Greeley’s Progeny

Jan. 1, 2020
Located on the plains of northern Colorado, Greeley also is home to Advanced Auto Pro’s Inc., a repair shop founded by Rick Bilger in 1994.

Horace Greeley was a master communicator. A legendary newspaper editor of the 19th century and an ardent abolitionist, he founded the New York Tribune (published until 1966), arguably coined the phrase “Go west young man” (he might have cribbed it from someone else) and was famous enough to have a city in Colorado named for him (along with cities in three other states).

Located on the plains of northern Colorado, Greeley also is home to Advanced Auto Pro’s Inc., a repair shop founded by Rick Bilger in 1994. One of his ancestors might have listened to ol’ Horace, because his family has a long history in the area and the industry, the latter going back to his grandfather. Bilger himself started working on cars when he was 13 and opened his own shop when he was 21— and promptly failed.

“I shouldn’t have been my own accountant,” he admits. So Bilger went to work at area dealerships for the next 10 years before making another try in 1994, this time with success.

”It matters what you call success,” he cautions. “Somebody making a living in a lean-to was not what I was after.”

Like the town’s namesake, Bilger had come to value communication; based on past experiences at dealers, he needed to create a clear conduit between himself and his customers.

“It seemed like every other day there was somebody screaming at someone at the counter," Bilger recalls. “Sometimes I would walk up front and hear a service advisor explaining a repair that I was doing, and it would make me cringe; it wasn’t even what I told them. That’s not what I wanted.”

Now there’s always discussion with the staff on how to explain things, without getting too technical.

“We’ve never been ones that wouldn’t bring the customer back into the shop and show them exactly what’s been going on, answer any questions they have,” says Bilger. “If you asked any of the people who work for me what our shop is about, it’s communications. That’s all we talk about.”

The advent of digital photography and videos certainly has helped in this respect, and just recently the company subscribed to a service, which allows them to send photos to customers via their phones.

“Then they can call us back and discuss (the problem),” explains Bilger. “Again, that’s something new and exciting, but it also fits right into what we’ve been trying to do all along. The last couple of years have been amazing. It really augments our approach. Every time I find something that can more easily and clearly explain what we’re recommending to our customers, it just flows right in.”

Of course such technology can be a double-edged sword. With print declining in some areas and broadcast not always bringing the people in, right now marketing strategies are up for grabs. Shifting paradigms appear to point to the internet, but no one seems to have mastered it yet.

“Not that the Internet isn’t useful or unnecessary, it’s just so hard to grasp,” Bilger concludes. “You almost have to do a little bit of everything and track, track, track, because it’s a moving target. There’s just so many ways of getting that information on the Internet.”

Case in point: several years ago Bilger was on Colorado’s ASA board and was privy to one of its panel studies. “We had a little cross section of people, and we asked them how they chose their last shop. There was a lady who was about 60; a professional man about 40-some; and a young woman in her 20s, also a professional. The older lady definitely said that she found hers with the phone book; the professional said he Googled it; the one that got me was the young woman--she used the GPS on her phone. That really was shocking to me.”

It used to be simple: one phone book; one, maybe two newspapers; a local radio station; and of course direct mail, although Bilger still relies on the latter.

“I’m still getting results better than the phone book. Every year the phone book gets less and less reliable, but I won’t get out it completely, because I only track return on investment and I’m getting new customers who are spending money, and it’s more than the amount than I’m putting out. I don’t really care as long as that return on investment is working.”

However once his shop gets a customer in the door, there’s the still-reliable reward program for loyalty. As a member of their Car Care Club, clients get $500 worth of service and discounts for only $89.95. Another level of service is a VIP club where, according the shop’s publicity, “our best clients can budget for car maintenance and repairs by prepaying monthly for service and receiving up to a 20% discount on all repairs.”

“We sort of created the program from scratch, but with ideas from other shop owners around the country,” Bilger reports. “I really do try to get ahold of people who are like-minded. If I can get an idea, I will certainly implement it, no doubt about that.”

Echoing some of the ideas of Greeley himself, Bilger and Advanced Auto Pros are perhaps part of the publisher’s cultural legacy.

“(The industry’s) way more transparent now,” Bilger discloses. “You might as well open up the front door, because you have to be very aware of answering every question and making sure people feel good about what they’re doing, because they’re going to complain very publicly if you don’t — which I’ve always been fine with doing, and I think that is why we have remained viable.”

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About the Author

Robert Bravender

Robert Bravender graduated from the University of Memphis (TN) with a bachelor's degree in film and video production. Now working at Masters TV, he produces Motorhead Garage with longtime how-to guys Sam Memmolo and Dave Bowman. Bravender has edited a magazine for the National Muscle Car Association, a member-based race organization, which in turn lead to producing TV shows for ESPN, the Outdoor Life Network and Speedvision. He has produced shows ranging from the Mothers Polish Car Show Series to sport compact racing to Street Rodder TV.

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