Mar 18, 2016Articles


Vallejo, Calif.-In 2007, at 24 years old, Adrian Radu was already an ASE Master-certified technician for BMW and SMOG/ Brake & Lamp certified, but he was really just getting started. That same year, he bought his first business, Milt’s Service Garage, with his business partner, Hal Dorton. Their first steps into ownership would be riddled with adversity as the recession went on to pummel the automotive industry for several years, and also the town of Vallejo, where his shop was located.

“Milt’s was the first shop we bought and it was right when the recession hit,” Radu said. “Vallejo went bankrupt and we almost immediately lost the majority of our clients and a third of the shop’s gross revenue.”

Radu remembers taking the books and cutting them in half and saying, “That’s what I have to work with.”

The partners remained optimistic, though, and began to aggressively separate Milt’s from the other shops in town by analyzing its existing customers’ driving tendencies and offering expert advice on how to increase the longevity of their vehicles — a strong selling point during the recession.

“I noticed that the customers who continued to use us during that time were mostly commuters, driving from Vallejo to San Francisco or Sacramento,” he said. “So I started spending a lot of one-on-one time with each client whenever they came in, showing them what a developed maintenance plan that fit their lifestyle looked like, and how much it could save them in the long run.”

To do that, Radu relied on his shop management system, WinWorks Auto Shop Management Software, and also asked himself what kind of service he could offer that would develop loyalty. What he came up with was the unconventional and time-consuming activity of car shopping for his clients.

“I started with the basic premise that no matter what car the customer bought, it would need to be serviced. Then, through a series of questions, I would determine a client’s driving routine and advise them on the type of car I thought they needed to achieve at least 300,000 miles,” Radu said. “So I sort of went from being just their repair shop to their expert car finder, who worked to find them reasonably priced vehicles that fit their commuter lifestyle and also developed a maintenance plan for them.”

Using the WinWorks software, Radu was able to print out sometimes as much as 20-line maintenance plans, with predictive repairs identified at certain mileage intervals. The maintenance plans allowed his customers to budget for upcoming repairs and services and encouraged them to continue bringing their vehicles to his shop.

“WinWorks is a relatively simple shop management system to train employees to use, and it has helped our business become more efficient, track parts usage, and deliver the most accurate information possible to our customers,” Radu said.

And because all the jobs in the WinWorks system are built by the user, Radu said using the system eliminates the costly practice of not taking into account smaller, shop-charge items (such as brake fluid usage or cotter pin replacement) on an estimate.

“In California, independent shops aren’t allowed to include a shop charge on their repair orders,” Radu said. “WinWorks helps us estimate jobs accurately by working those smaller line items into the estimate beforehand. That way, we’re not losing money, and the customer isn’t surprised by any extra charges.”

He added that the WinWorks system is also linked with CARFAX, so the VIN numbers are extracted into WinWorks automatically using the license plate number, eliminating the human error. Milt’s customers benefit by having each service done at the shop automatically recorded in the CARFAX system. WinWorks software also links with the ordering systems of WORLDPAC, Superior Auto Parts, and Allied Auto Stores – his top three local parts suppliers – which cuts down on misordered parts.

Because he was essentially selling himself out of big-ticket items by finding quality vehicles for his customers, Radu assumed his sales would dip as he got more customers into new cars, but the opposite happened.

“My schedule filled up with maintenance and service work from loyal customers who I’d found a car for, driving 50-plus miles to get it serviced and repaired at my shop,” he said. “They also began to recommend that people use Milt’s, even if it meant a commute.”

By 2010, the books had stabilized, and in 2011, Milt’s, a 10-bay, 7,700-square-foot facility, reached the $1 million in gross revenue mark, Radu said. And with their first shop finally in a comfortable place, Radu and his partner were able to look at expansion. The two now own four shops in Northern California, with Radu directly involved in two locations and Dorton in in all four.

Two of the shops they’ve acquired were already operating and had a client base built up. But when the partners acquired Contra Costa Auto Repair, which Radu is responsible for overseeing, the business had been closed for more than 90 days and had virtually no clientele, Radu said, adding that the ultimate key to managing multiple shops is putting the right people in place.

“I told my service advisor, Keith Sartorious, at our Contra Costa shop, ‘This is going to be your store, treat it like your own,’” Radu said. “I care about the customer’s cars being taken care of and the shop being recommended by people, but I don’t care about being known as the owner. I can’t be two places at once. It comes down to hiring the right people.”