Mike Veenstra ditched stale marketing techniques and began targeting higher-quality customers – it worked.
as published in Shop Owner Magazine
For Mike Veenstra, the search is on for location number three.
But for the lifelong Grand Rapids, MI, resident and third-generation repair shop owner, the path to owning multiple locations has been a winding one.
Mike started in the automotive industry 42 years ago, in 1980, when he graduated from a local tech school and went to work for the family business. Veenstra’s Garage was founded in 1927 by Mike’s grandfather and was truly a family affair. When he first joined the team, Mike worked as a technician alongside his brother and for his father.
Little did Mike know that the next few years were going to be a crash course in repair shop ownership and management. His father retired just a few years later in 1984, and, for the next four years, Mike and his brother ran the business as partners.
But when Mike’s brother left the business in 1988, Mike was suddenly thrust into the role of a business owner.
“I was 26 years old, and I had no clue how to run a business,” says Mike. He was tasked with learning how to run a successful shop on the fly, while also protecting the family legacy.
For the next 30 years, Mike ran his shop the way many owners do. He joined 20 Groups and copied what other shop owners were doing there. He says his marketing looked like everyone else’s marketing, and he used the same coaching that everyone else was using.
That’s also what convinced Mike to expand into a second location. “My coaches at the time told me that location was everything,” says Mike. “In order to grow, I went looking for a second location that was stronger than my first.”
Mike closed on that location, located in nearby Ada, MI, in June of 2017, and asked his son, Jason, if he wanted to be the General Manager. Veenstra’s Garage was officially on the path to a fourth generation of family ownership.
The now-multi-shop operation struggled in ways that will sound familiar to many multi-shop owners. The holes and bottlenecks in the processes and procedures that were at the first location were magnified at the new shop.
“It was almost too much work for me,” admits Jason. “The first four years, I was the only office person at our Ada location. I was manager, front counter, and service writer.”
Not wanting to keep Jason in a similar situation to the one Mike had struggled with, and with an eye toward giving Jason a smooth ownership transition plan, Mike began to search for help.
“I needed the business to be healthy enough for my son to take over as fourth generation and have it be in a good place for my retirement and his entry into solo business ownership,” says Mike.
The renaissance for Veenstra’s Garage started with marketing.
In 2019, Mike knew he was finally ready to attract a higher-quality customer, and he says he found that solution in the Automated Marketing Group. “It had a message that spoke to the customer I wanted to attract,” says Mike.
Mike says that “ditching stale marketing techniques and targeting a higher-quality customer with laser-focused messages” kicked off a series of life-altering events for his teams at Veenstra’s Garage.
First, he saw his average repair order start to climb as he upgraded his customer base. Before he started his new marketing campaigns, his average ticket in 2019 was $398. A year later, it had grown to $453, and now, in 2022, it has grown to $586.
The difference, according to Jason? “These are the type of customers we want.”
Upgrading the customer base at both locations set in motion two other events that have changed the course of Veenstra’s Garage.
First, it protected Jason and the Ada location in ways that Mike never expected.
When Mike purchased his second location, it was across the street from the headquarters of a national health and beauty corporation. This created a built-in customer base for Veenstra’s, and the shop didn’t have to advertise – with 3,000 employees across the street, the shop could have simply sat back and accepted whatever traffic word-of-mouth advertising brought in.
Thankfully, Mike wasn’t content to accept that status quo, because in 2020 that built-in customer base evaporated almost overnight. The COVID pandemic caused national corporations to restructure and lay off half the workforce. For a time, Mike was left wondering “what now?”
However, because Mike had already been working to upgrade his customer base, the shop “never even noticed a difference,” according to Mike. “Marketing is what made the difference in allowing us to survive that loss of 3,000 customers right across the street from us.”
“The marketing reached out and attracted the type of customer who was going to allow us to succeed,” says Mike.
The other event that was set in motion by upgrading their customer base was introducing Mike to the owners of Automated Marketing Group, David Rogers and Terry Keller.
At first, this relationship took the form of processes, procedures and optics. Rogers and Keller are the duo behind Shop4D, the shop management system that Veenstra’s started using in February 2020.
“Once we got into Shop4D, things got a lot smoother,” says Mike. “Our estimating was faster; we could easily put a parts matrix into place…it was delightful. My guys loved it right away.”
By focusing on improving processes and procedures, Mike’s team was able to eliminate the bottlenecks that were slowing down production and causing chaos.
Austin Ship, general manager at the original Veenstra’s location, agrees. “Everyone used to be stressed out,” says Austin. “Now they all know their job, and everyone is relaxed.”
“We’re billing more hours, the team is making more money and we’re doing it at a pace that is manageable,” says Jason.
With an upgraded customer base and a team that operated at a higher efficiency with less chaos, Mike was ready to take his operation to the next level. He was ready to upgrade himself and transform both himself and Jason into the leaders and managers that the shop needed to truly excel.
Mike was ready for coaching.
Unlike previous coaching that Mike had done where he had ended up copying what everyone else was doing, Mike wanted coaching that would push him to set his operation apart.
In July 2020, Mike hired Rogers and Keller to coach his business. Where some shop owners seek coaches who act like cheerleaders, Mike wanted to stretch and grow in ways that were often against his nature. He wanted to change so that he could leave a legacy that long outlasted him.
“It was TOUGH to coach with Terry and David,” admits Mike. “They pushed me in ways that I’ve never been pushed before. They could see things in me that were limiting me and pushed me hard to turn me into the leader that my businesses needed, for this next stage in my career and Jason’s.”
Jason agrees. “The practices I’m learning through coaching are the biggest change for me,” says Jason. “I have somebody holding me accountable and saying ‘Are you doing the things we talked about? You need to do these things, or you will not grow.’”
That level of personal accountability isn’t for everyone, but it was just the ticket for Mike, Jason, and Austin.
The Ada location, which lost its built-in customer base in 2020, has nearly doubled its sales since. Total shop sales are up 88.9% in the last two years, as the shop grew from $817,000 to $1.54 million.
And the original Grand Rapids location, quickly approaching its 100th anniversary, is still growing, too. The shop is up 32.2% in the last two years and grew from $1.32 million to $1.75 million.
The formula for success is straightforward, as Mike and his team demonstrate.
First, Veenstra’s upgraded its customer base so they could take control of the quality of customers coming into the shop. Next, they streamlined their processes so they could maximize efficiency and eliminate chaos. And finally, they sought out coaching that transformed them into better leaders and managers.
The end result?
“I’m looking for location number three,” says Mike. “When this recession brings me a location, I’m ready for it.”
But Mike, no longer a stranger to stretching and growing, isn’t stopping there. “My next five years are about continuing to get Jason ready for ownership when I retire. We need to hire and replace him when he takes over.”
Jason seems ready for the challenge. “We’re running like a machine,” says Jason. “I’m tickled by the thought of adding more locations.”
When the time comes to expand, the Veenstra’s team will be ready.
You can also read the article here on Shop Owner Magazine.