Sunday, February 04, 2001

Couple's shops do the tango

Car-care businesses 'feed off' each other

By 1 By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Two years ago, Mark Dick was looking for a new location for his business. Instead, he and wife, Lea Ann, ended up with a new business.

        Mr. Dick, owner of Autocoustics car stereo store near Cincinnati Gardens in Roselawn, wanted to open a second location. He also had an idea.

        As a youngster, Mr. Dick helped out in his father's Autocoustics store, which sold car stereo equipment and performed basic auto maintenance. Next door was a carwash.

        “I got the idea to blend it all together,” he said, “and let each business feed off the other's.”

        Thus was born the concept that has become Loveland Car Wash & Lube, just a stone's throw from the Dicks' new Autocoustics shop. He turned to his wife, a manager with Mercy Health System for 14 years.

        Said Mrs. Dick: “He told me he could use my help putting together a business plan.”

        She laughed as she recalled how her husband's project gradually took more and more of her time. In February 1999, she left her full-time job at Mercy, although she continues to serve as on-call dietitian and diabetes educator. Before long, her parents, Howard and Frances Sharp, were also partners in the enterprise, sharing what they'd learned in their 20 years as small-business owners.

        “We pulled in their expertise,” she said. “My dad is an engineer and helped design the buildings.”

        It took the couple about 18 months from concept to completion of their new enterprise. During that time, said Mrs. Dick, they needed all the patience, persistence and organization they could muster. Just finding the right location took months.

        “We wanted something on the east side since we live in Montgomery,” Mrs. Dick explained. “At first we looked at renting, but it was so expensive - about $11,000 a month. Then we thought about purchasing land and building on it. We looked in Blue Ash, Montgomery, and finally found just what we wanted in Loveland.”

        The Pennzoil Oil Change Center and carwash share the same building. Customers can get their cars serviced and cleaned at one time, then shop at Autocoustics next door while they're waiting. Sometimes, Mr. Dick's customers will treat their vehicles to a new stereo or alarm system, then celebrate with a carwash.

        The combination of a carwash and car service center is new to Cincinnati, Mrs. Dick said. Unusual, also, is the facility's design and marketing approach, which is geared to female consumers.

        “I've read Faith Popcorn's book, Eve-olution, about marketing to women,” she said. “She talks about the automotive industry's lack of attention to the female customer.”

        From her research as well as personal experience, Mrs. Dick knew that service and repair shops can take advantage of women's ignorance about cars. A shop's environment, too, can be a turn-off to women.

        “It's things like cleanliness, the furniture and the magazine selection,” she said.

        So as Mr. Dick fine-tuned his new store, Mrs. Dick and Mrs. Sharp thought through the wash and lube component. They wanted women, who are increasingly important as consumers of automobile services, to feel comfortable on the premises. Their choices of colors, waiting-room chairs and reading material were deliberately aimed to appeal to women while being attractive to men also.

        Then a staff member pointed out that lots of customers brought their children along. So, in went a small play area, stocked with activities to keep children busy. Mrs. Dick keeps a stash of children's videos in her office, so she can switch the waiting room TV from Oprah to Barney upon request.

        But the company's commitment to comfort doesn't end with physical needs. Mrs. Dick has also addressed that vague unease many women experience when they deal with a car's insides.

        “Many times when you take the car in for a lube, the mechanic tells you that it needs something else,” she said. “You don't know if they're telling you the truth, and often you don't even know what they're talking about. Our staff take the time to explain services to the customer in plain English. They are not paid on commission, so there is no pressure on them to sell additional services. They give advice only and try to educate the customer.”

        The desire to put people at ease and to educate them may well come from Mrs. Dick's years as a hospital dietitian and educator.

        “So much I learned at Mercy I've applied here,” she said, citing her experience in writing policies and procedures, budgeting, purchasing, and dealing with employees and patients.

        But instead of working to be effective within a large bureaucracy, as a small-business owner she can do things exactly the way she and her husband want.

        “If we see something that needs fixing, we fix it. We have our own authority to get things done. We can't pass the buck,” she said.

        Mrs. Dick acknowledges that personnel is one of their greatest challenges. The competition for workers is fierce, and their business volume is heavily weather-dependent. To lure and retain good employees, the owners offer benefits.

        “We try to select employees that share our values,” said Mrs. Dick. “We want to do what we do well. Quality is one of our most important needs. If a customer isn't satisfied, we want to know before they leave so we can address the problem then.”


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