There is a certain comfort that comes from being part of a community for 60 years. There is also a certain pressure that comes from being a recognized leader. You know everyone, they know you – and your performance is always on display.
For Ken Elzinga, owner of Hilltop Auto Service in Byron Center, Michigan, being a trusted source for excellent automotive service requires balance and offers a great deal of satisfaction.
“I grew up on a dairy farm where there were many opportunities to fix things and I was often trying to figure out how things worked. When I was 18, I decided I wanted to fix vehicles for a living. I started working at a gas station right here in Byron Center where I grew up. I worked there for about a year then moved to the local Lincoln-Mercury dealership where I worked for 23 years. It was a good experience for me and God blessed my efforts as a technician there. In spite of this I had a growing desire to have a business of my own.”
Together, Ken and his wife Machele opened a small, four bay shop. “She was the service advisor and I was the mechanic. Over the next 10 years we hired 3 more mechanics and more help in the office. We had four techs in a four bay shop, which as you can imagine, was very crowded,” he recalls.
In 2011 -2012, the Elzingas bought property in a business portion of Byron Center and put up a 12-bay shop. “We thought we were in a huge building, but after a couple years, we outgrew that too and decided to put on an addition. We added another 12 bays, so now we have a 24 bay shop with 11 technicians, 3 advisors, and myself.” Ken says. “I’ve been very blessed to have good dedicated people working for me. We try to specialize according to the technician’s capabilities. All of our technicians are excellent in general service, but we have one that specializes in GM vehicles, one in imports, and one in diesels. We also have a few technicians that excel in diagnostics. When we get a challenging vehicle, we put our heads together and don’t give up easily. Some of the intermittent problems take much time and dedication to get them figured out.” Elzinga’s team prides itself on fixing vehicles that have stumped other shops.
Elzinga acknowledges that he may have a slightly different philosophy when it comes to shop efficiency. “I tell my guys that the best training opportunity is often the car sitting in your bay. When you’re faced with a diagnostic challenge, taking the time to do the investigation and research needed to figure it out is often the best training you can have. Sometimes we must work together to get it figured out. We have a 24 bay shop and we take in about 25 vehicles a day, so we all know we need to keep the ball rolling, but we try to find the right balance in being efficient by working hard, but still taking the time to do research and help each other out.
“Customer satisfaction is very important to our business,” says Ken. “The real key to solving the customer’s problem is listening carefully to them to verify their concern, then with the proper test equipment we can diagnose the repair.”
“The real key to solving the customer’s problem is listening carefully to them to verify their concern, then with the proper test equipment we can diagnose the repair.”
The effort to maximize customer satisfaction continues after the repair is completed. “Weekly, our service advisors contact any new customer or anyone who spends over $300 to make sure they are satisfied with their repair. We also use the Parts Plus rebate program which, if they purchase a particular part, makes them eligible for a rebate. We send this in for them and they receive the rebate in the mail – it’s one more little way of saying thank you to them.”
Ken says that one of the difficulties they face with customers today is that some are trying to diagnose their vehicle by what they read on the internet, and also by getting a scan of a fault code. “Sometimes they get a scan of a DTC and are told they need a particular part. All of us in the business know that a fault code does not necessarily mean it is necessary to replace that part. Also when people read about symptoms on the internet that sound similar to theirs, they often come in thinking they have the diagnosis and we just need to replace that part, not realizing it could be another problem and be more complicated.”
Apart from that, Elzinga credits his customers for their trust. “I’ve lived in this community all my life, and many know and trust us. We do our best to treat everyone fairly and with respect, and strive to demonstrate that we are here to help. I tell them that we will spend their money carefully just as we spend our own.”
Elzinga says his main goal is to build trust and create long-term relationships. “We want to keep customers happy and help them know that we’re looking out for their best interest.”
Elzinga’s wife, Machele, has moved out of her original service advisor role but still works in the office part time and enjoys interacting with the customers. “We currently have 2 other women working in our shop – one in the office and one in the shop. We feel they add a good balance to our staff,” Elzinga says.
Elzinga’s relationship with his community extends to his parts supplier. “I’ve known my Parts Plus store owner for about 30 years, and our relationship is outstanding. The store is Auto Clinic Inc. owned by Kevin Van Koevering. My weekly salesman is Bob Pahl. We couldn’t be in business without a good parts supplier.”
Elzinga is proud of his community and says he’s honored to serve it. “Byron Center is a small suburb, but a quickly growing one. Most of our business is by word of mouth but we also try to get our name out there to let the community know we’re here to serve them. We do this by sponsoring Little League teams in the summer, advertising in school yearbooks, riding in local parades, sponsoring other local events in the community, and other similar things.”
In addition to the mentorship and leadership of his technicians, he is also helping his family to eventually take over. “My son Tyler and his wife Saydee plan to gradually take over the business. I will eventually step back, but my wife and I will still be involved.“
Elzinga recognizes that, although Hilltop Auto Service is set up well for continued success other shops may not be as fortunate. “It’s a different world out there,” he says. “I find the work very rewarding but it also can be difficult at times. We must continue to think about how we can attract young people for this line of work.
“My method is to lead by example and help my workers through their difficult repairs and sometimes through their difficulties in life. I strive to be a good leader and lead by integrity.“ Ken says.
“I try to think about this every paycheck, by asking myself if I’m taking good care of the team who is helping me get the work done every day and keeping our business going.”
It’s fairly simple, Elzinga concludes. “For a business to operate you need many things, but if you don’t have relationships with your customers and employees you don’t have a business.”