HOW ONE SHOP OWNER'S PASSION FOR WORKING WITH PEOPLE SHAPED HIS CAREER
By Leah Marxhausen, Photos by Austin Cohen
PELLA CAR CARE, PELLA, IA
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 11 ¾ EMPLOYEES PLUS OWNER. 7 TECH, 2 ¾ ADVISORS (ONE ADVISOR IS ABOUT 30 HOURS PER WEEK), 1 OFFICE MANAGER, 1 CUSTOMER SERVICE
SIZE: 7336 SQ FT
ANNUAL REVENUE: $1.8 MILLION
AVERAGE CAR COUNT: 430 PER MONTH
Austin Crase never dreamt of owning an auto repair shop. Unlike other owners, Crase didn't grow up in the industry, go to tech school, or have an apprenticeship. Crase's introduction to the auto industry began in church.
Crase first met Jeff and Pam Van Sant in church, when he was just a toddler.
Jeff Van Sant founded Pella Car Care in 1994 in Pella, Iowa. Van Sant worked as a dealership technician and wanted to take a new approach to car care. Van Sant noticed that dealerships didn't view customer service as an important part of their business model and wanted to start a shop that was focused on the customer experience.
“He wanted to improve the customer experience and that definitely is what we've done,” says Crase. “We've strived to be a more customer-focused alternative in the automotive industry.”
Crase had a passion for working with youth. Growing up he had considered becoming a youth pastor or an agriculture education teacher, but neither seemed to be the right fit. Crase made the decision to go to night school to get a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. During the day, Crase sold cars at the local dealership. He loved the opportunity to work so closely with customers and had developed an interest in cars despite his lack of technical knowledge.
Although Crase enjoyed his job, he needed to find something that provided more consistency. Pella Car Care had an opening for a sales advisor. Crase was the perfect fit.
Most people view a chaotic work environment as a bad thing. For Crase, the chaos of this industry was addicting.
Not long after starting work at Pella Car Care, Crase knew this was the right fit for him.
“I always feel like we are playing Tetris at a fast pace, balancing the needs of customers and technicians while managing the various deadlines and parts availability concerns,” he says. “I found that I thrived on that chaos.”
A few years after Crase began working with Pella Car Care, Van Sant established a decade-long plan for Crase to eventually purchase the business. This transition plan went out the window when Van Sant received an out-of-state opportunity which allowed him to be closer to his family. Crase knew this was a unique opportunity to buy an established business with values that so closely aligned with his own. Crase took over ownership in 2018.
Throughout the transition, Crase was able to retain a majority of the staff to keep things running smoothly. Crase was busy managing his new business and did not have the time or knowledge to interfere with the technical side of the shop. Luckily for Crase, the shop had an experienced team of technicians who were empowered to take control of the technical responsibilities that came with running a shop. While the techs kept the shop up and running, Crase used his years of experience in customer service to manage the front end as business manager. This division of power gave him an opportunity to focus on maintaining the high standard of customer service, which had been set by Van Sant since the shop opened.
What makes Pella Car Care unique is its service. In a needs-based industry, it's easy to lose track of the customer experience and just focus on the task at hand. Working in a fast-paced and stressful environment, efficiency is crucial for success. In the whirlwind of work, the last thing on many mechanic's minds is how the customer is feeling. That’s where Crase comes in.
Crase knows what it's like to be a customer because he’s been one. He understands how overwhelming the experience can be to someone without the technical knowledge to understand what’s happening with their car. He knows how a cranky phone call can negatively impact the customer experience and make them uneasy. When times get tight in the shop, Crase makes sure to step in and help the mechanics change their point of view.
“I might ask the technicians when we get into hotspots, ‘Hey, let's put ourselves in the customer's shoes,’” Crase says. “We might have a really difficult problem or, might have multiple things going on, but being able to slow down and put ourselves in the customer's shoes, ‘Okay, you're on the other end of this phone call. How would that sound to you? How do we make this make sense to the customer?’ I think that's probably something that's more of a strength for me, having been in different kinds of sales and coming at it from that perspective.”
MWACA provided support for Crase as he navigated his new role as owner.
“I aligned with what I understood to be the thoughts and vision of Sheri and the crew and how they were hoping to improve the support to the members. I became involved in the MWACA SOS group, the shop owners support group, and the Des Moines chapter,” he says. “Spending time around the other owners in that setting has been really valuable for me as a supplemental (resource). They've been my support system as I learned or am learning how to be an owner and not just an employee.”
Crase is now the secretary of the Des Moines MWACA Chapter and hopes he can help others receive the same support that he
benefited from when he was a new owner.
Big changes are coming in the automotive repair industry. While this can be daunting for independent shop owners, having a game plan for how to stay on top of these changes can help ease the transition. For Crase, this game plan involves listening, learning, and making careful decisions when taking on new responsibilities.
“I think technology is certainly going to be coming at us quickly in the next few years,” says Crase. “We'll have to be constantly learning and evaluating what areas we can invest in and excel in. We may find that we have to be a little bit more careful about what we choose to get involved in, making sure that we are properly equipped and trained to maintain the level of care and expertise that our customers have been accustomed to.”
Although Crase sees big changes coming, he’s confident that the transition will be gradual. “Gasoline-powered vehicles (are) not going to be gone instantly,” he says. “We're a long way away from a model completely changing.”
Although Crase didn’t take a traditional path to ownership, he has been able to learn and grow in the industry just from working in and around it.
“Find out what things you like, what things you don't like, what things other places do well that you want to do better in your own business,” says Crase. “Learn what your wants are or what things are important to you, because it would be impossible to be the best at every single thing. Build your core values of what you would want your business to look like, then go out and maintain those relationships with whoever you learned from.”