rates.

“I’m very upfront about my diagnostic costs,” Fay acknowledges. “I don’t ever do it for free, but you get a value for it. One of the hardest things in our industry is to sell ‘thinking’ time, because the customer doesn’t see a tangible item being installed, fixed or repaired. You have to take the time to talk to the customer; otherwise you load up the parts shotgun and start firing at the car.”

And despite starting over in a new state, business has flourished. “I opened the shop three years ago and business has doubled every year,” Fay happily reports. “I belong to an organization called BNI, Business Networking International, and I’ve been with them for almost seven years now. They’re the largest international networking group in the world, very structured. It’s referral marketing. You’ve got to pay to play and they aren’t cheap, but I’d say they’ve thrown me $100,000 worth of gross sales every year.”

Does Fay have any plans for expansion? “I think I’m going to leave that up to my son,” he muses. “We turned $500-600,000 gross last year. My costs are low, my profits high, I make enough money and that’s as hard as I want to work. My shop’s two blocks away from my house, my commute is three minutes every morning; I’ve got it set up pretty good.”

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