Catch and release

Jan. 1, 2020
Tarvin Auto Service started off as a three-bay facility in 1988, but by 2004 had moved into a bigger facility.

A few repair shops might have an aquarium — maybe even a fish bowl — but how many have a fish pond out back? “In this area rain water retention is a big thing,” says Kim Tarvin, describing the region of Batavia, Ohio. “Plus I wanted to elevate the shop because it was a little bit low.”

Tarvin Auto Service started off as a three-bay facility in 1988, but by 2004 had moved into a bigger facility “next to the Batavia School District bus garage in order to accommodate an increasing number of customers and to provide the next level in excellent customer service and care.” About 350 feet behind the building Tarvin needed to dig a pond 3 to 4 feet deep to catch runoff from the side of the shop.

“All that was going to be was a cattail marsh with mosquitoes--who wants that?” he rationalized. “So I said hell, let’s dig it out deep. And now we stock it; there’s some killer catfish in there, bass, croppy, perch. Of course we’ve stocked minnows—it’s an ecosystem that we take care of.”

And to fish. “We have some poles here that the guys can borrow. (Customers) think it’s pretty cool when they bring a fleet vehicle in to get serviced for an hour they go out back and fish.

“The lot’s open,” Tarvin confides. “You could go fishing back here tonight. I don’t have signs posted, I don’t advertise it, but if my regular customers have kids, I tell them about it. It’s pretty neat when you see a 12 year old with a catfish that weighs 15 pounds and he’s got it above his waist trying to hold it up. It’s catch and release, and leave it better than you found it.”

In a way the fish pond has come to symbolize Tarvin’s approach to business and life: laid-back but well-maintained. Passionate about car repair and customer safety, he says “I like to do good. I see that in all phases of life. Nothing makes me madder than a situation where if I pay you, you don’t give me that value back in service. That’s what we have to do for our customers.” On the other hand his droll sense of humor is evident even in the way Tarvin filled out his Motor Age profile: ‘ASE member since it was N.A.I.S.E… Man I’m old.’

Batavia is a small town about 30 miles outside Cincinnati near the Kentucky border, but has seen its share of changes in the automotive market. “Changes? Have there been changes?” jokes Tarvin. “Education is first and foremost. I study all the time, and I’ve been a member of the Automotive Technicians Network (ATN) since it had 900 members. That’s quite a thing, talking to technicians all over the world. The internet has been great for a lot of information and learning.”

At one time Tarvin was an Aston Martin mechanic because the GM dealership he worked for also sold the British marque. “I’ve been through the factory, I worked on Lagondas, Vantages, Volantes; they’re beautiful cars. It’s just a milestone, an achievement. I’ve worked on Ferraris and Rolls-Royces and that’s great too, but you make your living working on Chevrolets, Hondas and Toyotas.”

Tarvin also relies on the more tried-and-true means of marketing, focusing on word of mouth, although there are a few exceptions. “Growing your business is extremely hard,” he maintains. “I don’t put much stock in those Groupons and ValPac things because all people want are the free stuff and they don’t do a hell of a lot for you. We grow by families--I do the dad’s car, then the son’s, the new wife. That’s something else I do too; you have got to remember peoples’ names, like by the third time they come in. You tell me you were going to the Outer Banks, and when you come in for an oil change, I’d say, ‘Hey, how were the Outer Banks? Have a good time?’”

But when necessary, Tarvin’s willing to adapt. “We now sell tires,” he points out. “I picked up other venues to make money.” For this he came up with a direct mailer program. Printed on postcards was a picture of a car with doughnuts as wheels, the caption reading, ‘are you driving on doughnuts?’ The cards were mailed using Tarvin’s client list.  Tied in with a local bakery, customers would get a free dozen if they bought four Yokohama tires and an alignment. “We sold 65 sets in about 4 months!” exclaims Tarvin. “But word of mouth is the best, no question; however you must earn it daily.”

Because, as Tarvin states, it’s expensive to gain and keep a customer, but it’ll cost even more should you lose them. Case in point: “We had a TPMS tool made that was $1290,” he recalls. “It looked great, we loved it, we used it. But then we tried to do a Hyundai and it just would not reset this lady’s TPMS. I bought new sensors, I did everything, but it was a software problem.

“Hyundai is a big part of (our) market; they’re cheaper cars, people are buying them, but you have got to have the gun that gets it all done. You can’t tell them to take it back to the Hyundai dealer, because the dealers are actively going after our work now. You have got to capture the work with your own style, you have to communicate with the customer.

“I finally just bought this Bartech tool that cost $1,500. Plugged it in, dink, dink, dink, her car was fixed. You have got to spend the money. We have the newest Hunter rack, we have a Road Force balancer. It’s hard to have that equipment, it’s expensive.”

But like the minnows, you’ve got to have them.

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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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