By Steve LaFerre
TIRE REVIEW Magazine
Some people make friends and make it look easy. Pam Oakes, owner of Pam’s Motor City Automotive in Fort Myers, FL, is one of those people. And more and more, she is making friends in high “political” places.
Her natural people skills go directly to her bottom line, which will be the same in 2008 as it was in 2007. By any measure, being able to remain steady during such difficult economic times is a feat in itself.
Oakes says it’s a matter of upfront education paying backend dividends. “Because there is an older generation in Florida and always an incoming generation, we take the time to educate them about their vehicles,” she says.
Rather than trying to go over the entire vehicle in a single session, Oakes focuses on making sure people fully understand one issue at a time. “During one session, we might concentrate only on brakes where they’re located, what a new set looks like and how they wear. We also tell them that we will inspect the brakes during their regular service visits and tell them if they can be properly turned or if a new set is required.”
While servicing a customer vehicle, her staff takes the worn part to the showroom and explains what repairs will be done. The subject of cost is also discussed so no one is surprised. In this way, the customer is in the loop throughout the process.
“For us, education is a vital part of the way we operate our business and we have the advantage of a veteran, certified staff,” Oakes says.
To that point, she makes certain all of her techs understand that it is a requirement to complete classes in both local and off-site places, something they can do online if they wish.
Oakes is quite clear about how she uses education as one of her top marketing tools. She’s also an author of car care books, that is. While these aren’t hard cover bestsellers, they are loaded with common sense information. The two we examined were titled “Car Care for the Clueless,” and “Empowered Ladies Car Care Guide.”
She has even produced videos, the latest of which is shot from the rear seat while she explains every button and switch of a vehicle. Taking it a step further, she explains what each does and what to do if the check engine light comes on. She covers everything from temperature gauges to a list of 15 items that should be checked at every oil change interval, and the language is very easy to digest. Her newest video is in both Spanish and English.
Another Oakes original, “Hurricane Car Tips” includes a full list of what to put in the vehicle when you are trying to get out of harm’s way.
Oakes is also an active member of the local Rotary in South Fort Myers, the Daughters of the American Revolution and is a Paul Harris fellow. She gets noticed in her community by running a crawl across the bottom of the Weather Channel. “Everyone watches the Weather Channel down here so they can get out safely if a storm is approaching, and my ad has been very successful.”
Because of so much community involvement and so much talent, her business has been named the No.1 auto repair shop in Fort Myers for 13 years, from 1996 to 2008. She has also been an ASE Blue Seal shop since 1998 and an ASA shop, a NAPA Autocare shop and an ACDelco Shop. All of this speaks to well-planned communication, training and education efforts.
To show her customers what her business is all about, Oakes recently donated a $10,000 endowment scholarship for a female engineering student attending Florida Gulf Coast University. Additionally, she donated $1,000 each to the South Fort Myers High School sports department, the FGCU hockey team and $600 annually to the South Fort Myers Rotary Scholarship Athlete program, plus various smaller contributions to the Boy and Girl Scouts, Red Cross and the high school band programs. Pam Oakes doesn’t go unnoticed, and neither do her techs, managers and dealership.
Oakes also makes every effort at getting to know local and federal politicians. Sometimes she is caught by surprise. “It would amaze most small tire business owners to discover that their elected representatives know very little about the automotive aftermarket.
That’s why I get out there to meet these people and let them know about the problems we face. My Congressman, Connie Mack from the 14th District, knows me now and dropped me a note to thank me for my presence in the small business roundtable held at FGCU’s Small Business Development Center.
“I’ve become my own lobbyist after a fashion,” she continues. “If we don’t speak up for ourselves individually or as a group, who will? That’s why I’ve taken it upon myself to make our legislators aware of what happens if they arbitrarily pass a bad law.”
The Right to Repair Act is her latest cause and she is not happy about the current state of events which block access to repair information from automakers. “People in our nation’s capitol don’t know what this is all about. They haven’t been out on ‘main street’ to see how we have to work.
“Local car dealerships are incorporating an aftermarket warranty on new and used car sales that limits the consumer,” she continues. “The automobile owner is restricted to getting their vehicle repaired by the car dealership only no exceptions.
“I’ve learned that this policy is popping up all over the place to bring in extra revenue to the car dealer. Unfortunately, it is also closing the doors to a lot of excellent, but small, independent shops. Five years from now I hope to be at the vanguard of turning around such unfair business practices by our government.
“Any effort on our part must be a group activity. We must choose our time to be heard and that time is now. We must choose leaders and lobbyists for our businesses and that time is now. With a 9.6% unemployment rate in Fort Myers, that time is now.”
Oakes encourages other dealers to call, e-mail, write or visit those that have been elected to federal, state and local posts.
“How long can we put up with a seemingly infinite list of laws and regulations that cause us to pay more to the government at the expense of making a profit at our dealership?
“Lobbying is something I did not see myself doing when I opened my doors 13 years ago. But these issues must be addressed so I can keep my doors open, along with the rest of my fellow independent automotive shops. We have a lot of work to do and no time to waste.”
To that end, Oakes is taking the fight to the competition. “Starting in 2009 I’m opening a used car lot with top notch vehicles which we’ve gone over thoroughly and detailed carefully,” she says.
“We’re doing this for two reasons: first, the price of brand new vehicles is outrageously high; and second, we will hand out an automotive warranty of our own that tells the buyer that we prefer all service on their vehicle be done at our shop,” Oakes says.
“Failing that, we ask that they have their vehicle serviced at another independent tire dealership or automotive shop. We’re going to win this fight with hard work and common sense.”
Will David slay Goliath?
PAM’S MOTOR CITY
Brands: Michelin, BFGoodrich, Kumho, Cooper, Bridgestone, Firestone, Falken, Dayton
Tire Changers: Coats
Tire/Wheel Balancers: Coats
Brake Lathes: Ammco
Compressors: Campbell Hausfeld, NAPA
Service Trucks: Dodge
POS Software: Mitchell 1 OnDemand5
Marketing/Buying Groups: Tire Starz, NAPA Auto Care, AC Delco