Verlin Brown decided three years ago that he wanted to take the driver’s seat of a business. But if he was going to go solo, he didn’t want to do it driving on retreads.
“I was looking for something I thought was original,” he said.
The 48-year-old had worked in management for a paper company and had later bought into an air-conditioning and heating business in Montana. But next time he wanted not only to be his own boss, but to try out some new wheels in the service industry.
In July he founded Spokane Fleet Services, a Valley company that provides maintenance for commercial vehicles. Instead of having companies bring cars and trucks in for repairs, he goes to them.
He works around the customer’s schedule. “We have several customers that only use our services on nights or weekends, because their vehicles are tied up,” he said.
The company has a van equipped with tools, an air hose and separate tanks for holding new and dirty oil. Spokane Fleet puts its customers on a maintenance schedule and automatically visits them when they need an oil change, brake check, or other routine maintenance.
Customers say that’s exactly what hooked them: This way, keeping their fleet humming is a no-brainer.
“We don’t have to build up our employee time shuttling cars back and forth to a shop,” said Tony Smith, transportation supervisor for Pathology Associates in the Valley. Smith said that the company’s total repair costs have actually gone down since it began having Spokane Fleet maintain its vehicles.
Paying employees to run autos in for repair actually costs as much as the repairs themselves. “We were double-dinged,” Smith said.
Smith said that Pathology Associates was already looking for just such a service.
“It was something we had talked about for months before (Spokane Fleet Services) approached us,” Smith said.
Brown said the idea wasn’t his, but he immediately recognized its potential. The concept for Fleet Services is marketed by Cercom, an Atlanta-based company. There are now about 30 Cercom dealerships in the country, and the company has ambitious plans for 200 by 1997.
Brown currently has one van and a couple of employees, but hopes to keep adding as his accounts grow. And, while a few car dealerships and repair shops offer types of mobile service, he thinks the commercial fleet spin of his venture sets it apart.
Spokane Fleet is not a franchise, Brown said. Dealers don’t pay any royalties to Cercom; the cost of the maintenance van and training sessions were one-time purchases.
Fortunately, Brown already had management experience, but working in professional auto repair was a first. Still, he’s no stranger to the wrench.
“Yeah, I’m the master technician,” he said, laughing. “School of hard knocks.”
Brown began working on his own cars even before he could drive them. “I remember when I was in high school, my brothers and I had contests to see who could take an engine out of a car the fastest,” he said.
That’s probably the perfect training for Brown, considering his repairs are done outside. Running a mobile garage takes the same knowledge as running a traditional shop, but sometimes requires a little bit more determination.
“It’s different because you’re out in the elements when it’s 20 degrees, it’s harder than being in a nice, warm shop,” he said.
By far the biggest challenge facing Brown, though, isn’t the weather - it’s old customer habits.
“I call it the corporate mentality,” Brown said. “The thing about maintenance is, people don’t want to think about it. The whole concept of this business will take awhile. People would rather wait until something breaks.”
Bob Johnson, who handles sales for Fleet Services, said companies that do plan for service often opt to keep driving vehicles to garages for repairs.
“So many customers expressed an interest in our services, but have been dealing with the same person for so long,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult to get them to change.”
To sweeten the appeal, Fleet Services is now throwing service for a client company’s employees into the mix. Companies can set up days where their employees’ vehicles are lubed and checked. Window crack repairs could be next.
Cercom company literature calls its form of auto service “the next McDonald’s.”
“Everything is going mobile,” Johnson said. “From pizza delivery to appliance service, everyone is now going to the actual point of business … why should auto service be any different?”
In the future, the exotic wheel of a concept that is Spokane Fleet Services could be tomorrow’s proven radial.
“Ultimately, each dealership and repair shop will have several mobile service vehicles,” Johnson said.
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