FEEL GOOD UNDER THE HOOD: Riverside Auto Park, Poughkeepsie
James Curry and Chris Devens
James Curry and Chris Devens, owners of Riverside Auto Park in Poughkeepsie, are your mechanics in shining Armor All. The shop does impeccable work at reasonable labor prices, caters to soccer moms, and the owners have a combined 21 years of experience selling tires and running a repair shop. The two friends and former colleagues (at Sear’s Automotive) used a small business loan from Community Capital New York of $40,000 for tire stock, renovation of what was a defunct Jeep dealership, advertising and start-up costs like tools and working capital. You check in via computer at the welcoming counter, look up at a televised menu of services, and get an email estimate before the job begins. While mechanics, like doctors and hair stylists, inspire loyalty, when it’s time for a change, or you just need some new treads, Riverside Auto Park is well worth a pit stop.
How did you get into the auto repair and tire business?
James: It’s the business we knew. We’re a mechanical shop that sells tires, offers U Haul rentals and some used cars for sale (like the Chrysler PT Cruiser on the lot). Chris and I worked together for eight years at Sear’s Automotive. He was the District Manager. We have two mechanics and four employees, and hired mechanics we knew we, and our customers, could trust.
Chris: I worked for Sears for 13 years and had really high ratings. I moved from the main store to take on automotive management and helped the automotive store increase revenues by 25%. In three years I was made a district manager running 11 automotive Sears shops. I took the Newburgh store and in my first two years hit $1 million in revenue. When I was laid off when they combined regions, I thought, I’m doing this for them, why don’t I do it for myself? I drew up a 28-page business plan and talked James into investing and becoming a partner. As an automotive manager you do HR, the sales, the ordering. I was used to managing and running the business.
How did you get your business off the ground?
James: We’re on the radio, using 107.3. We’ve done Val Pak circulars. We’re big into social media. We have a very active website, and very active Facebook page. We’ve joined the regional Dutchess County and Hyde Park chambers of commerce, and go to their meetings and breakfasts. It’s not as much about getting people into the building as it is making connections. That’s how we found a source for the branded jackets we wear. We’re also sponsoring a Little League team and a soccer team in the Hyde Park league. We’re a local business trying to do things for the community. It takes time for people to know that you’re here. It’s like asking someone to change their doctor. The customers we get like us and they’re happy. Referrals are slow and steady. Word of mouth is the best advertising. I went to the same mechanic for 10 years. Once you find a mechanic you trust, it’s hard to go to someone else. So once they switch, we will have long term clientele. We sell new car and trailer tires, because we have the marina nearby. We want to compete with the Big Box stores, like Sears, with better prices, better service, more personal attention, and trustworthy mechanics and tire salesmen. Mounting and balancing is always included in new tire purchases. We wanted to eliminate the surprise add ons.
Chris: Cars can be people’s babies. They are protective of them. They don’t want to hand them over to anyone. We’re trying to be a community, rather than a corporate business. I live in this area. My grandfather was doing research for the FDR library when it was in service. My brother and father live here. We’re building trust. I’m satisfied that people who try us once are coming back.
What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs?
Chris: You can’t over-plan. Things always take longer and cost more than you think. You need 25% more money than you budget for the unanticipated. We didn’t expect to need so many leasehold improvements. When we actually got into the space we realized the lighting was too dim and had to invest $2,000 to retool the electrics, and signage cost more than anticipated, as well as installing the counter. Things take weeks not days. Once we had permission from the state to open, then we had to wait another three weeks for employees to give notice. I underestimated how long it was going to take for the business to take off.
James: Getting the license from the state that will allow us to add vehicle inspections to our list of services. After that we’re full circle on what we wanted to do and then just need to keep building on that.
When will you know that you’ve made it?
Chris: I feel like a farmer in a field and I’ve planted seeds all over the place and I’m waiting for things to blossom for me. When you find you don’t have enough time to do your normal tasks, and you need to hire more people, then you’ve made it.