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Fixing poverty — 1 car at a time

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HERNDON, Va.—Even in the affluent region around the U.S. capital there are people who are in desperate need of a safe and reliable vehicle but who can't afford the needed repairs.

That's what Elite Car Care Centers discovered when it launched its “Fix Your Neighbor's Car” campaign in August as a pay-it-forward charitable endeavor. The dealership operates three stores in Virginia—Elden Street Service & Tire Center in Herndon, Ashburn Service & Tire Center in Ashburn, and Centreville Tire & Auto in Centreville.

The family-run dealership has donated to numerous community events over the years, but Elite said it decided to give back to its community by offering what it does best—auto repair.

“We're charitable in other aspects. We donate money and do this and that for the community,” said Jennifer Smith, daughter of owners Gary and Barbara Malm. “But I really wanted to focus on something where we could give back with car repair, specifically since it's something we specialize in and we see a need for every day where we are.”

The dealership advertised the campaign for a couple of months over the summer in the local media and through its customer base and accepted nominations through August for people who were in need of car repairs.

The dealership, which promised to keep the nominations confidential, received 13 nominations.

“It was incredible because we received letters from people in the community that were asking us to help their friend or their neighbors or their family members who were ill, or recovering from an illness or struggling financially or just lost their job, dealing with a disability, a single mom going through a divorce,” she said.

“I think people don't realize that, even in a county like this, there is a great need with so many people...,” Barbara Malm said.

The dealership planned to repair eight to 10 cars for free during the inaugural year of the campaign. It ended up repairing nine vehicles in September—the other nominees already had repaired their vehicles before the dealership contacted them.

The free repairs Elite Car Care did provide ranged from replacement of batteries and tires to brakes and tie rods. Some vehicles needed more work than the customer even knew about, which the dealership provided.

The recipients had a variety of hard-luck stories. Ms. Malm said the family was touched by all the nomination letters and felt a need to help every one of the nominees.

“There was someone who had been ill for a while. The car sat for a long period of time. He was trying to get back into the workforce and he needed something as simple as a new battery, that he couldn't afford, to go on job interviews,” Ms. Malm recalled.

There also was a recently widowed mom raising three children who needed brakes on her car so it could pass a safety inspection. Another mother going through a divorce had a daughter who was helping her financially but her car had worn tires that caused her to skid off the road a few times.

“All of them were completely different.... We knew there was a need, but when we started to read these letters I don't think we realized how much the need was and there were certain people really struggling,” Ms. Smith said.

“One thing we were really afraid of at a certain point as we were getting letters in,” added Ms. Malm, “each one was, 'Oh, we got to help this person,' and, 'Oh, we got to help this person.' What if we get so many that we just don't do it (all)? That was my biggest fear at that time.”

Even after the nomination deadline, the dealership received three more nominations that it took care of. Ms. Malm said her feeling was, “How can I say 'no' now just because they missed the date?”

The dealership made an effort to keep confidential the people who nominated their family and friends and treat the recipients of the repairs as regular customers when they came into the stores. The recipients would check out at the front desk like regular customers but wouldn't be charged for the repairs.

“The follow-up from the customers who nominated these people and the customers who got the work done—we got such lovely notes from them saying how this is something they needed at a time when they were at a really low point and really struggling and this was something that helped them. And that's really what we wanted to do. We wanted to give back in a way that we knew we could really help people,” said Ms. Smith.

The family said they intend to continue the Fix Your Neighbor's Car campaign every year but will start promoting the project earlier to generate more nominations.

“I feel once it catches on and once it gets more publicity, year by year, I'm hoping we get more,” Ms. Smith said.

If the charity program creates more publicity, the dealership hopes that will encourage its suppliers and distributors to donate parts and supplies to repair the nominees' vehicles.

This year the dealership paid for everything, but the family didn't have a monetary figure of how much they donated.

“We really wanted to support the community that supports our businesses all year,” Ms. Smith said.

“We feel the need from the people because we deal with the public every single day and we see that there is a great need there,” Ms. Malm added. “I think working with the public that way and being completely involved in it was what catapulted us into 'we've got to help people.'”

Mr. Malm founded his business with the Herndon store in 1991. Three years later he purchased the Centreville store. Since it was an established dealership and the Malms didn't foresee having multiple stores, they kept the original name on the storefront. Then 13 years ago the Malms opened the Ashburn store and kept the pattern of naming a store after its location.

Ms. Malm said a couple of years ago the dealership started branding the business as Elite Car Care on its website and logos and now is in the process of including the Elite name on the stores' exterior signage in an effort to bring all three locations under one name.

She said it took a while for customers to realize the three stores were operated by the same family. The Malms and their daughter are involved in the daily operations of the three stores, she said.

“We think part of our success is we give the personal touch. Everyone does feel like family who walks in to any one of our stores and there will either be Gary, Jenn or myself on a regular basis at each of the stores,” Ms. Malm said.

“And that's how we treat our employees and that's how our employees treat our customers. That's why we never wanted to get too big because we're afraid we'd lose that personal touch.”



To reach this reporter: kmccarron@crain.com; 330-865-6127. Twitter: @kmccarr
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Previous | Published March 18, 2019

Where can you expect to see the most growth in 2019?

Tire sales
46% (34 votes)
General automotive service
15% (11 votes)
Brakes, shocks and other undercar services
7% (5 votes)
Add-on business
15% (11 votes)
Anywhere we can get it.
18% (13 votes)
Total votes: 74
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