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Checkout Wilhelm Automotive in Motor Age

Shop Profile: Destiny Destination

“I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” maintains Chris Garman, even though he ‘s co-owner of the Wilhelm Automotive chain of service centers in metropolitan Phoenix. “I wanted to be so far away when I was a kid it wasn’t even funny.” 

Started in 1928 by Joe Wilhelm, Garman’s grandparents took over in 1978 what was then a single shop in Peoria. They had five sons, all of whom participated in the business; by 1988 Garman’s father began the process of expansion when he opened a second store.

“On the weekends I’d go up to the shop and I would do anything and everything I could do not to actually touch a car,” Garman recollects. “I’d have to pull weeds, sweep and clean up.”

But Garman was destined for the industry. “I was off at college when my uncle Thom approached me in 2000 with an opportunity to work for the family business and go to school at the same time. I didn’t really have any intentions of being a part of the management structure.”

At this point Wilhelm Automotive had three stores, and it wasn’t long before Garman realized he was actually enjoying the work. First he was in charge of the marketing; within a couple of years he was doing the books; by ’05 he was general manager of the company. He finished his MBA, but by now Garman was fully on board, eventually becoming the company’s president.

“There is no average day,” laughs Garman. “My duties include all the planning and budgeting, all the financial authorization, overseeing all of our HR and marketing, as well as our operations manager. Everything else on the support side of it is fully my responsibility. Thom is the Chairman of the Board, so he makes sure I do my job.

“It’s challenging,” he notes. “Working with the family is not always easy. But I take some pride in being part of the third generation.” His father has since retired, but under Garman’s supervision Wilhelm Automotive began expanding again, more than doubling in size as four more locations were added-- and one more is currently under construction.

“We don’t grow quickly, at least by our standards,” explains Garman. “We try to be smart about it. It’s not like we’ve set a mandate; we don’t want two stores every year for the next 10 years. We’ll look at opportunities, and when they make sense we’ll be ready, by making sure we have the staff internally to operate these facilities. Those people are then responsible for running each shop like it’s their own; we give them a lot of autonomy to make decisions. We also like to be involved in our communities by hiring employees from within each one to help be a part of it.”

So what’s the company’s model for expansion? “I can’t divulge that,” Garman exclaims. “That’s the secret sauce! But I can say that we look for areas of growth where the city is expanding. We look for opportunities where we can fit into a community that has the right demographic, and that’s key. We don’t want the super-wealthy, we want a good mix of middle income, middle class Americans who see value in service—that’s our niche. We’re not the cheapest guy on the block, we’re certainly not the most expensive, but we feel that we provide an above-average level of service and value to our customers.”

To oversee this growing enterprise, Garman used to meet regularly with shop managers and “talked a lot,” but about a year ago he decided to create the post of Operations Manager and promote from within. “His responsibility is to work with the stores to make sure they have everything they need,” he reports. “We support them centrally; we have a marketing person, a bookkeeper and a human resources person, all of who help and support each one of our locations with anything they may need.”

It’s roughly around this time that Wilhelm Automotive also began experimenting with various forms of marketing. “We’ve always done a pretty healthy dose of (promotion),” notes Garman, “but after I joined a 20 group last year, I found out that I don’t spend as much money as some other guys that do as much volume as we do.”

Wilhelm Automotive does a fair bit of internet, and have always done direct mail for existing customers, but now they are willing to try some new things. “We make sure that we have in place the ability to measure and track how effective our campaigns are,” Garman explains. “We stick with the things that work, cut and trim the things that don’t, and figure out what we’ll try next year. We’ve done some newspaper articles, some television sponsorship last year; the newspaper worked for a period of time.”

Sometimes the company wants to get into a specific market, like hybrids/electrics. “It’s not a huge percentage of our market; 5 percent, maybe a little more,” Garman reports. “But in 2013 it was less than probably .1 percent, so it’s growing and we want to be a part of that. There’s no real hybrid training on the market, so we partnered with a company called the Hybrid Shop, bought into the rights to their franchisees here in Phoenix. What came of that was training support. We’ll continue to market for that segment in 2015 and beyond.” 

And has Garman ever gotten over not wanting to deal with cars? “When I go into the shop I’m allowed to shake hands and smile; they don’t let me touch anything because they fear I’ll break it,” he laughs. “But I love the industry; it’s been a really rewarding experience for me. Now that I’m 38, looking back, at the end of the day it’s a decision I certainly don’t regret.”

And he certainly looks forward to when the company will be 100 years old—in just 12 years.

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