How A Chance Meeting Led To A Plan To Change The Industry
It sounds like the plot of a binge-worthy television series. An English lad from Wolverhampton with a passion for cars graduates from high school at age 16 and is accepted into the automotive training program at nearby Wulfrun College. At 18, he graduates college and lands an internship with an independent Rolls-Royce/BMW/Mercedes-Benz repair shop.
After several years of servicing high-end European cars on their own turf, our hero sets out across the Atlantic with dreams of launching his own career. As part of a venture to launch a brewing business in Chicago, things soon take a change in direction.
A series of unexpected twists follow, including a case of mistaken identity, and Neil Crozier finds himself offering to install a car stereo at a big box store (at which he is not employed, evidence to the contrary) for a frustrated young lady (who does not recognize his attempts at flirtation) on New Year’s Day 2010.
Forty-three days later, Neil and Bambi Crozier are married and drafting ambitious plans to change the image of the automotive industry.
As they say, truth is stranger than fiction, and the story you have just read is true.
“Neil did have the opportunity to come here from England in 2006,” says Bambi, co-owner of NWA Car Clinic in Lowell, Ark. “We met while I was shopping for a car stereo, knowing nothing about automotive. I thought he worked at the store because he was wearing a blue shirt and he actually offered to help me.”
After getting married, the Croziers moved back to Bambi’s home state of Arkansas and tried to decide what to do, to ensure their move would be permanent.
“We looked at opening a daycare facility or at opening a British pub. Finally, we landed on opening an auto repair facility, because that’s what Neil knew. I know people, so I could handle customer service,” Bambi says.
To a large degree, the philosophy of customer service at NWA Car Clinic was formed out of that fortuitous stereo shopping experience.
“There I was, a typical, huffing, irritated woman who didn’t know anything about cars. I’m the one spending the money in the family, making all the decisions, but I knew nothing about automotive. I would wait til the last minute. I would avoid going to the mechanic, because I was sure he was going to rip me off,” Bambi recalls.
“I know now, of course, that always made things worse, but I wouldn’t tell them everything that I knew, because I thought that if I did, it would just cost me more.”
Bambi says when she met Neil, she realized she had found someone to trust – and, even more importantly, someone others could too. “I was excited because I was going to save the image of automotive. When a customer walked in, they weren’t going to get some big, burly guy who didn’t know how to talk to people. I could handle the people because Neil could explain everything to me fully before I called the customer.”
The result wasn’t exactly so simple, she realized.
“It was such a curve for me to learn and understand the dynamics of this industry,” Bambi says. “I started out believing I wanted to change the face of the automotive industry just by bringing trust, transparency, options and a female face to the front counter.”
What she realized was that mistrust in this industry often goes both ways. “I watched the mechanics we hired react to these customers. I knew they would do anything for them if they could, but I think that in a lot of cases they have been treated with no respect, they’ve been used and they’ve been hurt. They always just felt they weren’t valuable. Now, they often have a hard exterior that you have to figure out how to penetrate,” explains Bambi.
“I am in awe of what my team does – there’s just a value to them that others don’t have. I know this, because I don’t have the skillset that my husband has.”
The combination of skillsets has allowed the Croziers to build NWA Car Clinic into a thriving business if, to some degree, an unlikely one.
Looking at the local market, talking to the local Chambers of Commerce and the local mayor’s office, the Croziers made the decision to open up a European auto repair center in northwest Arkansas. “There was one!” Bambi exclaims. “600,000 cars with one automotive shop that’s a European specialist. Everybody was driving to Tulsa, Okla., for auto care.
“The benefit with Neil’s accent is people automatically are drawn to him,” says Bambi. “They trust him, because they know that he grew up working on only these cars. His expertise truly was those British, German, European vehicles. That’s what he knows like the back of his hand.”
The biggest challenge initially, Neil recalls, wasn’t the technology – it was the terminology.
“I can fix a car – I had the toolbox. Find my wrench and away you go,” he says. “When it was just me and Bambi and a young girl we had with us at the beginning, I would tell them the parts I needed but I’d be saying it in an English way. Bambi would say ‘I have no idea what you’re looking for.’ She’d call the local parts house and say, ‘He’s after all this stuff. What does he want?’”
Crozier says he remembers trying to order parts and getting a blank stare. “I’m looking for suspension parts, and they’d ask ‘What’s a track rod end?’ It’s a tie rod. I’d say, ‘I’ll go and get my spanners and get this one going;’ Bambi would ask, ‘Why don’t you get your tools?’ and I’d say, ‘That’s what I just said.’”
Today, the shop’s vehicle mix is 75% Euro, 25% domestic. “We live in the South,” says Bambi. “I mean, everybody owns a Ford. A lot of our fleets are big domestic trucks – here you just can’t tell them no. When your customer says, ‘I want you to take care of my Ford in addition to my Land Rover,’ we say we’d be happy to help.”
To meet those demands, the Croziers have built a team conversant with both import and domestic vehicles. “That’s not something that Neil knew coming here,” says Bambi. “Now, he’ll tell you that a car is a car, that the badge is the only thing that’s really different, but as you get more technology in these cars, there’s definitely value in experience.”
The customer experience starts at the front counter, says Bambi. “Harley Massey has been with us for a year. She came from a spa. Our other service advisor is Luke Zieman. He is phenomenal. He’s been a tech in the past, as well as an advisor. What he’s going to learn from Harley is how to communicate in regular people terms, versus in his knowledge. What Harley’s going to learn from him is all of the right questions to ask, in addition to when it comes to estimating these jobs.”
Michael Hoppert handles the parts department, explains Bambi. “In addition, he’s our brand ambassador, maintaining our parking lot, making sure the floors and spills are cleaned up. And, Kirsten Blair handles all of the filing and banking, anything I need. I’ll email her and she takes care of it. Very important.”
On “the other side of the wall,” the technicians have a range of experience and expertise, the Croziers explain. “Shawn Brigance is a 30-year master tech, with a BMW, Mercedes, Euro background. Nigel Heath, who is from England as well, actually worked at a lot of the same dealerships in the UK that Neil did. And Jennifer Martin, who has four years in the industry, graduated from Northwest Technical Institute here locally, and interned with us. Her goal is to be the best expert diagnostic tech. She loves the electronic aspect of it, the graphing, all the brainiac stuff. She’s really brilliant at it.”
Another intern from Northwest Tech, Julia Haydel, graduated and joined the Car Clinic team in a quality-control role. “She takes the invoices after the techs have done the work,” explains Bambi. “She’s responsible for reading what the symptoms were, what the technician’s steps and their thought process were, what the diagnosis was, and what the fix was. Then she inspects to make sure that we don’t leave expensive tools in the car, vacuums out the car and brings those cars up front. She also does all of our lube, oil, tire work.”
In addition, of course, Neil is available in case there’s a situation the rest of the team can’t resolve on their own – but he’s actively making the effort to work less in the repair bays.
“That’s how it’s actually grown,” Neil explains. “We’ve tried to employ the correct people who can fill the space where I would work in the shop. I can actually go out and work a bit more on PR and some marketing, and actually get out in the community. As Bambi was saying, people like to talk to me. In the past, when I was actually in the workshop working on a particular vehicle, customers would want to talk for a minute, then I’d get distracted on the job. Now, we’ve tried to build it so I’m always available for the shop, but actually working on the other side of the wall at the same time.
The Croziers say their approach to customer service, at times, has been questioned.
“We’ve actually had customers say, ‘No, I didn’t ask you to look over my whole car.’ We’ve had to make it very clear that we are not a quick flyby. When you go to the doctor, he takes your blood pressure, makes you stand on the scale, he measures you… Well, you’re bringing your car to THIS doctor, because there’s an issue. I’ll tell them, ‘It’s important for you to understand the health of your car, for the safety of your family on the road,’” Bambi says.
“I don’t think I’m doing you any justice if I just fix only this, and don’t tell you, ‘You have a heart attack coming,’ with your car,” says Bambi. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. I tell customers all the time, ‘I would rather have you choose not to do business with me, or not fix this, than to lose our relationship long-term.”’
Relationships are key for the Croziers’ customers and extends to their suppliers as well.
“Our warehouse, Tri-State Enterprises in Springdale, Ark., is amazing,” exclaims Bambi. “We really should be raving about them. We’ve being doing business with Richard Cook at Tri-State since they opened in northwest Arkansas. We’ve done a ‘Brakes For Breasts’ campaign for three years now and they are the only ones in our area who said ‘Yes, we’ll take of your brakes during October’ the first time we asked.”
Bambi continues: “Here’s another reason we’re loyal to Tri-State. Right around Christmas, a customer came in with a vehicle asking for just brakes and a few other things. I learned that his daughter was recently diagnosed with cancer and they were having to travel to Little Rock several times a week for testing, chemotherapy and treatment. They only had one working vehicle, but needed another that would be reliable enough to get his daughter to Little Rock in an emergency. Our original plan was to just take care of whatever it needed but, once we got it in, the invoice was over $10,000. Neil and I said, ‘Okay, we love these people, but how are we going to do this?’”
A quick message to Richard Cook provided the answer.
“He said, ‘Just send me the list of whatever you need and I’ll do whatever I can.’” Bambi says. “He didn’t even follow up and tell me that he was doing it – but the next day, a truck showed up with everything that he had in stock. It turns out it was about 90 percent of what we needed. That’s who Richard Cook is. That’s who Tri-State is. That’s why we are loyal to them.”
“We don’t get those stories very often,” Bambi says, “but when we do, we need to be there for our customers.”
The warehouse partnership, says Neil, is different in the UK. “Basically, with places like Tri-State here, where you can find aftermarket parts quite easily, in England you normally have to go into a dealership for the parts. The aftermarket is there, but it’s not very well-known.”
Thanks to their dedication to handle the needs of their customers, the Croziers have invested heavily in the necessary tools to repair complex vehicles. “As we started to grow and realized what tooling we needed for European cars, we got up-to-date with scanners and sensors, to where we can take on 2020 vehicles,” Neil explains. “A lot of the local body shops send us their European cars when they’ve repaired them, because there are so many sensors that have to be reset after accidents, and they don’t have that capability.”
In addition to the shop’s Brakes for Breasts campaign, the Croziers use other events as marketing efforts as well.
“We have a ‘Lipsticks and Dipsticks’ event, a ‘Pints and Pistons’ event and a ‘New Driver Safety & Care Class’ in the spring. In addition, we do some local networking with business groups,” says Neil. “Even though these people might not need my services today, they may be talking to another 40-50 people who may have just moved into the area with a European vehicle.”
One of the shop’s most satisfying programs, say the Croziers, is a foster kids training class, in partnership with Northwest Tech. “We teach these kids about what’s it like to maintain their own cars, what they need to do, and help them understand that when they graduate out of this foster program that they do have funding available to go to Northwest Tech. Whether they want to do the mechanics program or do hair, nails, electrician or HVAC, they can go to college at the university. We help them realize that there are other options for their life when they get past high school,” Bambi says.
This benefits both the student and the shop, when it comes to searching for the next member of the team. “We want to make sure we have the right cheeks in the right seats,” Bambi concludes. “You put the wrong cheeks in this seat, and it can cause you a lot of heartache. I think hiring is a critical part of our success, and that has allowed us to be able to do what we can do today.”