DALLASThe name Just Brakes has long belied the variety of services the multi-state dealership chain offers in an increasingly competitive industry.
While brake service is still a major portion of Just Brakes' sales, the dealership offers an array of auto maintenance services and is planning to add tires to the mix as well.
In the 15 months since the 34-year-old Just Brakes enterprise came under new ownership, the dealership has opened four outlets, beefed up its employee benefits program and started remodeling its 136 stores.
In addition, Just Brakes, which sells a few private brand tires, is looking to increase its tire business this year.
If you look at the new stores, they are all tire ready, CEO Bill Ihnken told Tire Business. They have all the equipment for tires, and the first real tire format we've launched is in Hobe Sound (Fla.). It has tires in inventory. It's a full operation tire and service store.
The goal is for sales to switch from 95-percent auto service to a ratio of 75-percent auto services and 25-percent tire sales/services. The company is testing the tire-related format by market, beginning with Florida in the second quarter, he said.
Tires are brand new. This dealership never sold any. They were very specific to brakes only. This is a real evolution and change for them, he said.
For now the chain sells only private tire brands from a local distributor and has not forged any alliances with tire makers.
The Dallas-based company was founded in 1980 as a single brakes-only operation. In 2011 the growing retail chain added other services to handle scheduled maintenance work based on auto makers' recommendations, including alignments, suspension service, oil and fluid changes, fuel system cleaning, etc.
The dealership grew to more than 130 outlets in eight states before Mr. Ihnken, a former TBC Corp. executive, and three private equity firms acquired the operation in December 2013.
When we made the purchase, the company didn't have healthcare. We made a significant investment in healthcare that's affordable for the employees, he said.
We put in more than $2 million in inventory in the stores. They didn't have inventory prior to that. We did change to a total car care concept.... We're looking for a relationship with the customer, not to be transactional. We want to be their total car care provider.
So we've had a huge focus on transitioning into total car care, but the primary focus has been the whole customer visit.
Mr. Ihnken said the dealership has made a comprehensive change to its employment strategy to recruit techs who can handle a variety of automotive services.
While we still have our core group of technicians that we are training to do that, by changing that comp plan, we were able to (offer) something that is more applicable to the industry.... Being able to recruit those already certified technicians is a big step for us because in the past, we took a lower-level tech and we trained them how to do brakes. That's what the old company did.
Since coming under new ownership the dealership has expanded to 136 locations with the opening of four storesin Dallas and White Settlement, Texas; and Hobe Sound and Fort Pierce, Fla.
Seven more store openings in existing buildings are planned this year, mostly in Florida.
For the near term, the company is focusing on filling in its existing markets, particularly in Georgia, Florida and Texas. The company also has stores in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
Mr. Ihnken said the dealership wants to fill in some of its markets in Texas with the purchase of existing buildings or potential acquisitions. In Florida, the company is focusing on expanding in the state through growth in several target markets, including Orlando, West Coast/Tampa area, West Palm Beach area and Jacksonville.
We're trying to stake out the state and then grow in those major markets that we're already in, he said.
If we had an acquisition opportunity in a market that we weren't in, we'd definitely consider looking at that. We're not concerned with that. It's just that it's very difficult to go into what we call a brand new greenfield market, put up one store and expect to have instant brand recognition. That's a tougher deal to do.
He said if the company were to enter a new state or market, it would mostly occur through acquisition of a multi-store chain.
I'd say within the next 24 months, our primary focus is to build out the markets that we're in and look for those strategic acquisitions inside those markets that would add to our store count and help build our brand, he said.
As it grows its store count, the dealership also is remodeling its stores to create a common look. About 20 stores were greenfield builds while the rest were existing facilities. The outlets have between three and eight services bays.
So far Just Brakes has remodeled 15 stores, with the store closest to the corporate office, in Lemon, Texas, serving as the prototype.
We're in the process of going through the old stores now and painting them, changing the signs and remodeling the inside so that they all have that same look, feel and consistency, Mr. Ihnken said.
We've made significant changes to the whole customer experience. In other words, electronic messagingwe sell from electronic message boards. We've made the showrooms much more customer sensitive.
We've gone through and changed our colors to things that are much more sensitive to the customer. We don't put a lot of point-of-sale material in our waiting rooms.
What we're wanting to do is bring the customer in and be able to meet their initial needs, put them in a nice quiet environment where they can see out into the shop, see the work being donebut being able to leave (the customer) alone, let them do their work, he said, adding the waiting rooms offer Wi-Fi and gourmet coffee.
The dealership also redesigned its website.
One of the first things we really got on was the website, because we know that that's a major touch point with the consumer to see what Just Brakes is all about, he said.
We're pretty proud of the advancements made there, he said, noting the website offers easier navigation, store locators, online appointment scheduling and customer reviews.
Mr. Ihnken readily admits the dealership's name can create confusion, but he has no immediate plans to change it. When the chain expanded beyond offering only brake service, it altered its name to Just Brakes Total Car Care.
Just because your name says that, doesn't mean people are going to start flooding your doors looking for total car care needs, he said. Inside the stores, we're spending a lot of time explaining that we are now total car care.... The challenge will be and continue to be that total car care image.
But I got to tell you that really happens inside the store. And what I mean by that is the customer comes in, we meet their immediate needs and say, 'Oh by the way, Mrs. Johnson, we do the scheduled maintenance on your vehicle. You've got 30,000 miles.'
We're able to give them a printout of what that maintenance should be. And by those interactions in the store, it will help us build that total car care image, he said.
I'm not saying the name is perfect for what you want to do, but we don't see it as a big hurdle to get into the total car care business.
He acknowledged that cars are built to last longer, but the vehicles still need maintenance services.
So that's been our focuswhat we want to do is be that total car care provider but we are very focused on the scheduled maintenance.
However, brakes are still a major component of sales, he said. The customer count is growing for other maintenance services but still stable in the core brake business. That's still what we're known for first.
Besides tires, other major services the dealership would like to add later this year to its stable are state inspections and emissions testing.
That's a real big opportunity for us and that is something we are looking at, Mr. Ihnken said, noting that the undertaking requires certifications and recruitment of trained personnel.
The dealership already is geared up to provide hybrid vehicle services, but the stores haven't seen many such vehicles come through, he said.
Meanwhile, the company improved its overall sales by expanding its business hours to Sundays last year.
It's amazing the number of appointments we're getting on Sundays for that type of work. The consumer needs eight days of the week, they've only got seven.
Sunday has become a very big day for us for our customers to be able to catch up on their maintenance and car care needs. We've seen a pretty big spike on the Sunday business for us, he said.
The No. 1 challenge is (finding) good people and getting people trained to understand the whole customer service piece, Mr. Ihnken said. Our industry has become very transactional. But I think that's changing when you look at some of the changes with some of the bigger players in the marketplace to be more of a relationship vs. transactional (business).
I would say the biggest challenge is: Are people getting trained to really value and understand how important every single customer is? We spend a lot of time on that whole customer interaction because, again, if we really want that customer's car from cradle to grave, as we say, they are going to have to trust us.
And the way you (do that) is to be honest and transparent. Do what the car needs, make recommendations but not try to oversell, just try to meet their needs so they feel relaxed with you and confident that you're the place that can take care of their car.
He noted that customers are becoming more educated about car maintenance.
Specifically, if you start looking at the Gen-Xers, they're not much for wanting anything sold to them. What they are looking for is information about their car. And they follow, we're finding, their scheduled maintenance pretty strictly, quite frankly. They're on top of getting their car maintenance.
Customers are becoming more aware that their vehicles need oil changes, tire rotations, etc., he said. Those are the focus points for us. So as an industry, we see more and more people looking for that type of service which we think is a big opportunity for us.
Just Brakes has delved into social mediaespecially Facebookto promote its business, yet still relies on mailing scheduled maintenance reminders and radio advertising. Mr. Ihnken said the firm tracks the response rate on the service reminders and they definitely have increased the number of appointment calls.
The dealership is expanding its advertising budget this year, he added, with a little more focus on digital marketing.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127; Twitter:@kmccarr