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Executing The Best Job In The Dealership: Dealer Coach

It's taken 11 challenge-filled years to get Emmert to where he is today. He started his company back in 1994, after plying his trade as a technician at the largest Mercedes and Volvo dealership in Silicon Valley.

It wasn't that he didn't enjoy working on premium European vehicles, but he wanted to give up commuting from the beachside resort and college town over the mountain to Silicon Valley, in addition the pay scale for Santa Cruz didn’t reach high enough to satisfy him. In fact, they were about 25 percent lower than the technology capital of the country. "Nobody in town would pay me what I felt I was worth," said Emmert. Consequently, he bought a local business that had made a name for itself providing parts for the Saabs, Volvos and Volkswagen Beetles that had become a fixture on state roads. He bought it with a plan to add a service department to the mix.

There was however, a major concern. "It was in an old, horrible junkyard complex," recalls Emmert. "All my peers said there was no way the owners of high-line cars would go there for service."

First, though, he had to attract some top-flight technicians to go to work there, and that presented a unique challenge in itself. "The goal was to provide workers with the kind of wages and benefits they could earn in Silicon Valley in order to give clients the kind of quality and professionalism" they had come to expect over the mountain. They would do it at Santa Cruz prices, which meant paying more for salaries than the competition while charging less for the service.

It worked. Four years later, Specialized Auto was working on 50 cars a week and had outgrown his location and his business plan. He bought an acre in a much better part of town, built an 8,100-square foot facility with 10 service bays and added a retail sales operation for the same kind of used, high-end European models he serviced. He beefed up his staff by hiring many of the highly qualified technicians who were originally hesitant to work for him at his first location.

Seven years later, Emmert – who had already become well known around town as the "Volvo guy" -- has tripled his service business. Mercedes, Audi, Saab, VW, and every other high-end model that Europe had to offer joined those Volvos that had made up the bulk of his early business.

These days, Specialized Auto is handling some 600 vehicles a month. The retail sales operation turns about 150 sales a year. That new profit center has contributed to his service success by creating new customers for his technicians as he gets his vehicles ready for sale, as a source of new customers who are joining the ranks of high-end auto owners and by keeping other customers in the same kind of European car that made them a customer in the first place.

Call it a win-win-win strategy. "We just hit the ground running,” said Emmert. For Emmert, the transition from technician to manager has called for lots of training. There was the Management Success course, Bob Cooper's "Elite" course, and Maylon Newton's ESI course for auto service advisors, and there were plenty of Twenty Group meetings along the way. Emmert was one of the founding members of a 20 group of Volvo specialists, a group that includes the father of his own sales manager, Adam Kushner.

People who work with Emmert are also encouraged to get as much training as possible. For technicians, that typically means a regular course for automotive mechanics at the local community college. It's a way to help them gain higher certification levels, which in turn wins a higher wage for each productive hour in the bay. They learn more, they earn more and they stay.

"We have the same technicians we started with," says Emmert proudly. Practically every technician added since has stayed. "Compensation is important, but the way they're treated is extremely important. You need to provide all the tools and all the training that you can obtain. Let them establish their needs and talk about it, encouraging them constantly to be aware of the future and not to be afraid of it. A lot of technicians live in fear that the exponential changes in technology will be overwhelming for them. They're uncomfortable and fearful of these changes. You need to support them in difficult situations, help make them believe they can overcome any obstacles, not make them feel inadequate."

Another compelling reason why he's able to keep his technicians is the steady growth of his business. By keeping a line of customers rolling into his service center, the biggest issue confronting his technicians is how to organize their day to get the maximum number of ethically billed hours per day as possible. "Part of the reason why our technicians never leave," says Emmert, "is that they never run out of work." Turnover overall is low – by design. "Turnover is a problem," says Emmert. You eliminate turnover with a good compensation package and plenty of care and compassion. It also doesn't hurt when you promote people to positions of greater responsibility. Richman, for example, was working as a service adviser trainee before he climbed to the position of general manager.

"Larry didn’t know anything about cars the day he started. He managed a restaurant. It wasn't a background in auto service that was important,” adds Emmert. It was a commitment to integrity and a shared goal in treating customers and employees the right way. When turnover remains low, clients have a chance to build relationships with the people who work at Specialized Auto. Some of those clients are now on their sixth car. Former customers’ children are now driving their first car. They all keep coming back to the people they know.

"Our business is very much referral driven and we cultivate that," says Emmert. "We make sure their experience is above anything else they can experience. Now, there are no girls with roller skates bringing coffee…" But if a customer is looking for some in-depth communication about their car, the work that's needed and the service that's been done, there are three service advisers on hand who specialize in just that.

You always have to look at the service business through a customer's eyes. Their car typically looks and drives just the same when they pick it up as it did when they dropped it off. It's up to the service advisers to fill in the picture and let them know exactly what their money purchased. That takes time and it takes a lot of consideration.

"Fixing the car, that’s critical. But you can fix the car correctly and still not have a customer who says 'wow' and really appreciates it." It's up to the service adviser to make the case for wow.

It's up to everyone to make the trip positive for the customer. If there's one single lesson that he's learned about the service business in the last eight years, says Larry Richman, it can all boil down to a single word. "The secret to success is being able to say 'yes' and then follow through on it." Richman believes the best way to start fixing a relationship with an unhappy customer is with an apology.

"When things go bad, people really find that caring seems to make up for the mistakes. We do everything we can to make it right. They need to trust us and we need to follow through to make it right," said Richman.

Aside from keeping a close watch on the numbers, Emmert sees his biggest task as company coach, urging his people on to their best performance. Given their track record in November when he was out healing from surgery, he can take a lot of pride in the fact that his company will keep on chugging along without him.

If they are all doing a great job without him, Emmert wonders where his role in the company is. Should they expand sales in another location to allow further service growth? Should they open another shop for American or Asian cars? Should he learn to play golf? The answers aren’t obvious yet, but he is thankful for having this type of problem.

Vol 3, Issue 1


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