Kismet. A little bit more than chance, a little less than destiny, but that’s what caused Phil Young to found his business in Wisconsin’s hinterland rather than the riot-torn streets of ‘69 Chicago. Then there was his interest in the Chevy Corvair, which lead to his espousal of import engineering—a decade ahead of virtually everyone else.
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“He embraced import vehicles where others in our market would stay away from them--in fact they would refer those people to us,” reports Fred Young, Phil’s son and the owner of Young Automotive ever since his dad retired in 2001. “The odd thing is it still happens today; half of our business is import vehicles.”
Starting off with a two bay operation, the elder Young expanded to seven service bays in 1977, diversifying into car rentals and used car sales along the way. A Midas franchise came and went, but other than the younger Young dropping ‘Phil’ out of the company’s name when he took over in 2002, the shop is still thriving in the City of Sturgeon Bay.
Fred was a boy back in 1969, when the family joined his grandparents in picturesque Door County, Wis.. “If you’re from Chicago, you’ll know Door County,” he explains. “It’s been called the Cape Cod of the Midwest.”
North of Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay is situated on Wisconsin’s peninsula poking into Lake Michigan--technically an island since a shipping channel cuts from the bay to the lake. Isolated? Perhaps, but with the northern half of the peninsula being a resort area, this rural region effectively doubles in population between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
So how does Fred Young reach such a transient population? First of all the shop is well entrenched in the community; “our word of mouth is phenomenal,” he notes. “There’s a lot of generational clientele, where the grandparents, parents and now the kids are all coming to us for service.”
Not to say they don’t do some traditional marketing: “Wisconsin Public Radio has been a great tool for us to get the ear of people with import cars,” Young reports. “One of my little ‘tricks’ is to do a survey every now and again of who’s listening to what by looking at the radio presets of the cars that are coming in; I get a good sense of what stations to put our money into. That’s where we come up with some of our new clients.”
And while all north-south traffic on the peninsula passes through Sturgeon Bay, Young isn’t interested in utilizing billboards. “I’ve not really spent a lot of attention on the travelers as much as the people who are here in the winter,” he concedes. “Used to be on a Sunday afternoon or a holiday, my father would take a call from a customer who was traveling, and put down everything he was doing to help them and be the hero. I saw this from the opposite side, and I thought that I needed to be that hero to the people serving the community year round.”
Thus Young feels advertising dollars are better spent being donated to the Humane Society or some other non-profit; a similar approach has been used in developing their presence on social networks. “One of my strategies is to use Facebook to market to my local customers,” he says, “give them something without having to come in and buy anything. I have educational stuff, what people can do to fix their own cars; what’s going on in the community; some of my own interests too, because as people have said, while my name is out there my face should be part of it too.
“A friend of mine introduced me to Facebook in 2007, so we were out there early on,” Young recounts. “I had a personal page because they didn’t have business or fan pages back then. But when we first started working with Facebook, there are three occasions I know of that the (social network) turned into a $1000+ service call. We’re not as strong on Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter, but we’re out there. I do it more for SEO than I feel like I’m getting return on the investment of my time,” he laughs, “but it does help the ranking on search engines.”
Their website also features some pretty sophisticated video testimonials; “I have a local company I work with on some of our media,” Young explains, “both simply, with just a digital camera, as well as having a professional crew come out and do it.
“Basically, I love marketing,” Young concludes. “I don’t have a degree in it, but I watch the trends and I see what is going on. Early on I did attend a couple of ATI sessions when I working for my father as well as when I took over the business, but I felt that I was already there and didn’t subscribe to any of their offerings.”
That’s a long way from when Young worked with his dad, doing basic maintenance from the time he was 11 till he graduated high school. A few weeks later he moved to Michigan to attend the MoTech Automotive Education Center.
“I graduated early, which was cool, but after a year in Detroit I found this rural setting kind of boring,” Young explains. “A high school classmate had gone to work for GM in their engineering division doing cad-cam, and he said ‘you want to go back out to Detroit?’ I said, yes, let’s go”
It would take another five years working in the prototype industry before Young came finally came back to Sturgeon Bay and his dad’s shop. Did any of this experience help prepare him for what he would ultimately do? “I’d say no,” he muses, “other than just people watching, paying attention, and trying to figure out what I liked about the automotive repair business.”
Despite the roundabout journey, Young did return home and figure it all out…because that’s kismet.