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Northshore Automotive: Small Business, Big Heart

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Tim Fella, proprietor, Northshore Automotive
(Image by courtesy of Tim Fella)
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Too often these days, dealing with businesses, large and small, local or not, is one great big frustration. Customer service is, for the most part, obsolete and price seems to be the major driver of many if not most consumer decisions. During my tenure as a Senior Editor for OpEdNews, I have striven to share stories of exceptional businesses whose values I admire and that do not share that blatant disregard for their customers. Northshore Automotive is one of them.

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My guest today is Tim Fella, proprietor of Northshore Automotive, located in Wilmette, Illinois. Welcome to OpEdNews, Tim. Can you tell our readers a little about what you do?

Hello, Joan. Thank you for inviting me to this interview. As you stated, I am the owner and proprietor of Northshore Automotive in beautiful Wilmette. We service and repair all makes and models of automobile with a specialization on imports. We also do a limited number of used car sales where we offer quality cars in great condition at a fair price as well as locating cars that people are looking for.

How long have you been doing this, Tim? And how did you get started in the first place?

I've been in this business for just about 35 years in all. I found myself in need of a job so I started sweeping the floors and taking care of stock in a dealership parts department. Eventually, they saw how hard a worker I was and moved me up to full-time parts associate. That accounts for the first 15 of those years, when I moved up to parts manager and had to move from dealership to dealership. At that time, I found myself without a job. I had been let go because of some workplace politics. I had unknowingly offended someone who decided to throw around his power and there I was, all my years of work and loyalty counting for nothing. It was at this time that I decided I was done with the dealerships, and how they treat people - both employees and customers - and decided to open my own business. I have spent the last twenty years running my own shop, just trying to give the customers a place that is built around honesty, integrity, and actual customer service.

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How's it going for you? How's it different running your own business than it was working for a dealership?

I am pleased to say that I have been very lucky and things are going very well! There are so many differences that sometimes it's hard to believe that this is the same industry as the dealership. There is job security that comes with being my own boss, versus always being anxious at the dealership that you are on someone's short list for termination. I like to run a straight-forward business; dealerships are awash with politics and I don't play those games. However, owning my own business has the added pressure of never knowing if or when the customers are going to come through the door. The biggest difference is customer service! When a customer walks through my door the first time, we try our best to show them how we are different and it's amazing how over time we build a relationship. I have customers that purchased a car from me, then brought that car back for service with me. Now, here we are years later and I am finding cars for their kids and servicing their cars. I have loyal customers who have been with me all these twenty years I've had my business, and I have seen their families grow and they have seen my own family grow as well. I'm a very lucky man.

I can attest to what you just said. In my old neighborhood, virtually every person brought their car to Northshore Automotive and had been for many years, if not decades. That's what I call customer loyalty! At some point, you chose not to advertise. How did you come to that decision and has it served you well?

I have focused on only two forms of what you could consider advertising - direct mail, in which we send out coupons to customers or my prefered manner which is to purchase space for ads in local programs or books. This includes various New Trier High School sports programs, Evanston Women's Club's annual yearbook, and the Wilmette Park District skating rink. This way, even if the money spent doesn't bring anyone in the door, at least I know that it's going to a good cause and right back into the community that has supported me and my business.

I have also found that the most effective advertisement is word of mouth from my customers. Not a day goes by without either hearing that a customer has referred us to a friend, or we have a new customer walk in the door and say that a friend sent them to us. This approach has served me very well over the years because anyone can pay to have their name posted on a sign, billboard, or in a magazine, but you have to really prove the value in what you do to have somebody put their recommendation behind you. We truly do have the world's best customers - they do this constantly and trust us to take care of their friends and family. In one case, I had a great customer who recommended us to three of her closest friends, and they all ended up becoming regular customers. These four ladies would schedule their cars for the same day at the same time, and when they arrived, they would pull out a deck of cards and have a very lively game of pinochle. I like to think there aren't many auto repair facilities in the world that someone would not only recommend to her close friends but then make it the setting of their semi-regular pinochle games!

Northshore Automotive garage
(Image by courtesy of Tim Fella)
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That's for sure! Very cool. How did you get into the used car business, Tim? Everyone seems to hate and mistrust car salesmen and it's been like that forever. Why did you take that on when you already had a successful repair shop? Weren't you worried it would sully your stellar reputation and be more trouble than it was worth?

After about four years on the service side, I really started to register how many times a customer would ask if I knew where they could get good used cars. I came to the conclusion that, although there are plenty of used car lots out there, there was a supreme lack of a service that was desperately needed: somewhere you could get a great used car at a reasonable price. So I took the values and principles I had successfully applied to the auto repair business and started the used car side. I was never really worried about sullying my reputation because I stand behind the cars I sell the same way we stand behind our repair work. I offer great used vehicles and I only ask my fair profit.

I had to make a decision when I first started in the used car business. Was I going to be the guy that marked all my vehicles way up and leave room to negotiate? No! That's not me. If there is even the slightest question of the integrity of a car, it goes right to auction. If I feel that a car is a great option, then we fix what needs to be fixed and put it on the lot at a price that's fair for both parties. It's a simple and straightforward approach that I would appreciate if roles were reversed.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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