IN FOCUS: Small Business – Space and time

Posted on May 1, 2014 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
A technician works on a vehicle at Service Garage in Appleton. Photo by Sharon Verbeten.

A technician works on a vehicle at Service Garage in Appleton. Photo by Sharon Verbeten.

With up to 40 people coming into Appleton’s Cousineau Auto Parts in Appleton each day, owner Bill Cousineau felt he had a captive audience. Those customers would need someone to install those parts and repair their vehicles, so a few months ago, Cousineau opened Service Garage.

The first-of-its-kind venture in Northeast Wisconsin offers customers service bay rentals and tools to repair their own vehicles. They also can enlist trained help if they’d like a little help on their projects.

“We’re at the beginning of this (venture), and I’m really excited,” says Cousineau, third-generation owner of the 55-year-old auto parts business. “This is a blue-collar area with lots of do-it-yourselfers.”

One such do-it-yourselfer is Jared Frisby of Neenah, the self-described “guy with the fast trucks.” He has been modifying trucks for years, and he was looking for a garage that was renting a bay, especially in this year’s sub-zero winter.

“The convenience of having a lift and a heated space is huge,” says Frisby, who was Service Garage’s first customer. In addition to the size of
the workspace, he says he appreciated the customer service and the “extremely laidback atmosphere.”

“Our unique selling position is auto repairs at half the cost. Everybody loves the idea, but it takes time (to build a business and a clientele),” says Cousineau, noting that the business has made a small profit already in the past two months and has seen many repeat customers. He’d like to see revenue doubled by next year and see all seven service bays filled as often as possible.

Service Garage is now a perfect complement to the auto parts business, but Cousineau would like it to be self-sustaining. “I want it (the service business) to cover some of the overhead here.”

An innovative concept

While the Service Garage concept is new to Northeast Wisconsin, Cousineau studied similar businesses in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Washington state. And when a similar service company in Minnesota decided to end its business, Cousineau purchased its business plan and some equipment. “(The owner) was very open with me,” says Cousineau, noting that the owner advised him of the potential pitfalls of such a business.

One major concern was liability insurance, due to the fact that customers could incur injuries on site while doing their own work, which could make the venture cost prohibitive. But Cousineau, who also owns Wally’s U-Pull-It auto parts salvage yard in Oshkosh, already had insurance that required only an additional rider for Service Garage.

Service Garage is located in part of the 24,000-square-foot building Cousineau owns at 2225 W. Nordale Drive in Appleton; he cleared out half of his auto parts warehouse to accommodate the garage area – which features seven service bays with lifts, as well as the tools, diagnostic equipment, ASE-certified technicians, a full-time experienced service writer and repair database needed to assist. They also offer discounts and prompt delivery on new parts from local auto parts stores.

He estimates his start-up costs at $75,000, which he financed on his own.

Other similar businesses tend to operate with 70 percent of the business as full-service help and 30 percent do-it-yourself. But Cousineau says, “I don’t know what the magic number is. I just have a good feeling about it.”

Cousineau feels the Service Garage experience can be a good one for customers, many of whom are frustrated with the high costs of auto repair. But reduced cost is not the only draw for such a business, he believes.

Being honest with customers about what repairs might entail and cost is key to creating a great experience, and sparking that all-important word-of-mouth business, Cousineau says. Satisfied customers have already led Service Garage to do some service work for fleets for some local organizations and companies such as Lawrence University and the Outagamie County Housing Authority.

Great service and cost were huge selling points for Kari Kuiper, program manager for the Outagamie County Housing Authority and chairperson for NAHBRS (Nonprofit Affordable Housing Based Rental Services). She had taken her personal vehicle to Service Garage and mentioned that her employer had a fleet that needed servicing.
The housing authority’s fleet of seven vehicles (vans, truck, minibus and shuttle buses) put on a lot of miles covering the entire county.

“I was looking at the vendors in town,” Kuiper says, but felt she was getting overcharged. “I just started coming here personally and was talking to the service manager (who mentioned fleet service).”

Kuiper says she continues to bring the government agency’s fleet to Service Garage because they have “very good service and are cost effective for us.”
While Service Garage does full-service work on that fleet, other customers enjoy having a space to work on their own vehicles. And completing a repair, whether it’s complicated or minor, on their own or with a little help, really goes a long way toward making the customer feel satisfied.

In this business, it’s all about keeping customers happy, Cousineau believes. From there, his business can only grow.

“We want to make sure they have a good experience,” Cousineau says. “I want to do the right thing. Everything else will follow.”

ON THE WEB

Service Garage offers several pricing levels designed for all types of customers – those who want to do it completely on their own, those who might require a bit of help and those who prefer to let the trained and certified experts take over.

The company charges $22.95 per hour for renting a service bay (rate includes lift and all tools). The rate increases to $44.95 for those who would like a technician to help them diagnose, guide and assist them in the repair, or, for $67.95 per hour, a Service Garage technician will complete the repairs.

www.servicegarage.net