What can $400 get you these days? An XBox gaming system, a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, or an airline ticket in coach. But back in 1985, $400 was pretty much what Scott Larsen and Mike Kuczynski had between them—actually mostly Larsen-- when they started Cadillac Specialists. Even figuring for inflation, how the heck did they pull that off? And how do you even specialize in Cadillacs and survive?
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“We saw an ad in the local paper for what was basically a shed for rent,” Kuczynski says in answer to the first query. “(With) the $400 we leased it for three months.” After that the pair had saved enough to put a down payment on an actual facility. “Failure wasn’t an option,” he states. “We made up some flyers and literally wore the door hinges off our ’76 Deville passing them out at the mall. We did that for weeks. We kept building and building; our whole goal was to do the best service ever at good prices.”
As for the next question, they had previously worked at a Cadillac dealership, so they knew the marque…plus they had set up shop in Fern Park, FL, a suburb of Orlando—what they call ‘Cadillac heaven.’ “With the volume of cars we saw at the dealer,” reports Kuczynski, “we knew that there were tons of Cadillacs here. We bought a mailing list and marketed to Cadillac owners after we got going.”
Soon they diversified into other GM makes, finding that many clients also had Buicks, Chevys, Pontiacs and Olds. For nearly 25 years that business model held, then in 2009 the opportunity arose for the partners to buy the entire building they were in—including the former landlord’s big 5-bay auto repair shop at the other end of the complex. They moved Cadillac Specialists into this facility and rented out their former 2-bay digs.
Since this business had been a general repair shop, Mike and Scott decided to expand Cadillac Specialists to include all domestic and Asian vehicles. However this new venture would be re-started almost from scratch with new standards and staff. They didn’t even retain much of the old clientele, electing to rely on the diversification of own base, Cadillac owners who now also had Hondas, Toyotas, Ford, Chryslers, or knew someone who did.
“We just slowly built it up,” says Kuczynski. “We advertise in the local neighborhood flyer; we’ve got a website which explains that we work on other vehicles. We have an ‘A’ on Angie’s List, an ‘A+’ with the Better Business Bureau.”
“We’ve actually found that Angie’s List is a real good marketing area because the customers are truly interested,” Larsen adds, as the conversation quickly bounces between the two. “If they’re going to pay for a reference, they are interested in quality service, not the price.” Kuczynski: “Because we’re definitely not a price shop. We don’t have cheap oil changes. I’d say our labor rate is probably one of the highest in the area.” Larsen: “We also have the highest warrantee; we’re not the cheapest shop by any means.”
By this point in the shop’s history the partners were successful in getting the bills paid but had little or nothing left over. That’s when Larsen opted to join the Automotive Training Institute (ATI). “Everything I was complaining about in my business was exactly what ATI was going to address,” he explains. “I am not a business owner, I am a technician. I figured it was way less than a college education, so I went with it.”
At first Kuczynski was reluctant to join. Larsen had to pretty much drag him “kicking and screaming all the way” to that first ATI meeting. “But we work well together,” says Larsen, “and that’s why we’ve been business partners for so long; Mike’s kind of negative, always asking the questions, and I’m the opposite, go with the flow. Between the two of us we seem to do pretty well.”
Still, it was a bit bumpy. “To everything they were telling us, I was like, ‘god, are you kidding me?’” Kuczynski recalls. “They drag you right out of your comfort zone; you either do it or you don’t. ATI is all about ‘wowing’ the customer; we wash the cars, we give the customers gifts—and of course we give them exemplary service. But then when you do it you discover how it works, and that just gives you motivation to keep doing the other things they want you to do.”
By the end of their first year with ATI they had actually accumulated an extra $20,000 in cash, “which of course we put back in the business” reports Kuczynski. “We paved the lot, striped it, did all kinds of improvements to the building, like the customer lounge. ATI tracks your return on investment, and this week it was $380,801. That’s the additional profit that we’ve made since we joined ATI two and half years ago. I tell you what, these days you need someone to hold you accountable, and that’s ATI.”
“Otherwise you slip right back into your old bad habits,” Larsen finishes for him. “When you get advice from shops in California to New York to Texas to Florida, it really gives you a broader view than just trying to look through the porthole of your own business.”
The one thing they didn’t change was the name of the business, despite it being something of an anachronism. But having built a sterling reputation on being Cadillac Specialists, how could they?
One last question: do they think they could open a shop today with the inflationary equivalent of $400?
“Probably,” says Kuczynski. “I’d think it’d be a little bit rougher now, but if you have the experience like we had… Because we were bound and determined that [going into business] was the way it was going to be.”