STERLING, Va. — When the recession began in 2008, Matt Curry was taking some time off from the daily operations at Curry's Auto Service Inc. to coach at a youth sports league he had founded in northern Virginia.
But even in so-called recession-proof Washington D.C., and its nearby suburbs, the downturn impacted Sterling-based Curry's Auto's four Virginia stores and forced Mr. Curry, president and CEO, back to his business to figure out how to stop the bleeding. Curry's Auto had consistently posted a gross profit percentage of about 9 percent annually but finished 2008 at less than 4 percent.
Three years later, Mr. Curry has doubled his auto service business to eight outlets—including its first store in Maryland—and will open a ninth store in Alexandria, Va., in the fall. Curry's Auto was just named to Inc. magazine's 5,000 list of Fastest Growing Companies in America again—climbing to a rank of 2,930 in 2011 from 3,972 in 2010.
Curry's Auto posted about $13 million in 2010 revenues, a 71-percent jump from 2007, and Mr. Curry said he expects to finish 2011 with revenues of about $18 million. Additionally, he told Service Zone he has set an ambitious goal to open 25 stores in the Virginia and Maryland area within five years.
How is he able to grow like this when other businesses have contracted? Mr. Curry said it's the result of a combination of factors, from the company's emphasis on customer service, to seeking advice from consultants, to picking up vacant space, among others.
“With the downturn, people have been a lot more flexible,” he said. “Government has been becoming more flexible as well as the landlords. So it's created a lot of opportunity for space that we probably otherwise wouldn't have had. An example of that is our Dulles Town Center (outlet), which is a shopping center location. Three years ago, they wouldn't have allowed automotive.”
He cited that a key to his success was assembling the “best team in the business” at all levels of the company, investing in their training, communicating his vision with them and then having them implement his vision.
Before Curry's Auto could take advantage of expansion opportunities, Mr. Curry said he hired outside consultants to help him figure out his business direction, how to lead in that direction and the right financial benchmarks. With their counsel, Mr. Curry said he tightened his belt, let go of some employees but hired others that he needed, including a chief financial officer.
One outside firm he hired to help him with customer surveys enabled Mr. Curry and his wife Judy, who is chief marketing officer, plan their business' marketing strategy. He said prior to that, Curry's Auto was “shooting from the hip,” but he realized that if he wanted to grow to a certain level that he would have to find a way to follow up with customers and find out what his company's service was truly like.
An example of the auto repair company's follow-up system is employing a customer advocate to call customers within 48 hours of their visit to a Curry's Auto center and handling complaints. This employee also manages Curry's Auto's online reputation and reaches out to customers through social media networks.
“You gotta make sure you got the right consultants so you get the ROI back, I mean just in terms of establishing benchmarks, having a coach,” Mr. Curry said. “I didn't graduate from college. I worked. I'm not the smartest guy in the world or anything but you do need that, that help.”
Besides using consultants, Mr. Curry said a “game changer” for his business was joining a 20 Group organized by Dealer Strategic Planning Inc. He said the 20 Group helped him bounce ideas off of his tire and auto service industry peers and be held accountable for acting on those ideas.
Although banks had tightened up credit, Mr. Curry gained extra cash by selling property to an eager buyer who paid two and a half times its value.
Not long after that, Curry's Auto won awards from local and national publications for its entrepreneurship, its charitable causes and its leadership in “going green.” The firm was featured on the front page of the business section of the Washington Post.
Then he got a call from an undisclosed competitor and was offered a fair amount of money to sell his stores.
“That's when I realized I really had something that's worth something,” Mr. Curry noted. “We had a pretty good grip on things since we were turning around the business end, so we just decided to expand.”
Up until about a year ago, Mr. Curry said he self-financed the opening of new stores with the cash from his property sale. With the opening of his last two outlets, Mr. Curry said he's been able to procure full financing from his bank because it's comfortable with the health of his profit and loss statement.
The firm derives 85 percent of its revenues from auto repair/service and the rest from tire sales, he said. Within its repair business, 60 to 70 percent of clientele drive European or import vehicles, and Mr. Curry has set up operations so that each store has a few technicians who specialize in those vehicles and a few who are general service techs who can work on everything else.
“We've never been the least expensive guy in town,” he said. “We're fairly high priced. We only use A-quality parts….That's pretty much our formula. High-quality parts, high-quality service, our high-quality workmanship and awesome customer service.”
Only a few years ago, tire sales comprised 5 percent of the firm's sales. Mr. Curry said becoming a Tire Pros affiliate has helped him increase tire sales to a benchmark of 20 to 25 percent of total sales and drive repeat business through rotations and alignments.
Curry's Auto centers inspect every car that comes through the bays, and employees are expected to tell customers everything that they noticed during the inspection. If a customer isn't willing to have an additional service done then, Curry's Auto will file the issue as deferred work and email reminders to customers about it later.
“We're in the relationship business, we're not in the automotive repair business,” Mr. Curry said. “We're not looking for the one big hit, and we never see the customer again. We want cradle to grave. Someone comes in, we want to blow them away with service, inspect the car, be honest with them.”