Volume 11, Issue 3 - May/June 2009
|A One-Stop Shop
A Look at a Company That Has Excelled at Diversification and Training
by Penny Stacey
Auto One owners David Zoldowski and Ron Overbeck have a common saying: “We’re going to eat change for breakfast and serve it up with every meal.” And that’s just what the two have done since they purchased the company (which also is a franchisor) in 2003. They’ve developed training programs for employees and franchisees; have added a number of new products and services; and have grown the business to four stores and 12 franchises in just six years. They’ve also accomplished this by placing an emphasis on windshield repair.
“Our job is to re-invent ourselves every day,” says Overbeck.
But it wasn’t always this way at Auto One, a 30-year-old franchising company.
“Auto One really got started as a result of the deterioration of automobiles back in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Zoldowski. “The cars would rust away as you drove them from the showroom.”
The developers of Auto One partnered with a chemical manufacturer named Polyoleum, which had developed a chemical process for protecting automobile from corrosion, and the company got its start selling the rust-proofing process to consumers.
“A natural progression occurred and we eventually added auto glass,” says Zoldowski. Over the years, the company added auto and detailing services and automotive electronics as well. It also changed hands several times.
It was the early 1990s and Zoldowski had been in upper management with Zerox Corp. for 24 years. Ready for something new, he took a company buyout and then decided to purchase his own franchise. Sun Country specialized in automotive detailing and accessories. Zoldowski was a loyal franchisee until 1991, when Auto One purchased Sun Country—and Zoldowski made the switch.
In 2003, Overbeck, a lifelong friend and business partner of Zoldowski, joined him and the two purchased Auto One from its previous owners. At that time, the company had only 10 franchises. (Today, it has four corporate stores and 12 franchises. Though the company does manage both corporate stores and franchises—they’ve kept both arms under one umbrella company, Auto One.)
Auto One is made up of 45 percent auto glass work; 35 percent electronics; 10 percent appearance and protection services; and 10 percent auto and truck accessories.
“Those percentages will vary among our four stores depending on our locality and marketplace,” Overbeck says. “We’re a neighborhood business, but it really varies depending on the market and demographics.”
It also varies based on the time of year you look at the business.
“For example, auto glass and detailing services flourish in the spring,” says Zoldowski.
Despite the strength of its four core areas, the Auto One owners continually look for additions to the business.
“We consider ourselves the innovators on the electronics side,” Overbeck says. “We’ll be the first ones putting something on a car. We have to work continually to develop what’s new and appealing to us.”
Auto One offers detailing, remote starters and alarms, sunroofs and other innovations.
Glass repair also has become an important part of the company’s repertoire over the years.
“At first, we played at repair,” says Zoldowski. “But after buying the company in 2003, we got very serious about repair at about the same time as I joined the [Repair of Laminated Auto Glass Standards] Committee and we saw the added value of repair.”
The company uses windshield repair strategically as a marketing tool. Auto One sets up mobile repair locations around the area to promote this service.
“By the proper use and marketing of strategically placed events in your area of marketing dominance, a company can improve its sales, expand its relationship with insurance agents, and reduce those fly-by-night operators,” Zoldowski says. “When repair is the better alternative to replacement, make the consumer aware of this.”
The mobile option also draws people who normally might have put off the service.
“We’ve done an informal survey of people asking why they are getting a repair,” he adds. “In most cases, it is an impulse decision that is made because they see us there. It’s convenient and a time saver for them. It takes a lot of shoe leather, but it can be very profitable.”
The company normally targets areas such as charity fundraisers, local big-box stores such as Home Depot and Costco, and other high-traffic locations.
This, in turn, leads to an increase in sales in other areas, Zoldowski says.
“You increase sales through customer awareness, you promote your other products and services, you capture customers for other products and services in the future, you build brand identity within the community and with the customer, you build relationships with the insurance agents, and you reduce insurance agents’ loss ratios,” he adds.
And, when it comes to other services, Overbeck stresses that the company really is a one-stop shop.“Our four legs allow us to do a lot of cross-marketing,” he says. “Every glass customer is a potential electronics customer. We’ve got a one-stop place for them to come.”
Both Zoldowski’s son, Mitch, and Ron’s son, Ron Jr., also have taken roles in the company—and assist in the effort to look for additional products as well.
Ron Overbeck Jr. serves as operations manager and handles the company’s certifications efforts; Mitch Zoldowski serves as sales and personnel manager and handles people development and sales target attainment.
Currently, the company employs 24 among its headquarters and four corporate locations.
“Most of our employees are multi-faceted,” Overbeck says. “You ask what’s unique between us and another glass shop—our associates are stakeholders. We believe in training people, so if we find individuals with good energy and drive, keep them.”
Auto One does random drug-testing of employees and provides bonuses based on incentives.
In order to get it done, the company’s owners have made sure there are plenty of training opportunities for the Auto One staff. The company recently had the Molloy Group, a New Jersey-based training company, conduct a CSR training course for its employees.
“We not only trained CSRs, but also technicians, which we call part-time CSRs because they also interface with the customer,” says Overbeck.
After that course, the owners took all the participating employees out to dinner to discuss the training, and to brainstorm other areas of needed training.
“Everyone created a wish list and later we prioritized it, because you can kill people with too much training,” Overbeck says. “That’s when we went to work to and built the management course.”
The company developed this course with the Molloy Group, and after that, created another course about handling difficult conversations.
But the training doesn’t stop there. Auto One’s owners also tries to spot employees who have particular areas in which there skills can be improved and seeks out training for them. The company has sent five of its employees through the popular Dale Carnegie Training seminars.
Technical training also is a part of this. The company has long been registered with the Auto Glass Replacement Safety Standards (AGRSS) Council Inc. and has installers in each of its locations that are certified by the Independent Glass Association (IGA). In addition, Zoldowski serves as president of the IGA and Ron Overbeck Jr. serves on the association’s certification committee.
Despite Auto One’s strong presence in the Midwest, Zoldowski has become involved with the IGA due to many concerns he has for the industry and especially for other independent shop owners.
“We’re very passionate about the things that are happening to our industry,” he says. “We believe very strongly that you shouldn’t be able to manufacturer auto glass, sell auto glass, install auto glass and answer the phones for an insurance company.”
Inside the Business
As the industry and training technicians have changed over the years, so has the way the company does business—particularly in how it markets itself. In recent years, the company has worked to grow its online presence—and cut down on its Yellow Pages ads.
“In 2003 we were operating two stores and our marketing budget for the Yellow Pages was $180,000 for our stores,” says Zoldowski. “We’ve now cut that to about $20,000 a year—for all four stores—and that money has been shipped into Internet development. Now, our company operates a very strong presence on the Internet for our key operating areas in our areas of marketing dominance.”
The company achieves an average of $10 million in sales each year (including both its franchise and corporate sales). Each of its corporate stores averages between $400,000 and $500,000 in sales each year.
Despite Auto One’s success—at both in business and in training employees—that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its share of challenges. And, though it has four corporate stores and several franchisees, the challenges Auto One sees are much like those of the average auto glass shop.
“We see continual margin shrinkage from the insurance companies,” Overbeck says.
He adds, “The other big one is we have a lot of non-qualified competitors—those that work out of a pick-up truck or whatever that aren’t governed by the same personal qualifications or requirements that we put ourselves under because we’re here for the long haul. If you can put us on an even playing field, we can compete with anyone and win any business.”
Zoldowski also notes that the structure of the insurance arena also is a concern.
“We believe very strongly that you shouldn’t be able to manufacture auto glass, sell auto glass, install auto glass and answer the phones for an insurance company,” he says.
Despite these challenges, Zoldowski and Overbeck continue to look to the future for growth. And its franchise operations are an important part of this growth.
“Our franchisees become very strong partners with us in purchasing,” says Zoldowski.
But the company is careful in how it grows.
“You’ve got to be careful not to overgrow your ability to support, so we’re being very careful, but we still work hard and we continue to revisit our franchise and product system,” says Overbeck.
And both look to the future with optimism.
“We’ve got a wide-open field to continue the work of growing,” says Overbeck.