Second of two parts
It doesn't take much in the line of prognostication to realize the latest in a series of acquisitions by ProCare Automotive Service Solutions L.L.C. is a telling signpost of the company's aspirations.
With its buyout of 23 America's Service Station locations in Texas, ProCare now operates auto repair shops in six states. But as it continues to roll into new territories, the Cleveland-based firm aims to be America's service station-small ``s's'' duly noted.
During an interview with Tire Business, ProCare President and CEO David H. Sullivan outlined plans to build about 40 new stores in the next 18 months-some in areas in which the company already has a presence, others in new markets. The company currently has about 1,000 employees and operates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, North Carolina, California and Texas.
From what he's observed, the pickings are out there, whether they be in the form of new stores or additions by acquisition. Numerous companies are on the blocks, thanks in part to an economy under seige. ``There are a lot of businesses for sale, a lot of opportunities out there for good operators,'' he said in the first part of this article (see July 22 issue of Tire Business).
ProCare shops will fix a customer's buggy from top down to tires-that includes lubes, tire rotation, curing drivability problems, engine and transmission overhauls and installations. (Tires make up only a small percentage of ProCare outlets' sales.) To keep things running smoothly, of course, requires an army of technicians backed by a stable of service writers and front-office staff. Yet, like the rest of the automotive service industry, the company faces an aftermarket that is struggling to fill its ranks with qualified personnel.
Mr. Sullivan believes he may have found an interesting solution to that nagging problem.
He hopes to mimic at least one somewhat different approach America's Service Station has taken to the continuing problem of finding a qualified, dependable work force. ``That company has done a very, very good job going outside our (automotive) industry and has recruited service delivery and point-of-sale people and site managers from the restaurant industry,'' he explained.
That has provided several bonuses for those workers: In auto service they can work fewer hours, while site manager and service manager pay often is in line with similar positions in restaurant chains.
``These restaurant managers in big chains have really excellent personnel who have been used to clocking in at 7 a.m., often working until 3 a.m., and they're doing training in between,'' Mr. Sullivan noted. ``It's grueling. I think there's a group of people out there looking to transition into the auto service business.
``We're going to take what we've learned and have opened up our recruitment plan quite a bit.''
ProCare also has recently added to its ranks some employees who formerly worked for the defunct Penske Auto Centers Inc.
``You gotta feel for those folks,'' Mr. Sullivan said. ``...It's the average worker who usually gets taken advantage of every time, while you hear of some CFO building a multi-million-dollar house.''
Accentuating the `pro'
Along with what he calls ``greenfield'' expansions-outlets built from the ground up-ProCare plans to take a ``campus approach'' to building construction, Mr. Sullivan said. Most new outlets will have eight bays (sometimes six, depending on the limitations of a piece of real estate) and will feature two separate ProCare Express bays for quick services.
The company also will be adding some stand-alone car washes and will cross-merchandise them with its outlets. ``We won't operate them,'' he said. ``A car wash company will structure the facilities, and we'll lease the property to them.''
They'll be upscale facilities using the latest laser technology and high-pressure water. And, he added, ``it will give me 60 more cars a day per site. We want to get as many automotive customers to our site as possible and utilize our turf as ancillary profit centers.''
In 2001, after attempting to introduce chain-wide its proprietary ``Pronet'' computer system-which was to include interactive point-of-sale, online appointment and vehicle management components-ProCare dumped that due to shortcomings. Mr. Sullivan said he has instead opted to make a $1 million investment in a computer system from Anderson BDG that ProCare has been testing for six months. A rollout will begin on Labor Day and should be completed by year-end.
Another introduction also is under way: The firm is in the process of putting new signage on all its outlets-a new ``byline for our business,'' he termed it-that states: ``Expert auto service guaranteed-Earning your trust one car at a time.''
And in a move to strengthen its leadership ranks, ProCare recently named Martin Cunningham as an executive vice president. He had worked in Mr. Sullivan's consulting business. John McCurry, former ProCare president/COO and a long-time Midas International Corp. veteran, left the company more than a year ago.
ProCare, which has closed two or three under-performing shops in the last 15 months-including one Akron-area shop-will continue to seek locations in areas where the demographic numbers work for it. Those include dense populations, large numbers of vehicle registrations and high traffic counts.
``Every now and then the demographics of a neighborhood changes on us,'' Mr. Sullivan acknowledged. ``So in those cases we'll (close a shop and) move with the cars and the people'' to more productive locations.
However, earlier plans to possibly expand the ProCare concept to Europe-particularly to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Austria-have been shelved. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. ``have frightened a lot of people'' and put a damper on that goal, he said.
While he spends a lot of time mapping out expansion plans-Mr. Sullivan called ProCare ``a great acquisition for us''-he said ``the greatest thing that happened was to keep a group of employees who've been simply dedicated to the customer. The employees we have are fantastic.''
He was referring to the many workers the company gained when it acquired the auto repair chain from Cleveland-based petroleum company BP Amoco P.L.C. in 1999.
When a company compiles its assets, that list should not just comprise buildings and equipment, he pointed out, but must include its people. ProCare, for instance, offers employees a 401(k) plan, medical benefits, life insurance and disability-``all the things BP was offering,'' Mr. Sullivan said. ``I'd never expect our people to work for less than what they had.''
Subsequently, he has found that ProCare's worker productivity level has increased, ``allowing us to actually enhance our benefits package.''
The ``stability and growth of our sites pushes our people along to aspire for more, too,'' he continued. ``We believe our site managers are kings, and the sites are kingdoms. My favorite saying is that we're only here to serve the employees.''
Meanwhile, Mr. Sullivan, who has operated various ventures out of his Sullivan Acquisition L.L.C. corporate base in Guilford, Conn., told Tire Business he has sold or merged his six other businesses.
``I'm putting all my focus on ProCare,'' he said. ``We really believe we have the opportunity to be the No. 1 automotive service provider in America. We take that very seriously.''