Profile in Success - July 2002

'Mom-and-Pop' Detail Shop
Embodies Personal Pride
By Jim and Elaine Norland

This says it all: The front of Joe Kennedy's business card.

Joe Kennedy is passionate about detailing - intensely, personally. He's so hooked on detailing that he even takes it on vacation.

The 51-year-old proprietor of Joe Kennedy's Auto Care USA at 370 Franklin St. in Buffalo, NY, has been intimately involved in car appearance since childhood when his dad managed several car dealerships in western New York.

Joe Kennedy personally puts the finishing touches on this Cadillac.

For the past 30 years, he's made this his full-time job, applying some old-fashioned ideas, methods, enthusiasm and personal involvement to run a business that seems to refute most conventional ideas about success. He has a modest-sized single location, a crew of four (including himself and wife Cathy), and all the business he wants.

Kennedy's brightly-lit three-bay shop is open 12 hours a day, five days a week. Joe himself is the first one to arrive in the morning, about 5:30. He typically takes an early-afternoon break but returns to finish the day.

Joe does detail at retail and won't even look at dealer business unless the dealer is willing to pay full price. On the other hand, he has given away services for which others might charge hundreds of dollars. Last year, he donated $25,000 worth of services to benefit Children's Hospital.

If his appointment book is running a little light, he'll plaster fake traffic tickets on cars in nearby downtown Buffalo or mail out what might look like an IRS notice. Responses to such shock techniques, plus a few modest-sized but effective A-frame signs at a few strategic locations, keep customers ringing his phone.

Kennedy keeps busy while the detail crew at a nearby location of a big auto washing chain is often idle, he says. In a late-year promotion, he even sends business there - not for
detail, but to the car washing side.

The detailer is reflected in the finish.

With all that going for him, one might expect he'd want to expand into a bigger shop, or perhaps more locations. He believes, however, that a big key to his success and vital to his own satisfaction is personal involvement with virtually every customer and vehicle service performed. He couldn't do that with either bigger or multiple operations.

(When the Kennedys take their winter "vacation," they detail between seven and ten yachts per season. They're well-known in the Fort Lauderdale area, and may spend as much as two weeks working on a single vessel. They keep all the equipment they need on location there. Joe Kennedy says their Florida time is divided "about 70 percent relaxation and 30 percent work." While Joe is gone, Dave Anderson Jr., a 20-year-employee, is in charge, "and he knows any car he does better come out like I am there," Kennedy says.)

"People love to see the owner of the shop working on their cars. Here, they know Joe himself (with that winter exception) will be right there," attending to most operations, overseeing the rest, and making sure that the finished vehicle is the very best he can turn out, Kennedy explains.

He personally thrusts himself into every aspect of the business, particularly marketing. He just ordered a
special license plate for his own vehicle to identify himself as "GLOSSBOSS." When he's done radio or TV advertising in past years, Joe's voice and image is front and center, radiating his enthusiasm for clean, shiny cars.

Promotional litterbag.

His business card is a standout in heavyweight glossy blue with raindrops that asks, "Is Your Car Dirty?" On the reverse side, one sees Joe himself buffing a car and a headline noting that "We have professionally polished over 70,000 cars in 30 years."

Technically, Joe Kennedy is as current as one can be in the art and science of detailing. He takes every opportunity to learn and stocks 27 different products in his shop to polish a vehicle. He and his crew have four different buffers they use on every car, van or SUV.

About 10 man-hours of work go into every full detail on a normal-size car. All sport utility or larger vehicles take more time, and for these Joe Kennedy charges more than the regular $169.95 tab for "regular-size" cars.

Volume fluctuates somewhat depending on weather and season. An average of six cars per day was being detailed there late this spring. "About 90 percent of my business is complete details."

Many of the vehicles coming to Joe Kennedy's Auto Care USA have been long neglected and need some intensive care, while others come in "unbelievably clean," Kennedy reports.

Among the former are cars coming off leases that "haven't been cared for in three years. It's up to me to do the best I can so it doesn't cost [the customer] anything when he turns that vehicle back in," says Kennedy. "We do small jobs, too, say carpet shampoo, even remove a small scuff mark on the bumper, whatever customers want."

Some vehicles are real challenges, such as cars covered with tree sap. Some of the most daunting jobs were done without charge. "A customer came in a few weeks ago with the side of her car scraped by some bushes. I hadn't detailed her car in over a year, but she said she couldn't afford to detail it now. So I took care of it for her and didn't charge her a thing.

"Another customer came in with a black '97 or '98 Mercedes Benz. He'd scraped the side, knocked off the side molding, and had a crease and a streak of white paint along the side. He took it to a collision shop near here and they wanted $800 to fix it. He worried about his wife's reaction to the damage. I told him to leave it with me. When he came back two hours later, the molding was back on, the white paint was gone and there was just a tiny crease right below the molding " Joe didn't charge for that, either, just told his customer to do something nice for someone who needed his services.

When a vehicle is finished to his satisfaction, it's driven outside the shop where Cathy Kennedy takes a picture of the vehicle along with the Joe Kennedy sign. A thank-you note goes on the back of each picture card. Customers frequently mount those pictures on their refrigerators, computers or other favorite places, Kennedy says.

They often respond with their own thank-you cards, he reports. "These aren't the kind that you buy in a box and have on hand for any occasion. They're individually selected cards a customer has taken time to choose in order to thank us for turning out a great-looking car. And they write some wonderful messages."

Kennedy doesn't consider his work successful unless the vehicle shine is substantially better than new, showroom shine. He guarantees the finishes will bead for six months. "If it doesn't, bring it back and I'll do it over. I've never done a car over."

Joe Kennedy's clientele ranges from low-paid clerical workers to millionaires, he says, and he treats their cars with the same care, whether a Chevy or a Ferrari. "We do everything, and we do it better than anyone else," he asserts. He recently polished a black Land Rover for a dealer, charging him retail. "The dealer just told me, 'Joe, nobody can do black like you can.'"

While Kennedy doesn't openly discount his prices, he frequently offers incentives to bring in new customers and keep old ones coming back. For instance, if he wants to push some business before he heads to Florida, he may offer free car washes all winter long at a prominent car-wash chain
Another incentive is a "season pass." If a customer brings his car in sometime in mid-May, for example, he can bring that same car in before next January 1 and get a full detail for $99. "If I didn't give them that, the chances of their coming back would be 50/50, but with the season pass, I get 75 percent of them back."

When rainy weather dampened his business in early June, he mailed out a card offering $25 free gas with every full detail. "The weather is killing us," the card read. "Put yourself in our place and let us relieve your gas pains."

He had some poker chips made by the same company that supplies Las Vegas casinos, but Joe's chips have his logo (a smiley-face car topped with Joe Kennedy's name, and his phone number, 855-BUFF) on one side. The other side says, "Don't gamble with your vehicle. $50 off retail." When customers bring it in, they want to keep the chip; Joe just asks them to pass it along to someone else.

Since he does many cars for downtown restaurateurs, another Joe Kennedy promotion offers a "shine and dine" deal, a free dinner for two at one of the area's best known dining spots to those who purchase his liquid paste finish. "We get incredible results," he reports. Joe sometimes gives motorists a free USA Today and a coupon good for a cup of coffee at a local coffeehouse.

Why just his name on promotional pieces like the poker chip? "I've never marketed detailing; I've marketed myself," Kennedy says. "I'm a detail man who polishes cars and does it better than anyone else." He believes the personal ownership and involvement brings in customers. "I would never be without business," he asserts, "because of my drive, my determination to succeed, and my enthusiasm about what I do."

The Joe Kennedy team includes his wife, Cathy, Dave Anderson and Jim Hair. Kennedy himself does the seats, door panels and dash of every car that comes in when he's there. Such hands-on involvement impresses customers. "A shop doesn't have a passion without an owner who is committed to it," he says.
Most frequently, Cathy does the wheels, cleans doorjambs and does other prep work, and also answers the phone. She works the same long hours that Joe does. On interiors, Joe usually teams up with Anderson, who's been with him for 20 years. While Joe works on one side of the car interior, Dave typically handles the carpets, floor mats and trunk on the other side of the vehicle; then they switch sides.

Joe and his crew deliver customers to their place of work or home when they drop off their cars and pick them up when their vehicles are finished. If they live or work more than five miles away, Joe offers his own car to use until theirs is ready. "That really blows their mind," he says. All he asks is that they replace the gas.

In addition to his donations to Children's Hospital (motivated, he says, by his and Cathy's good fortune in having four healthy children), Kennedy generously supports the Make A Wish Foundation in its fund raising. "Whatever you give, you're going to get back. The more you give, the more you're going to get," Joe believes.

That same philosophy guides his "Chain of Love" actions where he renders often expensive services for customers and just asks them to "pass it on."

Another promotional tool, the Joe Kennedy web site (www.855buff.com), is filled with information about the business, tips on how to care for your vehicle's interior and exterior, and other news, plus constant reminders to call 855-BUFF right away to book a detailing appointment. Kennedy's even happy to talk to other detailers and answer their questions via e-mail (jk5751@aol.com).

Unconventional promotion, unusual personal commitment and passion, and old-fashioned pride of workmanship and generosity seem to guide Joe Kennedy's Auto Care USA as a thriving, steady business. He draws customers from as far away as Toronto, Canada (a two-and-one-half hour drive), as well as from western New York State.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.


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