Sunday, March 28, 2010

One of my recent feature articles and accompanying photos...

As appeared in Parts & People, River Valley edition, April 2010

Mike Piazza Automotive relies on diagnostics to drive volume in new neighborhood shop.

by Chuck Ramsay

Maplewood, Mo.--Mike Piazza may just be the next generation of automotive shop owner. After nearly 14 years of working for others, Piazza, an ASE Certified tech, said he struck out on his own three years ago to follow his dream of running his own shop in the neighborhood where he grew up.

Piazza said his wife, Gina, helps him with the administrative side of the business but that he handles almost everything else.

After finding a neglected one-bay shop for sale, Piazza said he added a new two-post lift, purchased some new tools and a Snap-on Versus scanner, made some updates to the building interior and put new blacktop on the driveway.

“I try to run a shop where customers will want to bring their car back because the work was done right and they were treated as I would want to be treated,” he said. “Most the jobs I do are completed the same day.”

Piazza characterizes his typical day as everything from state vehicle inspections to oil changes and more involved diagnostic repairs.

He said his customer base has grown steadily and mostly consists of nearby residents, though he has worked on out-of-town vehicles requiring maintenance before traveling home.

“One thing I enjoy about being located in my old neighborhood is to provide service to friends and families who were here when I was growing up,” he said. “I’ve even had a few of my teachers bring their vehicles in, which is very gratifying for me.”

Piazza said he became a Tech-Net Professional Auto Service shop early on because it offered him the ability to provide a nationwide warranty on his work, something he said he believes the public expects only from larger shops.

Piazza said he realizes that he has to work harder to provide the same level of service as a larger shop. But he also said he also knows that as a newer, smaller shop, he has to do some things differently.

“There are days when I don’t stop working at closing time so I can keep up with the workload,” he said. “This is one reason good diagnostic capabilities are important to me. Not only can I turn work around quicker, but I can often repair vehicles at a lower cost when the diagnosis is fast and accurate.” Diagnosing electrical problems has become a growing segment of Piazza’s business, he said. For electrical diagnostic work, he said he charges a flat fee of $80 in addition to the repair. For all other types of diagnostic work, his diagnostic time is built into the cost of the repair, he said.

Piazza cited a Durango that was brought into his shop awhile back. “The owner told me I was the fourth place he’d taken it to and needed help,” he said. The battery kept dying.

After a thorough examination of the electrical system, Piazza said he found the cause using an amp clamp. The rear wiper motor was shorting out the system and draining it rapidly. “The customer kept saying he wished he had brought it here a long time ago,” he said.

Trained at South County Tech in both automotive and HVAC, Piazza said the HVAC curriculum has helped him provide auto air-conditioning maintenance for many of his clients. “Most of the A/C work I get comes from word-of-mouth,” he said.

To attract new business, Piazza said he has had to depart from many of the practices that larger shops use because they do not fit his smaller operation or budget. He said he offers an oil change special, which is very successful and gives him the opportunity to do a quick inspection of other wear and tear that needs attention.

“I always ask customers, too, if they have any other concerns while their car is already here,” he said.

Piazza said he also sells and installs tires, which is a growing part of his service mix.

Gina Piazza, who is involved in the shop’s promotion, said they have found a few media that work well for their neighborhood-based location. They advertise in nearby church bulletins and have their oil change special printed on the back of Shop ‘n Save grocery store receipts, she said.

“Both these are affordable for us and have brought in new business,” she said.

The shop also has a Web site featuring an appointment request form, which Mike Piazza said is getting more and more use each week.

Networking is a tool both Mike and Gina Piazza use regularly and includes dropping business cards off at local businesses, meeting potential customers at the local coffee shop, and belonging to the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve even found some new customers through my off-road hobby,” Mike Piazza said. “I park my off-road vehicle in front of the shop sometimes. On occasion, someone will come in and comment on their off-road activity, and the next thing I know, I’ve got a new customer.”

With business growing for his new, small shop, Piazza has also begun to make adjustments in how to handle higher volume. He said he and his wife are beginning to automate their accounting, work orders, and invoicing, and are looking into other ways to get more done in less time while acquiring a better measure of how and where their business is growing.

“I’m also planning to add onto this building with at least one more bay, and hoping to add a tech,”he said. “There’s also a 5,000-square-foot building nearby that would make a good space for larger repair jobs like engine replacement. We just have to determine which should happen first, based on where we see the most growth opportunity.”

For Mike Piazza Automotive, the future is bright. He said he sees lots of opportunity but is cautious in his pricing strategy.

“I’ve been watching parts costs creeping higher and higher,” he said. “That’s a concern to me and my customers.” As a result, he has been shopping for new sources while remaining committed to getting the best service and quality in the parts he installs.

“My future is in treating my customers as I would like to be treated,” Piazza said.

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