Aaron Smith grew up in the auto repair industry. His grandfather owned and operated multiple dealerships, and his father had a successful career as a mechanic. When his father retired in 2001, he opened S&S Auto Repair as a way to keep busy. Within five years, Aaron’s father was running a 10-bay facility with eight employees in Chattanooga, TN
Aaron became an official part of the S&S team in 2006. He started handling the shop’s IT systems, and over the years, he slowly moved into management. By 2018, when Aaron’s father decided to retire (for real this time), Aaron was running much of the day-to-day operations while his dad was on the floor with his technicians just like the old days.
Since officially taking over, Aaron has worked to modernize S&S by going completely paperless. He evolved the shop’s management culture to help his employees better themselves. It’s this mentality that has helped Aaron and S&S Auto Repair grow in 2020, despite the challenges that his community has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In June of 2020, S&S Auto Repair opened its second location in nearby Hixson, TN.
We recently sat down with Aaron to discuss how his shop was able to grow during COVID-19, how he tries to make a difference in his employee’s lives, and why he thinks that a positive message will get you further in your community than any other. Here’s what he had to say:
Tightening Our Belts to Push Through
When we were in the heat of COVID and everything but the essential businesses were shutting down, we saw a little bit of a dip. But ever since June, we’ve seen the same growth patterns that we’d seen before the pandemic.
Even though we qualified, I decided not to take any of the money that Congress offered through the PPP and SBA. I felt like we were in a good position to be able to weather the storm and take the risk of what might happen. I wanted to move forward and push through. We buckled down and tightened our belt. We found ways to cut our expenses and trimmed the fat quite a bit. Since we had already gone paperless in February after switching to Tekmetric, it was easy for us to transition to a safe, touchless auto repair service. Thankfully, we made it through that whole time fairly easily and came out on the other side with a big gust of new customers.
Focusing on a Positive Message to Uplift the Community
I watched how my friends and mentors handled their messaging after COVID, and I decided to do none of that. I pretty much abandoned the normal automotive messaging. For me, it was all about “How can we help you?” I wanted messages that centered on being there to help our customers when they needed us. I posted on social media about community togetherness, perseverance, and pressing forward. Several of them were just one-word posts. One was “Forward,” another was “Perseverance,” things like that. They took off like crazy. People were sharing them over and over again because the message was positive. Instead of the fear that you saw in other places, it was “We can get through this together.” And I think people responded better to that than to the fearmongering.
I wanted messages that centered on being there to help our customers when they needed us.
On top of COVID, we also had a tornado come through this area. It was an EF3 tornado, and it basically leveled our entire area. Even my high school got crushed. We were already slow from COVID when that happened, so I let my employees off to help the community. Some of them went out with chainsaws and cut down trees. We invited the community college athletic program to come over and make sandwiches to distribute to those in need.
During that time, we kind of became more like a concierge service. We had elderly people who called us asking to get milk for them. One lady called us because her house was flooding and she wanted us to pray with her. We decided to go a step further and call our customers to check on them. We didn’t want to sell them anything, we just wanted to make sure they were okay. I had my whole service staff pick up a list and start calling to check on people.
Honestly, I think that’s the way we should be as auto shop owners. We need to be leaders in our community. As business owners, we interact so much with our fellow citizens. We need to put that positive message out there. If we believe in that positive movement and push that through to our communities, our customers will take it and run with it.
As a result, we’ve had a wave of new customers who heard of us because they saw what we were doing for the community. When our customers come in or call to pick up their vehicles, they’re like, "I see you everywhere." Then to open up a second location on top of that, we’re bringing in new customers in a new community.
Expanding to a Second Location
Everybody told me that I was either a genius or a fool for opening up a shop during COVID. In fact, the day we found the property was the same day that we switched our shop over to Tekmetric.
We found the property in February, and by March, we had signed a letter of intent. We based our intentions on how our customers would react to COVID. Since we had a big gust of new customers due to our messaging during the pandemic, we thought it would be good to open a new location. We took over the property on May 1st and opened for business 30 days later. We decided to do it old school; instead of hiring contractors, we built out everything ourselves. I’d work at our Chattanooga shop until about 4 o’clock, then go over to the Hixson location and work until 9 PM or 10 PM every night. My father even pitched in, tirelessly working alongside me during the month of May to get the Hixson location up and running by June.
Everybody told me that I was either a genius or a fool for opening up a shop during COVID. But it’s been gangbusters.
Many people were furloughed during COVID, and I knew that there were rock stars out there who were unhappy with the way their shops were treating them. So I heavily advertised that I was hiring for the positions that were available at the new shop. We got something like 10 applications a week, from parts people to technicians to service advisors. I brought in five new people from the industry and trained them on our methods during the whole month of May, so we were able to go into June fully-stocked and ready to go with employees. Since they were getting to know our culture at our original location and learning our paperless, digital systems, there was no real transition time.
Our two shops are only eight miles apart, but a river divides the two communities. Now that we have shops on both sides, we’re able to serve both communities. Some of our customers have switched locations because they live or work in one community or the other, but we didn’t really lose any car count at the original location. Our customer base is also telling their family and friends about us, and people are coming in left and right.
We were a pen-and-paper shop up until 2005 when we decided to upgrade to a shop management system. Our first program had a lot of good characteristics and was great for a small shop, but as we grew, we needed something that was more robust and user-friendly. I wanted something that was as easy to use as Facebook, that would give me the reporting that I need, and would give me the option to change information on the fly right in front of the customer at the point of sale.
I vetted Tekmetric and another cloud-based software system, but I decided to go with Tekmetric because of their owners. They were very involved in creating the next generation of shop management software. They’re pouring their time, money, and effort into creating a great system. So I decided to jump on board with Tekmetric.
When we went live with Tekmetric, I was so confident that my guys would get it that I wasn’t even in the shop that day.
When we went live with Tekmetric, I was so confident that my guys would get it that I wasn’t even in the shop that day. And I got no complaints whatsoever. They didn’t even have to call customer service. Tekmetric was probably one of the easiest onboarding processes that we have ever had.
We went completely paperless when we went live with Tekmetric in February. Going paperless is pretty much unheard of in our town. There are only a handful of people who are doing it, and they're only doing it halfway. We use Tekmetric for all of our in-house communication, so everyone can talk to each other through their tablets or computers. All of our information is passed digitally between our service, parts, and technician departments. When we duplicated our system for our second location, it was completely seamless because the digital side was already working. I said I wouldn’t buy any more paper when we switched to Tekmetric, and I haven't bought any paper since February.
How Tekmetric Helps Us Organize
Even when we were on paper, our company has always prioritized our customers’ repairs for them. We divide our information into three categories: the reason for the service, the safety of the vehicle, and maintenance for future repairs. With these three categories, we can answer all our customers’ questions and help them prioritize what needs to be done.
Our goal is to help our customers budget their repairs. If a technician brings us a digital inspection and there is a lot of stuff in red, we can go through and break them down into the three categories of safety, maintenance, and repairs. In each category, we break it down further: this needs to be done today, this can wait until your next oil change, and this one we can work on in the next six months, but you need to budget for it.
Many repair companies want to go in and get every dollar they can at every sale. I want to go in and create a relationship. I talk to my guys about this, too. We're doing relationship automotive service. We're building a relationship and rapport with the customer. We’re saying, "Hey, these things can wait. We can check on them every oil change to see if they're getting worse or staying the way they are, and perhaps we can save you money down the road.
”We want to build that relationship and that rapport where we can actually help them save money towards their repair so they can keep that car longer. We may see them two to three times a year, where other people in our industry are seeing them once, maybe twice a year. I would rather see my customers more often each year and have them spend less money with me at every visit than try to grab everything out of their wallet that I can the first time they come in.
Tekmetric makes it easy for us to categorize repairs in the order that we want them before we give it back to the customer. Then, when we present their inspection to them, it’s in the order that they need the repairs done. We can break it down cleaner and easier for the customer, and give them a honey-do list for their car. It’s very simple and a lot easier than the way we used to work when we were on paper.
The Future of S&S Auto Repair
S&S stands for Smith and Smith after my parents, Steve and Melanie Smith. My family has been in the automotive business since the 1950s. My dad has been a mechanic since 1976. He started working for my grandfather that year, who at the time had owned four car dealerships. My grandfather actually started in the automotive industry by driving cars down from Detroit to sell in our city. I was literally born into the automotive business.
Not many people know this, but I had originally taken pre-seminary classes. I finished a program and got my certificate, but then I felt like I needed to take a different approach in life. I decided that, as a business owner, I could reach more people through principle than through preaching. So I decided to focus my efforts more towards a business approach to help individuals better themselves. It starts with believing in yourself and knowing your self-worth.
We're a very goal-oriented company.
I have big goal boards with all my employees. I'm always trying to help them reach their goals. I get excited when my employees buy a house, or a car, or they save their first $10,000. I mean, a house and a car are great, but saving ten grand can be a huge deal.
There's always growth opportunities. As a business owner, if you're not growing yourself then your business is not growing. We started an apprentice program here, where we’re training up the next generation of automotive staff. They’re growing in their knowledge and their experience, so if I want to retain those individuals then I need to grow myself. I understand there's going to be bumps in the road, especially opening new shops and putting in new policies and programs and things like that, but it's that commitment to our culture and our customer that is pivotal.
I want to change not only my employees’ lives but also the lives of their children and grandchildren. I want my top technicians to make six figures. You don't usually hear shop owners talk in that way. I don't care how much money I make. I'll make enough money. I want the apprentice who just started with us to be making $40,000 in a year, then $80,000 in two years. That’s the thing that’s going to matter. If you take care of those employees, they’ll take care of you, and more importantly, they’ll take care of your customers. If they take care of the customers, the business will take care of itself. It’s a lifestyle of taking care of those around you.
For more information about S&S Auto Repair Shop, visit ssautorepair.net