Article

Service, Swedish Cars And The American Way

June 2007, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by Jennifer Rincon - Also by this author

Business owners who believe deeply enough in their product to drive and race their vehicles put a stamp of authenticity on their product and business like nothing else can. Recently, Rich Kushner, owner of Swedish Motors in Marietta, Pa., was driving his 2006 Saab 9-5 Aero Sedan back from Florida. He had just finished a round of winter racing with his 1963 Volvo 122 Amazon.  “It’s an excuse to get out of the cold Northeast,” he quipped. Kushner owns and races two more Volvos.

His affair with Swedish cars began innocently—mainly for survival purposes. Kushner became a Volvo technician to help pay for his final two years of college. As his service skills grew, Kushner was also observing the successes and shortcomings of his employer and fellow employees. Taking careful notes, Kushner formed his business philosophy. First, in order to do your job well, it’s best to specialize in servicing only one or two car makes. Second, if you adhere to a strong set of work ethics, your customers will keep coming back.

After a 6-year spell as a Volvo tech, Kushner tried opening two service shops of his own, with two different partnerships. Though both partnerships failed, Kushner still saw possibility. He opened Swedish Motors in 1981, advertising that his employees had a unique knowledge of Swedish cars and foreign parts.

Today, family-owned Swedish Motors has just finished celebrating 25 years in business. They now offer racing restoration and preparation, express detailing, pre-owned Swedish car sales, and a vintage racing museum, along with their original repair services. Roughly 40 percent of the cars they service are Volvos, 40 percent are Saabs and the remaining 20 percent are Audis. Their Web site, www.swedishmotors.com, plays a steady stream of audio testimonials from sales and service customers. Elsewhere, customers can view their pre-owned cars, view Kushner’s racing schedule and even order Saab emblem replacement stickers. Kushner’s wife is an administrative head and his son Adam works in the sales department. As the Web site claims: “We are enthusiasts...No need to go anywhere else.”

Kushner’s passion for Swedish engineering mirrors the passion for safety and excellence exhibited by the engineers themselves.   During a time when American cars introduced front seat shoulder belts, Swedish engineers were already launching rear-facing child seats and testing their cars in aircraft wind tunnels. Similarly, Kushner and his friends trained outside the circle of domestic service. “Our expertise with Swedish automobiles dates back to the 1970s; we were certainly working on Volvo and Saab models from the 1960s,” he said. “We grew up with Volvo 544s, 122s, Saab 96s and Skinner’s Union carburetors, which, though British, are a longtime staple of Swedish engines.”

“That makes us a bunch of old-timers,” remarked Kushner, whose eldest employee has been with Swedish Motors since it opened. Their seasoned experience complements the strengths of the younger technicians, who have a better grasp of the newer models.  

To keep their skills second nature, Kushner enrolls his employees in regular training sessions from R.L. O’Connor & Associates, Inc. The sessions help reinforce key skills like listening to customers, resolving complaints, practicing selling techniques, improving service write-ups and more. Kushner, his parts managers and other technicians routinely sit in on these workshops and seminars.

Kushner also recommended Elite Business Services as “a great tool for ethics and good business sense.” The company offers audio/video seminars and coaching that is tailored to the auto service industry. Just a few topics are marketing your shop, closing more sales and hiring the best mechanics. The overriding theme seems to be getting excited about your business without sacrificing ethics and honesty. “These principles are not new,” shared Bob Cooper, president of Elite Business Services. “They have been around since the beginning of time, but in today’s age, people are looking for that. They need to have their own set of values.” 

Kushner shares another common, rather passionate, bond with shop owners across the country. They make up an independent Volvo twenty group (not affiliated with NADA) of non-competing service technicians and dealers. The group has their own Web site with a 24-hour forum where members can network and communicate Volvo service information with each other. “It is extremely valuable,” said Kushner of the group, now five years strong. “We exchange marketing ideas, financial ideas and technical news to strengthen our businesses. We communicate constantly.” In the style of other twenty groups, they receive regular financial composites for comparison and hold three meetings every year. During these meetings, the entire group tours a member’s store, observing the operations and offering useful feedback. The following year, another three stores are visited, repeating the process.

However, their friendly advice tells only half the story. “Our connectivity increases their strength,” said fellow member Robert Drye, owner of German Swedish Auto Service in Springfield, Va. Their numbers help give them a voice when communicating with Volvo about service issues.  In addition, said Drye, “We’ve spoken at meetings for aftermarket independent parts suppliers to raise the level of awareness of Volvo service issues.” Finally, having this group makes life easier for their customers. Once, a loyal client of Swedish Motors broke down during the one-hour drive for a service appointment. The customer called Kushner and was quickly referred to Drye’s shop nearby, leaving both shops happy and the customer satisfied.

Kushner has more than enough Swedish car fans to keep his shop busy for a long time. “Saab and Volvo owners are a very dedicated ownership,” he said, estimating his customer base at around 2,200. “Even if they were interested in driving a different car, they have such a loyalty and a strong relationship with us, they will keep buying Saabs and Volvos.”

Swedish Motors recently celebrated that loyalty and the common enjoyment they share with their customers by throwing a 25th Anniversary Festival. The festival featured jazz music, a car show, raffles, giveaways, a parts sale, barbecue sandwiches and “great Swedish meatballs.”

While Swedish Motors sells a full line of pre-owned Saabs, Volvos and Audis, they also offer a climate-controlled museum, which is an epicenter of all things Swedish and racing. The walls are covered with racing posters, vintage car ads and Swedish Vikings. The floors are lined with foreign sports cars – classic Volvos, Saabs, a Citroën and two 1985 TVR 2810s (rare British racers). Some are so rare they share no doubles at other museums. Their 1972 Saab Cabrio was modified into a convertible, a one-of-a-kind showpiece. Many belonged to only one owner and were restored by Kushner himself. All are kept painstakingly immaculate.

During the annual Marietta Candlelight House Tour, the Kushners invite the entire community to their tiny slice of history. Guests are served Swedish Glögg (mulled wine which is a traditional Swedish Christmas drink), Swedish gingerbread and shortbread cookies.

Kushner works hard and plays hard. He owns three Volvo vintage racecars and has raced in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Pro Rally and the Canadian Association of Rallysport. Though Kushner’s 4-cylinder cars are considered “small-bore,” he sometimes gets grouped with the “big-bore,” or 6-to8-cylinder, racers, which include legendary pedigrees such as Porsches, Cobras, Mustangs and Corvettes. In the 2006 Zippo U.S. Vintage Grand Prix of Watkins Glen, N.Y., his sprightly Amazon finished in the middle of the pack, beating out a few Porsche 911s.

On the track, he said, “It’s every racer for himself.” Off the track, however, many of Kushner’s fellow racers have come to rely on his technical skill. If a racer needs a particular part, Kushner not only freely gives him the part, but he will install it on the competitor’s car himself. He and the other vintage enthusiasts share meals and stories together. Camaraderie never takes an off-season. “It’s just as much of a social time as it is a racing time.”

Sure enough, Kushner’s racing hobby has helped him build a whole new clientele. His shop now offers complete restoration services for vintage Saabs and Volvos. This includes competition modifications, race car preparation and track support.

In 1991, Swedish Motors tripled the size of their service department, growing from a 2-bay facility with an adjoining body shop, to a 6-bay facility. The former body shop is now being renovated to include three more service bays, primarily for his racecar restoration and preparation customers.

In between their plans, the Kushners are preparing for a pilgrimage to Sweden. Volvo is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Saab, too, marks 60 years in the auto world in June 2007. The Kushners will join the festivities for each.

Specializing, expanding, racing and traveling – In how many other businesses is the word “Volvo,” which is Latin for “I roll,” more appropriate?

 Vol 4, Issue 4

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