WOODBRIDGE, Va. — A few years after ST Billingsley and Scott Whitling opened their first tire dealership, they decided to expand their footprint — across the parking lot.
Yes, the dealership, which operates under B&W Associates, has two auto repair shops next door to each other in Woodbridge.
The saga began when the two men, who had worked together at another auto repair shop, decided to go into business together and take over Steve's Auto Repair in 2005 when the original owners retired. They kept the name and expanded the facility, housed in a warehouse building, to eight bays from four.
A few years later, a building was under construction in the same parking lot to house two auto repair shops, "and it was getting built with or without us," Mr. Billingsley said.
"We were already looking to expand, and with this building coming open, I was like I really don't want two shops in front of me on the main road, because we're in a little warehouse building right off the main road with Steve's. So we decided, 'Let's build the business right there.'"
They leased the eight-bay building, which sits on Jefferson Davis Highway, and opened HomeTowne Auto Repair & Tire in 2014. Steve's sits about 50 yards behind it and shares the same parking lot.
"So I got two auto repair shops in the same parking lot, and they compete against each other. One's a Goodyear dealer (Steve's) and one's a Michelin dealer. Everybody told me I was insane for doing it," Mr. Billingsley said.
"Both are being successful, which is what we wanted."
Both shops operate independently and have their own websites. Most patrons don't realize both shops are owned by the same company, he said.
"It's the biggest secret that's not a secret," Mr. Billingsley said.
"We do not advertise that, other than on whatsupprincewilliam.com, where it says: 'This site is supported by Steve's and HomeTowne.' We do not advertise that we are the same people. It's easier online to keep everything separate. But if somebody asks us, we absolutely tell them."
Together, the two retail dealerships employ 26 and generate $2.6 million in sales annually. Part of the revenues support the dealership's "What's Up Prince William" online news site that promotes nonprofit organizations and their fundraisers in Prince William County.
The dealership also provides discounted services to some of the local charities. The shops provide about $14,000 in free oil changes for The ARC's 50 vans and supply tires for them at a discounted rate. The shops also service the local Boys & Girls Clubs' 15 vans.
Mr. Billingsley said the demographics of the shops' customers vary a bit. Steve's Auto, which is somewhat hidden from the main road, usually caters to owners of high-end vehicles, such as BMWs and Mercedes, because that is the type of business the dealership built up over the years, he said.
Steve's, which has operated since 1979, caters to three generations of drivers and has long-term customers, he added.
HomeTowne, which is visible on the street, attracts more drive-by traffic, he said.
He also described the typical Steve's Auto customers as Facebook users and HomeTowne customers as Yelp-type users.
One advantage of having two shops close to each other is that they can share equipment.
“So if I have a tire machine or a wheel balancer that breaks, we just go over to the other store,” Mr. Billingsley said.
Also, if an employee calls off work, the owners can adjust staffing schedules between the shops.
The two shops also pool the knowledge of the staff and can easily assign a job at either shop to a tech who is more knowledgeable about a vehicle’s problem.
He said sometimes one shop will send a car to the other shop for a particular service or for a master tech —
“It’s really not leaving the parking lot,” he said about shifting customers’ vehicles around.
Mr. Billingsley said he has worn a path across that parking lot as he visits the stores throughout the day.
He said in the process he discovered an interesting customer behavior.
He related how he saw a customer visit one of the shops for a vehicle service estimate and then drive over to the other shop to get an estimate.
Mr. Billingsley found out the estimates differed by $20 due to sourcing of parts, but that customer ended up getting the work done at the second shop with the higher estimate.
Mr. Billingsley said he eventually called the customer to find out why, and the answer was that he didn’t want to waste more time going back to the first store.
“So now what we do is I try to change the way we’re talking to customers when they are not getting something repaired that day. … Make sure when (the customer is looking for a second opinion) we say, ‘Please make sure that you are comparing apples to apples — what kind of parts are you getting, what kind of warranty there is.’
“I can tell you right now that has actually helped us to retain customers,” he said, noting that he has had customers go outside, make a phone call to another shop and then come back in to have the work done at his shop.
“It’s just one of those things that I don’t think I ever would have seen if I didn’t have the two stores so close to each other.”
The dealership is now looking to open a third location in the area, Mr. Billingsley said.
“We’re going to try not to be next door again,” he quipped, adding, “But you know what? I’m not against it!”