SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Niello Audi encourages its service technicians to feed their passion for vehicle maintenance after the workday ends.
That's when the Sacramento dealership invites techs back to the shop to work on their own cars and trucks.
The service bays and tools, including the hoist, are at the techs' disposal when the shop is closed to customers — on weekday and Saturday evenings and Sundays. They can repair personal vehicles and those of immediate family members at no charge.
All of the Niello group's 14 dealerships permit the practice. Dealership executives say it enhances loyalty and job satisfaction among technicians. But critics contend it adds to a dealership's potential liability without financial benefit.
Gary Schmitt, a Niello Audi technician, says he may use the shop after hours twice a month or every weekend for a month, depending on the job.
His projects range from routine maintenance, such as oil changes, to pulling out the powertrain and changing a head gasket on his sister-in-law's Ford Escape.
Using the dealership's shop for the head gasket job, Mr. Schmitt says, "was a huge benefit, because I couldn't have done that at home."
Matt Phelan, general manager of Niello Audi, says such "shop nights" used to be common in the dealerships where he worked.
"When I was a young guy, I remember that the techs were allowed to do that," Mr. Phelan told Fixed Ops Journal. "This has been around for a long time."
Mr. Phelan, 54, says the after-hours program was popular at Niello Audi when he joined the dealership eight years ago.
"It's shop culture," Mr. Phelan adds. "It breeds a positive attitude."
Letting techs work on personal vehicles after hours may have gone out of style because of growing concerns about safety and liability among dealerships, says Rob Gehring, president of Fixed Performance Inc., a fixed ops consulting firm in Huron, Ohio.
"What if there's an injury or equipment failure and no one is on-site to witness it or get involved right away?" Mr. Gehring says.
Mr. Gehring agrees that shop nights can build loyalty among a dealership's technicians. But if a tech is hurt or a vehicle is damaged, he warns, the dealership could get the blame.
"I've seen examples, personally, where these gentlemen's agreements happen and everybody is OK with those," he says. "But when it turns ugly, it's too late."
Mr. Phelan says he lost a close relative in a service shop accident. He insists that he and his employees are "proactive" and "hypersensitive" to workplace safety.
Niello Audi's service department has safety procedures that all techs must follow even when they work on their own vehicles.
For example, he says, they must open a repair order for a personal vehicle, so that they are covered by employee insurance if they are injured.
No tech has damaged a personal vehicle while working after hours at Niello Audi, Mr. Phelan says. But if that were to happen, he says, the techs understand that they, not the dealership, would bear responsibility.
Mr. Schmitt says he feels safer working on his truck at the dealership than at home.
"We have access to all the equipment and the facility here," he says. "I'm grateful I have the opportunity."
Mr. Phelan says the after-hours program displays "utmost respect" for Niello Audi's technicians and is an important part of his dealership's culture. "It makes their life easier," he says. "They're going to work on cars — it's just the nature of being a technician.
"We just want to make sure they're happy and taking care of themselves and their family."
You can reach Stephanie Hernandez McGavin at [email protected]