By Robert Bravender
Link Automotive Service is something of a legacy around the AutoGraphic offices. Bob Link’s service center/parts house was the very first “Local Motion” profile the Nashville Automotive Report ever did, back in 1988. At that point the business was only five years old, and a bit different than the standard shop with its focus on fleet accounts. Then in 1994 David Brooks wrote an excellent follow-up, which concluded by musing about what Bob Link would have to say in another six years.
A quarter of a century later, we finally have the answer.
“Well … there’s very little that has changed,” Link wryly notes. “I even look the same.”
Now 82, he’s still the company’s president, with the shop still located on Lebanon Road in Nashville, still focused on providing high-quality service for commercial accounts and selling parts — all still at a fair price.
“I’ve been in business so long that everyone knows me and knows my place,” he comments. “We do work with the state of Tennessee and a lot of big companies. I have all the business I can do.”
As Link points out, he doesn’t just change the oil and filters on vehicles.
“I have a 10-point PM that we do, like checking the tires, brakes, looking at everything,” Link explained. “Because when you find things wrong, that’s how a regular service might turn into a $500 bill. And [clients will] thank you, because they don’t need a truck broken down on the highway somewhere.”
Fleet work accounts for about 80 percent of Link Automotive’s income, and they’re so renowned in this area that they don’t really have to worry much about advertising. Well, except one modern caveat: the shop now has a website touting their full-service preventative maintenance and repair work for a wide variety of vehicles … although Link readily admits that the internet is a bit beyond his ken, which is why he has someone else handle it.
But while getting fleet accounts in a city the size of Nashville might be easier than in a smaller area, keeping such clientele requires a continuous effort in quality.
“You’ve simply got to treat everybody with respect,” said Link. “Talk to customers, make sure they know what you’re doing on their vehicles. They might say ‘just go ahead and fix it.’ All right, but I’m still going to call you if I think I should.”
And when a business gets to a scale that demand for certain items is almost constant, having your own parts department also makes sense.
“A certain amount of money has to be spent to get a special deal on something,” Link explained. “You only do that on fast moving items or stuff that you know you’re going to have to have. Fast moving stuff is all I stock, which nowadays is a lot of electronics.”
His is in a solid market, which can resist economic fluctuations, “because if [clients] can’t afford to buy new vehicles, they have to fix what they have,” observed Link. “Electric companies, plumbing companies; I do a lot of those type small businesses which have three or four trucks.”
This sturdy foundation was laid with Bob Link’s previous employment at Jasper Engines and Transmissions. A service manager for 18 years at their Nashville store, when the Indiana-based company decided to get out of the repair business to focus on manufacturing, Link came away with a wealth of experience, a client list, key personnel, and a work ethic derived from Jasper founder Alvin Ruxer.
“I very seldom walk through the shop where I don’t see something that ought to be done or changed,” remarked Link. “Say a cabinet full of parts is all mixed up and needs to be straightened up; you don’t start hollering at somebody about it; it just goes on your list and you work on that” — one of the methods learned from Ruxer, who passed away in 1991.
“He was a great person,” Link recalled. “When Ruxer retired, he set up [Jasper] to be employee-owned. But even though I wasn’t working for Jasper anymore, he’d stop by when he was in town and tell me what I was doing wrong.” Link laughed at the thought. To this day his shop is a Jasper dealer.
Link estimates that about 30 percent of his clients are now big corporations whose headquarters aren’t even in Nashville.
“You’ve got to be able to bill it so you have a lot of money in receivables all the time. That’s what hurts for somebody starting out now,” he conceded. “There’s going to be money that you’re never going to get back until you quit. I always read the profit/loss statement; just because you have money in the bank doesn’t mean it’s your money. They used to preach that years ago.”
One thing that has changed, however, are diagnostics.
“You’ve got to have a lot of equipment, which changes every year,” he noted. “You’re buying updates all the time. There’s hardly any problem with a car now that you don’t use a laptop to work on. And the older a car gets, the wiring goes bad and you’re tracing wires to a module. Now the module might be bad, or it’s just the wire going to it — it could be a lot of things. But there’s a lot of technology out there now that you can look up or reference, so it’s getting better. We have websites we can go to. It’s all changed.”
It’s the same with training.
“There are special schools the technicians can go to,” Link said. “I’m tied in with AC/Delco on parts, and they have classes. Along with other companies, we get a lot of technical information from those kinds of places.”
Meanwhile Link keeps himself up-to-date by reading the trades.
“You’ve got to stay on top of everything, because it’s always changing. If it gets to where I can’t do that, I need to get out of here.”
He’ll be sticking around for a while, because there’s at least one aspect that’s completely new about the shop: RV service.
“About eight years ago I became an authorized warranty repair center for Spartan Chassis,” Link said. As a chassis builder for big 40- to 45-foot motor coaches, a lot of those RV manufacturers are now getting to know Link Automotive, “and it just keeps growing, and it won’t stop,” he said with a laugh.
An RV owner himself, Link was surprised when Spartan called him up one day.
“I didn’t go after them; they came after me. I don’t know how, but they did,” he said. “They had a guy come down here, look the place over, and say that this was what they had been looking for.”
Having recovered from the 2008 economic downturn, this is a market sector which has been picking up momentum.
“Yesterday I counted 12 motor homes in the back lot to be worked on.”
Unlike the commercial accounts, Link services the chassis, the suspension—“but nothing inside,” he quickly added. “If the customer has a problem with the wiring or anything, we can handle all of that, but I don’t work on the stoves or refrigerators.”
Link’s average day has him coming into work and check on things.
“I don’t spend much time in the shop, although I’ll go through it two or three times a day when I’m here, make sure everything’s running smooth. If you’ve got a problem, I’m here. I don’t work so much as just being here and politicking, talking a lot to my customers.”
He’ll even occasionally go to the warehouse to pick up a part.
“If my parts guy’s on the other side of town, hey, I’ll do whatever needs to be done. Always have. I’m the team leader; whatever needs to be done I do it.”
At 82, the concept of retirement occasionally comes up for Link.
“I don’t know. You want to help me figure that out?” Link said with a laugh. “I’m a corporation, and [a couple of the employees] are working on a deal to buy the company. I’ll still own the building, which they’ll lease from me. But I don’t want the business to go away, and that’s something I’m working on.”
The less tangible elements of the company, the work ethic and general attitude, he’s confident will be carried on.
“They don’t even want to change the name; they don’t want to change anything. I’ve always operated this like a family.”
When he started Link Automotive Service back in 1983, did Link have any idea his company would get this big?
“After about five years, yes,” which is when the first article appeared in Nashville Automotive Report. And now after decades of nearly uninterrupted success, does Link have any advice for someone entering the industry today?
“Think differently and work harder than anybody else. Don’t do the same as all the other places; just keep your mind open to how a job can be done better.”
Nothing stays the same like change.
By Robert Bravender
Thank you for visiting Link Automotive Services in Nashville, TN. Count on our automotive repair technicians to keep your car, truck, suv, or van on the roads longer and safer.