A Web-oriented auto repair service that counted Ford Motor Co. among its early investors has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
JoeAuto Inc., a Houston-based company that was among the first in the nation to let customers schedule service appointments online, offers service and light repairs at five shops in the Houston and Dallas areas. The firm-which began marketing as JoeAuto.com-hit the launch pad early in 2000 using the tag line, ``Invented to not waste your time,'' and the goal to make vehicle service more convenient.
The company opened its first ``prototype'' shop, a seven-bay operation in Phoenix, in February 2000, then followed that with an eight-bay shop in a Houston suburb. Both shops were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
JoeAuto also lets consumers check the progress of their vehicles on the Internet by logging onto joeauto.com and watching via Web cameras as technicians service their vehicles.
Ford was one of several investors that collectively gave the company $13.5 million in seed money in 2000. Jacques Nasser, Ford's CEO at the time, was fascinated by e-business opportunities during the dot-com boom.
Mr. Nasser envisioned a cradle-to-grave customer relationship where the whole automotive experience would be fulfilled by Ford in one way or another from shopping online to buying and scheduling service online, according to a Ford spokesman.
In an interview in 2000 with Tire Business, a JoeAuto executive outlined the company's strategy to provide pricing below that of car dealerships and comparable to other ``well-run independent shops.'' He said JoeAuto wanted to move toward a way in which consumers could get automotive service fulfilled ``by turning to your keyboard,'' and predicted that, ultimately, the company's business would be transacted 100 percent via the Internet.
The executive also unveiled plans for the concept to eventually go nationwide, and said the JoeAuto of the future would be 30- to 40-bay ``supercenters'' on ``cheap real estate off the beaten track.''
Randy Vanstory, JoeAuto's co-founder, told Tire Business at the time that the firm was planning on opening 28 new locations a year over a five-year period.
Car dealers balked
Despite the optimism of Ford's then-chief executive-and JoeAuto officials-Ford dealers complained that JoeAuto was taking business from their service bays. It wasn't until late 2001, after Bill Ford took over as CEO, that the car company relinquished its investment.
About the time Ford pulled the plug on helping bankroll JoeAuto, Jerry Reynolds, owner of Prestige Ford in Garland, Texas, and a former chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council, said he ``always saw them as a competitor. When they came on the scene, I was the chairman. It was one of those issues that put me over the top. I went nuts.''
Jim Janke, general manager of Tommie Vaughn Ford in Houston, recently told Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business, that JoeAuto has found dealership competition to be tough. He noted that it will be difficult for JoeAuto to succeed in Houston, where it operates two shops.
``I think it's going to be very, very difficult because you now have your franchised dealers that can do work, for the most part, cheaper than the independents,'' Mr. Janke said. Ford franchised dealers in Houston have been lowering the price of shocks, brakes and other fast-moving items to lure service business, he added.
Ford dealers found it distasteful that the auto maker would invest in a company that represented competition to their service business, said Mr. Janke, a director for the Houston Automobile Dealers Association.
Dealers aired their fears and complaints during a meeting with Ford in Texas, he said.
``Ford did listen to what we had to say,'' Mr. Janke said. ``They took it like men. They said they were going to fix it, and they did fix it. They got out of it. That made us feel good.''
Ford never divulged how much it had invested in JoeAuto. At the time, the auto maker said it wanted to gain an inside view of the Internet technology and customer handling.
In court documents filed with the Houston Division of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, JoeAuto revealed it has total assets of $11.1 million and total debts of $16.1 million. The largest claim is for $1.08 million.
JoeAuto President Troy Cooper did not return phone calls seeking comments. But he told a Houston business publication in March that the company had received interim funding, which it hoped would put the company on the road to recovery.
Loaners and more
JoeAuto was founded in 1999 as a joint venture between CCG Venture Partners L.L.C. of Houston and Mr. Vanstory, a former owner of auto repair shops.
JoeAuto provides customers with loaner cars for $20 a day for the first two days and $28 a day thereafter. It also provides rides for customers within the shop's market area and keeps late business hours.
Each JoeAuto location has waiting areas with a computer and Internet access, satellite TVs, a beverage center and an activity area for children. Each operation even has a ``second-opinion center'' where customers privately can contact other repair shops and compare theirs with JoeAuto's recommendations.
Since divesting from JoeAuto, Ford has become more aggressive in helping its dealers to open Quick Lane service facilities. The car maker plans to expand its Quick Lane program by 100 shops this year.