ST Billingsley is one of the owners of B&W Associates, a company that operates two auto repair shops in Woodbridge, Virginia. The company was established in 2005 when Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire, a four-bay shop, was purchased. The business has since expanded to eight bays, and another shop – HomeTowne Auto Repair & Tire – was established eight years later. The two businesses are located in the same parking lot and compete against one another. They both fund What’s Up Prince William (WUPW.news), a news site that promotes non-profits and their events for free.
Billingsley’s original plan wasn’t to enter the automotive field. He worked on helicopters in the army reserves, and his goal was to work on aircraft at Dulles Airport. However, because a large airline went out of business, inexperienced aircraft mechanics weren’t being hired. This led him to go into the automotive industry, where he began as a tire changer and mechanic’s helper. After taking classes and gaining experience, he became a certified master technician.
While working as a technician, he noticed there weren’t many older professionals working in the automotive industry and decided he wanted to own a shop. A few years after becoming a business owner, he signed up for and graduated from Automotive Training Institute (ATI). ATI is a coaching program for those who own auto shops.
The two shops offer many of the services that others do. However, our focus on the community makes us stand out. Billingsley – who was involved in the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Prince William, and other local organizations – saw that non-profits didn’t have a way to consistently receive coverage without paying for it. So, he established WUPW.news in 2015.
WUPW.news provides coverage for many organizations. These include the Boys & Girls Club, which offers various programs for kids in the community; Action in Community Through Service (ACTS), which runs a Hunger Prevention Center and 24/7 helpline; and The Arc of Greater Prince William, which serves individuals with disabilities. We help promote their events and visibility in the community so people understand what they do.
For a few organizations, the auto repair shops also do a large amount of services for free.
Challenges in the automotive industry
Finding qualified people to work is one of the challenges our business faces. There’s a lot of talk about the “Great Resignation”. We’re in that boat a bit, because – even though we are posting ads and receiving applications for open positions – finding employees with the experience and knowledge needed is difficult.
When hiring, our business also needs to turn away certain applicants because they smoke marijuana. Our drug-free policy isn’t based on whether we think it should be legal or not. Rather, it comes from a safety standpoint. In the 20 + years we have been working in the transportation industry, we have found that the personnel who leave the wheels loose are typically those smoking pot. In order to protect our customers, we have to eliminate applicants for that reason. This is becoming more and more of a problem. So, you may be qualified but if you smoke marijuana all the time, we can’t hire you.
Another issue we run into is the supply chain. Finding common parts that would normally be on the shelf or we could receive it the next day are now taking easily three to eight days. There are also certain parts that we can’t get a hold of at all.
We are also seeing problems at the national and state level, where legislators are imposing rules on businesses in general. However, they don’t always see how the guidelines impact small businesses, which seem to be lumped in with the larger ones. The potential can be very detrimental to us.
Opportunities for our company
One of the opportunities for our particular business is the shortage of microchips for new vehicles. There are a lot of cars that haven’t been sold and are sitting on the dock or storage lots, or haven’t been produced at all. Drivers are keeping their vehicles longer. Those of us who are in the aftermarket repair industry are seeing a consistent business, and consumers are willing to put more in their vehicle because there’s nothing else for them to purchase.
When the new cars become available, it will flood the market. We may lose some customers initially, because they bought a new car. But there’s still a demand for used vehicles. So, as those used cars become cheaper we’re not really losing those vehicles that are coming to the shop.
A huge opportunity lies with those who are staying educated in the field. Because vehicles are becoming more complicated and the way they are designed, homeowners who don’t have the technical knowledge needed can’t really work on their car. It’s not that the information isn’t out there for the enthusiast to work on their vehicle at home. A lot of people do. However, the trend of people working on their car in their driveway is starting to go away. Even tasks as simple as installing new brake pads and rotors now require a computer to retract the pistons and caliper – rather than pushing them in with pliers, like you used to.
Staying up to date on servicing vehicles is also an opportunity. There’s a lot of talk about electric vehicles taking over the market. More electric vehicles are hitting the road, but hybrid vehicles are the most economical. The engines may still become a little smaller, more fuel efficient, and more environmentally friendly. But you still have that safety of putting fuel in your vehicle, going across the country, and not needing to worry about a charger. We’re still looking at engines being produced to 2035. Those produced in 2035 will still be around for 10 to 20 years. So, gas engines won’t completely disappear right away.
Recommendations for other businesses
Even though we sometimes have a problem finding the right fit for open positions, we have learned this past year not to be afraid to part ways with employees who aren’t performing or on board with the company. Even if you are afraid to lose the body, the staff member is probably doing more damage to your business by staying.
Hiring individuals who are strong in areas you aren’t or enjoy tasks you don’t like is another lesson Billingsley has learned over the years. Having employees who can complete tasks better or more efficiently doesn’t make you less important. Actually, it can boost their confidence and help move the business along.
As a small business owner, it’s hard to give up control, but you need to learn to do it. And you need to be training people to take over your job. If you’re one person who has been in it for 20 years and it takes three people to do your job, then three people need to be trained up to take over your position. Otherwise, you’re never going to get out of the business, unless you sell it. One thing you should be working toward is investing in the education and training of your people, and start identifying those people to train them up.
As you start doing this, you may start to find that the person you thought would take over your position isn’t the right one. When you are training the people to take your job, all of a sudden you will find that your business gets better and moves up, because now you’re able to concentrate on more of the important things that are in the long-term interest of your company.
Because of the uncertainty regarding the supply chain for regular items – like paper towels, masks and cleaning supplies and paper – it’s a good idea for businesses to prepare for seven to nine months. Especially for the products you know you will use.
We have also made an effort to ensure that maintenance and upgrading equipment doesn’t get put off. Our company wants to make sure that if there is another supply chain problem we are not sitting here with eight projects that need to be completed. Instead, we are jumping right on them, ensuring that everything is working correctly, upgrading equipment, and continuously working on training with our people. It may be a little bit difficult right now, but training staff at all levels will just help your company in the long run.
As a small business that’s involved with the community, we’re not always out there looking for recognition. A few years ago, a member of a community group told Billingsley that it’s important to tell others what you do. If you’re doing something in the community, you should highlight that you are participating. Even if you feel self-conscious about it, you need to because no one else knows.
This advice also holds true for the products and services your business offers. One time, a customer was watching our technicians work on his car. Billingsley approached the customer to thank him for visiting our shop. When Billingsley asked him what his plans were for the weekend, the customer replied he had an oil change scheduled at another business. Perplexed about why the customer wasn’t having the oil change performed at our shop, Billingsley asked if it was a business that offers a certain type of oil. The customer replied that it was just a regular oil change. Then, he asked if we do oil changes. This situation reminded Billingsley of the advice he had received about telling people what you do. Even though the customer had been at the shop three times for mechanical work, he didn’t know we perform oil changes. Now, when customers come in we make sure that they have a good understanding of all the services we offer.
So, whether it comes to ways your business supports the community or how you can help your client, it’s important to share that information. Even though they are your customers, they aren’t necessarily aware of all that you do.
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