Sharing Success: How Three Neighboring Automotive Shops Cohabitate and Thrive
by Alana Quartuccio Bonillo and Chasidy Rae Sisk
Succeeding in business doesn’t have to involve a cutthroat competition to the top (or the bottom).
Offer customers a positive experience and quality product, and there is no need to stomp onto anyone else’s turf – or in this case – onto anyone else’s lot.
Head on down to Mainstreet in Hopkins, and you’ll find three automotive shops just steps apart from each other who prove this concept to be true. All are independent. All different sizes. All with unique clientele. And all achieving success in their own way.
Clearly, each business is doing something right, as customers continue to choose these independent businesses over corporate auto service centers that also call the small town of Hopkins their home.
Dale Feste Automotive (1801 Mainstreet) is the largest of the three as far as building size and number of employees goes. Under the ownership of Tony Newman, the business features eight bays and functions via a team of seven who service all makes and models in all mechanical repair needs.
Just a shop down, over to the left, lies Tommy’s Garage (1821 Mainstreet). The two bay shop, owned and operated by Tom Martins, has a staff of three, including himself. Tommy’s Garage specializes predominantly in European models including Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes Benz.
Up the block, just a few doors down to the right, there’s an old service station with a parking lot full of antique cars, but appearances can be deceiving…Although there’s no signage located on the building, this location is home to Hopkins Auto Service (1701 Mainstreet). Its modest exterior gives no indication of the mechanical miracles happening within, including some incredible custom cars. The two bay, two-man run shop has been in business since 1968, when owner Brian Hartmann’s father, Paul, opened its doors. Brian grew up in the business and took over in 1997, when his father retired. He works with one other employee to provide general mechanical work to predominantly Asian and domestic vehicles.
Each shop owner has taken radically different approaches to their businesses when it comes to shop culture and the customers they service. Despite their multitude of differences, however, they all serve as great shops that offer the approachability and community connections that are exceedingly rare as the industry becomes more corporate and less personal.
On a surface level, it appears these shops all offer the same things, such as basic automotive service, diagnostics and maintenance – and they do – but each shop has established a certain clientele they service best. For example, for a customer driving an older vehicle in need of an engine rebuild, the likely choice among the three is Tommy’s Garage who focuses on such work.
“We do a lot of big jobs, including full engine rebuilds and a lot of diagnostic work,” explains Martins. “We aren’t the shop that does many quick jobs. We can do those, but people come to me when they have bigger problems to be fixed.”
“A lot of my clientele drive older vehicles, so we work to help keep them running,” Hartmann offers a description of his shop’s main focus. “We can pretty much fix anything, but we mostly work on Asian and domestic made vehicles. I don’t work on a lot of European models; I leave those to others who specialize in it.”
At Dale Feste Automotive, there really isn’t any service or vehicle they don’t work on, and they have the flexibility to offer just about anything and everything. Newman started as an employee of the business in 2001 when it was owned by Dale Feste and later Tom Aldridge; Newman took over ownership of the shop in 2018. He believes the focus on providing good customer service is what sends their offering home.
He and his employees go out of their way to serve customers. If there’s a customer in need of a quick headlight or tire repair, or even a jump start, his team has the ability to just hop in and take care of it. Newman has even willingly loaned his own car to someone when no loaner cars were available to keep people on the road.
“The service people get and the way they are treated is key,” believes Newman about his shop’s offering. “I think we do a good job of taking care of customers. If something goes wrong, I’ll drop everything to jump in and get a game plan going to straighten it out.”
When it comes to advertising, all three shop owners said they rely most heavily on word of mouth.
“I haven’t paid for advertising in the 10-plus years I’ve been in business,” boasts Martins.
Hartmann sees his largest client base coming from people just spreading the word.
Newman has also seen many customers come through the doors via referrals from previous customers; however, he does take part in some marketing by mail. He mails four postcards per year and sends the occasional e-blast.
He also takes part in the community, teaming up with other businesses. For example, he’s offered ice cream coupons to the Dairy Queen across the street to customers waiting for service. In the springtime, when grilling season begins, Dale Feste’s has made a deal with local grocery stores to get customers a deal on burgers and chips. He’s now hoping to work with some new breweries in the area to offer a discount to their customers.
Newman has even loaned space at the back of the shop to his friend who does pottery work at no charge. The goal is to open the studio up to local groups such as the Boy Scouts or veteran groups to learn how to make pottery. He’s hoping to get more community events going by this summer.
All three shops have been long-time members of AASP-MN. Each owner appreciates the value they get from the network, training and information that is available to them. Hartmann finds the information he reads in AASP-MN News to be of great interest, and he feels the member benefits and training opportunities are useful. Martins finds great value in the networking opportunities that being a part of the association allows. Newman sees the Alliance as being a great sounding board to turn to with questions.
Although AASP-MN is responsible for bringing automotive shops together via its vast network, that was not the case here as Newman, Hartmann and Martins know each other because they are all Mainstreet neighbors.
All three men are in agreement that they don’t see the others as competition.
“People may think there is competition on Mainstreet, but that’s not it,” affirms Newman. “We are all relatively in the same market, but there’s no undercutting going on. I don’t try to get their clients. There’s no cutthroat attitude. I know these guys. We borrow tools and equipment from each other.”
“There are lots of cars to be worked on,” shares Martins. “We don’t have to steal work from each other. We all co-exist. We work on slightly different products, and we help each other. We all talk and bounce ideas off one another.”
Echoing that sentiment, Hartmann nicely sums it up.
“We’re all friends. There’s enough people with cars out there. We all have our own clientele, so we don’t need to scavenge from anybody else.”
Once again, succeeding (or not) in business doesn’t have to involve cutthroat competition. Offering quality work and good customer service – and being part of a solid community – is all a business really needs to succeed amongst the big guns and the little guy down the street.
A Note From the Executive Director: When starting a business or launching a new product, business owners are often asked: “what is the unmet need or problem your offering will solve?” Our members each find their own unique way of positioning themselves and answering this question. It’s remarkable how varied shops are!
Want more? Check out the February 2023 issue of AASP-MN News: