Poetry in Motion
A one-man Volvo shop grows into a giant
From the December, 2010 issue
It was the kind of discussion business owners dread. "The economy took a huge toll on us in 2008," says Joe Meza, the founder, owner, and driving force behind ArborMotion, the import car care conglomerate on State Circle. As business slumped, Meza recalls, "I told James that I needed to see a 20 percent reduction in payroll. And he said no!"
Meza had hired James Snider only a year before, to replace another general manager who didn't work out. "He didn't see it [the recession] was affecting us," remembers Meza, a big man with a stubbly beard and tousled salt-and-pepper hair. "But I saw how it would-and soon. Also," he adds with a smile, "James is very paternalistic. He's like a mother hen with his employees."
"It's a strength and a weakness," admits the fresh-faced Snider, who's thirty-three but has the self-possession of someone twice his age. "I didn't feel we'd exhausted every other possible option. And I felt like we'd invested a lot in these employees-and that they'd invested a lot in the company."
Snider was the manager, but Meza was the owner-and if Snider couldn't cut costs, he would. "I told him I was coming back [to run the company]," Meza recalls of the October 2008 showdown. "And that was enough to get him to make the moves that had to be made. He learned the hard way."
"It was an extremely difficult part of my learning experience," Snider agrees with a pained smile. At the time, ArborMotion had twenty-four employees, and "I told Joe there was no way we could function if we laid off 20 percent." Instead, driven by Meza's ultimatum, "we looked at expenses, analyzed every line, and made cuts-but not in livelihood." To keep the staff intact, Snider says, "I'd go [unpaid for] multiple paychecks, and some others voluntarily took pay cuts." He finally did have to lay someone off this past January. "But we were able to bring them back in July-and when
we announced it at a team meeting, he got a standing ovation." Snider has tears in his eyes from the memory.
Avoiding layoffs allowed the company not only to survive but to grow again as soon as the economy improved. Sales are up 10 percent this year, and staff has grown to twenty-eight, including two newly hired mechanics-one specializing in Porsches, the other in domestic brands. This year alone, Snider says, ArborMotion will work on 5,000 cars.
When Joe Meza started Swedish Engineering in 1981, it was just him and his wife, Barbara Wilson, who kept the books. And he only did Volvos. "At that time, nobody specialized," explains Meza, an Ecuadorian whose family moved to Ann Arbor in 1962. "But I'd worked on Volvos, and I felt like they spoke my language."
After eight years as a one-man, one-hoist operation, he moved to a bigger space on South Industrial. "I was ready," he recalls. "And when I hired the two best mechanics in town, business took off really fast." He eventually outgrew that five-hoist shop, and in 2004 he moved again-this time to ArborMotion's current fifteen-hoist space off State just south of I-94.
"It was pretty scary," recalls Meza. "I was making it ten times the size and without having ten times the business."
To fill the building he bought German-car specialist Eurotec Motors, gaining both a master mechanic and a client list rich in Mercedes, BMW, and Audi owners. At the same time, he hired experienced Toyota-Lexus mechanics Tom O'Connor and James Bandkau to staff a new division called Asian Import Repairs. But while his sales grew, profits disappeared.
"Moving put a huge strain on the entire operation," says Meza, "and I took the biggest hit money-wise: it ate away all my savings. Barbie and I didn't pay ourselves, and for the next three years, we were just barely able to make it through."
Meza frankly says that the business had outgrown his management style. "I operate by gut feeling. I'm very impatient; when something gets in my head I have to do it." After his first general manager left, Meza interviewed many more candidates before happening upon James Snider in May 2007.
Snider, an MSU business grad, was working as a consultant at the time. When he heard about the job from a client, "I said 'Absolutely not! I don't know anything about cars!' But she said I really should try it. So I met with Joe and we talked for a while and then he showed me around the shop. I said to myself, 'This guy has got an incredible company with tremendous potential!'"
There was a "but"-a big but. "It was making a profit but not nearly what a sustainable company should be making," says Snider. "Sustainable meaning 'able to stay in business.'"
The impulsive Meza instantly decided Snider was just the man to find and fix the problem. "I felt like I was talking to the person I was looking for," he says. "He didn't have automotive experience, and a rational person would say that this isn't a good fit. But I thought he would be perfect for the business, [that] having a good business background and not being a car guy would be a real asset."
Snider started out by "shadowing" every employee-following them through their workdays. "It was a little nerve-racking because people wondered if their jobs were secure," he remembers. "But as I learned what they do, I learned to respect who they were and the work they do, and then they started showing me respect, and we learned to trust each other."
Too often, when businesses talk about "raising productivity," what they mean is "cutting staff." But Snider's key insight was that the growing garage needed more people-not less. "We had two service advisors dispatching work to five techs, and they [each] had no idea what the other was doing," he explains. "In the old shop, it was easy to manage, but we're at nine fulltime and two part-time technicians, and it was just too confusing." Snider added a dispatcher to insure work got where it needed to be on time. Since then, he says, "tech efficiency has gone up over 20 percent"-more than enough to pay for the extra person.
"He complemented all of my weaknesses," Meza says. "He is much more organized, better follow-through, prepared, knows how to prioritize things, and he's a good team-builder. I am great at starting things, and James is good at finishing things. My talent is to start a business, get it off the ground, and then pass it on to someone else to take it to the next level."
In addition to rebranding the company as ArborMotion, Snider is slowly buying Meza out. "I made a minimum five-year commitment because I knew it would take at least that long to get the company where it should be," he explains. "But I also fell in love with the business."
Both of the mechanics who helped Meza's business take off in the early 1990s are still with the company. "I personally have a lot of customers who want just me to work on their car," says Mark Newbound, a Volvo specialist. Kyle Brodie, another Volvo specialist, hired in right after Newbound. "We offer a two-year parts and labor guarantee," Brodie points out. "Sometimes it bites us in the butt, but we learn-and we figure it out so it doesn't happen again." Asked how long he'll stay, Brodie laughs. "Until I become a professional golfer! No, this is my career for the rest of my life. We're going to be the number-one repair shop in this area-and I mean soon."
Two customers I spoke with one morning backed the mechanics' claims. Patricia Sonntag was in getting her Audi's rear brakes done. "The quality of the work here is very superior," she said. "I've raced cars for twenty years all over the country, and this place is outstanding."
Barbara Niess-May, whose 2000 Subaru has 175,000 miles on it, was in to have a squeak checked out. "They charge a lot, but their mechanics are fast and efficient, and the work is of very high quality," she says. "Plus, they recognize women make the majority of car decisions, and there's no sexism here. Everyone is treated with respect."
As executive director of SafeHouse, Niess-May has another relationship with ArborMotion: the garage runs a fundraiser for the domestic violence shelter called Oil Change for a Change. "For a $25 donation, you get an oil change, a winter inspection, and a hand car wash," Niess-May explains. "This will be our third year, and they've raised between $8,000 and $11,000 a year."
Snider likes nonprofits-his first job out of college was running the Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a group his Korean-born mother helped to found. He's so committed to SafeHouse that he sent his whole staff to tour the shelter. But he's a little touchy about Niess-May's comment that ArborMotion charges a lot.
ArborMotion bills most diagnostic work at $105 an hour, which Snider says is comparable to dealer rates. But a repair's final cost, he insists, "has nothing to do with labor rate-that's irrelevant. It's, how smart are your techs, how experienced?" When mechanics specialize in one brand, he says, "all of a sudden [their] efficiency goes up." For example, he says, his techs can resolder rather than replace an expensive Volvo brake control module, and check every Mini they see for a minor coolant leak that, if undetected, can lead to major engine damage.
When he buys a business, Snider figures half of the purchase price reflects the staff's expertise. "At end of day, why are [customers] going to Rennstatt?" he asks rhetorically. "It's not the tools."
Rennstatt is ArborMotion's newest acquisition-and the second company it's bought from Tim Pott. Pott was also the owner of Eurotec. When he sold his previous company in 2006, ArborMotion acquired his customer list, tools, and parts inventory. But while his master tech and service advisor moved to State Circle, Pott stayed behind on Trade Center Drive to open Rennstatt, German for "racing shop."
"They were interested in taking Porsche and me," recalls Pott, "but I had an attractive lease and I'd worked on Porsches for my entire career, and I'd always wanted to try a Porsche-only business." Pott says Rennstatt's business grew, "but I found out that at fifty-eight it's hard to manage on your own. It's a physically demanding job, and I'm competing with young folks more robust than I am-hard as that is to admit," he laughs. So he approached Snider about a second sale.
"I'm beside myself," says Snider. "Tim is one of the best technicians in southeast Michigan, and he's the Porsche guru. They were dream negotiations. Everybody put their cards on the table, and there were no issues and no concerns. This is beneficial for both of us-and we built him a retirement strategy."
"I'm really looking forward to this," says Pott. "But I don't feel like I'm going to retire anytime soon. I'm going there on a five-year contract, but I'm hoping to be there beyond that. My hope is to keel over at a workbench some day."
Snider's also expanding into American brands-a departure from Joe Meza's focus on import lines. Snider says that they've always worked on the occasional Ford and Chevy, but mainly as a convenience to their import customers who also owned domestics. This past summer, though, he realized that American cars had become the fastest growing part of ArborMotion's business. He did what Joe Meza would have done and recruited a specialist-WCC instructor John Sykes. "When we brought him on board, our proficiency and efficiency on working on domestics shot through the roof," says Snider. "We're paying him high dollar value, but he's so efficient he makes up for it."
Now that ArborMotion is growing again, Snider is thinking about expansion. "We can add another four to eight hoists here," he says. After that, he'd like to "open a satellite location on the northwest side of town."
When that happens, it'll be ArborMotion's first move without Joe Meza. The same year Snider joined the business, Meza and Wilson purchased land in Mindo in his native Ecuador, and the next year, 2008, they built a second home there. They turned the home into a restaurant and then expanded into chocolate, a longtime love of Wilson's. She and Meza now buy cacao beans from nearby growers, ferment and dry them, then turn them into cocoa and chocolates at their Dexter home.
Asked by email if he's happy with the way Snider worked out and with what he's doing with his life right now, Meza replies, "Yes to both. Things couldn't be better for ArborMotion, and James is a big part of it.
As for his new career: "I am very happy working on Mindo Chocolate," Meza says. "I am in Ecuador right now, the weather is great, and the food is better."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the December 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. A paraphrase mistakenly placed in quotes has been corrected.
[Originally published in December, 2010.]