Auto repair is a fickle business.
There’s the reputation, of course: Shops are out to nickel and dime the people who know little about what’s under the hood and less about how to fix it. But cars are often one of our most valuable possessions, and the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to keep them on the road is a lot easier paid to someone you like – and more importantly, trust.
That’s why Bill Black has spent more than 30 years sweating the small stuff: Because in his world, first impressions are everything.
“You’re going to get a customer in that wants to try you, but if they have a poor experience they’re just not coming back,” Black said during an interview last Friday at Essex Auto, which he opened more than 33 years ago.
Black, 77, officially retired from the company last month, a move that comes after several years of winding down his time in the shop. He owns a place in Florida, allowing him, as he puts it, to “live the best of both worlds” (he will strongly encourage you to do the same.)
Black recently agreed to sell the Pearl St. property to David Pearson, owner of the next-door Harley Davidson shop, who will lease the land back to Black’s son, Rob, and his business partner, Justin Green.
The changing of the guard comes three decades after Black and his own business partner, David Brassard, purchased the land, tore down the three existing buildings there and built a shop from the ground up. Brassard retired in 2013.
The Essex Jct. shop was Black’s second endeavor in Chittenden County, an expansion from his shop in South Burlington. At one point in his career, he owned a total of four shops, including one in Keene, N.H, though he later consolidated his business down to the local headquarters.
The shop became an “instant success” upon opening June 30, 1985, Black said, aided by the steady stream of customers during the three-shift cycle in IBM’s heyday.
Black operated under the Midas franchise until taking Essex Auto independent in 2002. He valued his time under the corporation, pointing to a framed award from 1989 singling out Essex Auto among 2,000 shops around the country for its exemplary service – the shop took in over 10,000 jobs that year alone without a single complaint making its way to corporate.
Ditching the corporate structure, and the support that comes with it, was a risk for Black. But he was confident he could keep his customer base, thanks to a few tactics honed over the years.
Atop the list is opening the store at 6:59 a.m. each day.
It’s only a minute before 7 a.m., yes, but it’s also a statement: We aren’t like everyone else. And it worked, Black said, recalling when he explained to a fellow airport bar patron outside Vermont that indeed, he was Bill Black, the 6:59 guy.
“When you’re a small guy in a small town, you want identity,” Black said.
That’s an important concept for Black, identity. The way he sees it, companies take on the personality of their owners, and as a trained accountant, he learned how to run an auto shop by, well, running an auto shop. He filled in for managers, answered the phones, and at one point hosted a six-week-long training program, teaching new employees to look beyond the car and remember who’s driving it.
Perhaps that’s why Rob Black said the main thing he’s learned from his father is “it’s really all about the customer.” And for every marketing tactic, he said, “You have to back it up once they get here, too.”
Rob Black compared finding a repair shop to finding a doctor. If you’re happy with the service, you’ll likely stick around. But he said most new auto shop customers are inherently defensive because of auto repair’s reputation.
“You’ve got to make them feel at ease, and then fences come down,” he said. “That’s why they enjoy coming back: Not that they like to get their cars fixed … but if they [need to], they have a comfortable place to go and get it done.”
Like his father, Rob Black said the key to retaining customers boils down to “how you treat them and how you repair their cars.” That’s why first-time Essex Auto customers receive a thank you card in the mail with a $20 gift card inside, free of an expiration date.
Rob Black joined the family business in the late ’90s. It took some convincing. Serving in the army at the time, he was prepared to re-enlist for the second time when his father asked him to consider coming aboard.
Shortly after, Bill Black flew out to Tacoma, Wash., and the father-son duo began a five-day trek back home in Rob’s Toyota Celica. The elder Black let out a gust of air realizing that was 27 years ago.
“The thing I’m most grateful for, and proudest of, is to be able to hand my son an opportunity I didn’t necessarily get,” Black said.
Black’s office is engulfed with baseball memorabilia, wall to wall, a testament to his lifelong love for the Boston Red Sox. There are autographed paintings, photos and bats. There’s a replica statue of “The Teammates,” a cast bronze statue immortalizing the greats: Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky.
There’s an entire glass case dedicated to the 2004 season, in which a rag tag bunch of ball players made history and broke the streak.
His office could double as a baseball museum; there are so many things in there that Black said it feels like he finds something new every day.
He won’t miss his office, though, or the shop, really, at least not in the way you’d expect, longing for the smell of gasoline or the nostalgia of a wrench echoing from the floor.
“The shop doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said.
The people, though. That’s another story.