Philadel­phia com­pany wants to help you trust your me­chanic

Lodi News-Sentinel - - WHEELS - By Diane Mas­trull

PHILADEL­PHIA — Mike Risich is founder of a 9-year-old soft­ware com­pany that has earned recog­ni­tion five years in a row as one of Philadel­phia’s fast-grow­ing com­pa­nies.

What’s par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive about that is his Bolt On Tech­nol­ogy is cen­tered on auto re­pair, a ser­vice in­dus­try replete with cus­tomer doubt — some would use a much stronger word — about me­chan­ics and their rec­om­men­da­tions.

“There’s two places that fight for the No. 1 place that Amer­i­cans want to go least. They are the den­tist and the auto re­pair,” Risich said. “One hurts in the jaw, the other hurts in the wal­let.”

Short of pick­ing up the tab, there’s no way Risich can wipe out the pain of any­one’s car-re­pair bill. He’s out to elim­i­nate what he and in­dus­try in­sid­ers say is a ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor to that dis­com­fort — cus­tomer mis­trust.

Bolt On is sell­ing ser­vice trans­parency through texts and shared pho­tos and videos. Con­sider it an­other tool in the garage — one made nec­es­sary in the past 15 years or so as peo­ple stopped wait­ing around for their cars to be ser­viced. As more cus­tomers dropped off ve­hi­cles and headed to work, to the gym, or back home to bed, idle me­chanic hours rose with cus­tomers’ sus­pi­cions, Risich said.

With elec­tronic tablets, Bolt On Tech­nol­ogy helps me­chan­ics show own­ers the con­di­tion of their ve­hi­cles — even if they are miles away at work or at home.

As Kevin Bowe, pres­i­dent of Bowe’s Exxon Car Care Cen­ter in Con­shohocken, tells it:

“My ser­vice man­agers were call­ing cus­tomers on the phone” to ex­plain what re­pairs were needed and to get au­tho­riza­tion to pro­ceed with the fixes, Bowe said. “No­body an­swers their phone any­more. There was a car in the bay just hang­ing there, de­lay­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity.”

When a cus­tomer called back, usu­ally a cou­ple hours later, there were nag­ging doubts: Did the brakes re­ally need to be re­placed? Was that belt re­ally shot? Is that faulty sen­sor re­ally some­thing im­por­tant?

In that en­vi­ron­ment of sec­ondguess­ing, Risich, who put him­self through tech­ni­cal school and then worked in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment, saw en­trepreneurial op­por­tu­nity.

He founded Bolt On with two eq­uity busi­ness part­ners to pro­vide garages with dig­i­tal meth­ods to share videos and pho­tos with off-site cus­tomers. With ev­i­dence of, say, a leak­ing ra­di­a­tor or un­even tire wear, Risich the­o­rized, trust would blos­som be­tween ve­hi­cle owner and ser­vice sta­tion. That’s likely to give the for­mer more con­fi­dence about a re­pair de­ci­sion and, the lat­ter, more sales.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate that the pop­u­lar opin­ion in au­to­mo­tive is that we’re be­ing taken for a ride,” Risich said. “Most of that is be­cause most of us know noth­ing about the com­plex­i­ties of what makes the au­to­mo­bile work. We know that the key goes in the front and the gas goes in the back, and ev­ery­thing else some­body else has to fix for us.”

Risich de­fends the re­pair in­dus­try on a macro level, tout­ing “so many great shops out there” with own­ers and tech­ni­cians prid­ing them­selves on solv­ing prob­lems, “but be­cause of our fear of the un­known, we don’t feel like we’re al­ways get­ting the value for the dol­lar . ... We re­ally want to help change that pop­u­lar opin­ion.”

Bolt On’s monthly sub­scrip­tions — typ­i­cally $400 a month — have been steadily grow­ing, said Frank Drag­oni, di­rec­tor of sales and cor­po­rate part­ner­ships. Rev­enue in 2017 ex­ceeded $6.5 mil­lion, up from $4.5 mil­lion in 2016 and $3.2 mil­lion in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s ap­pli­ca­tion for Philadel­phia 100, a project of the En­trepreneurs’ Fo­rum of Greater Philadel­phia iden­ti­fy­ing fast-grow­ing lo­cal com­pa­nies. Bolt On has made the list each of the past five years. It has sought no an­gel in­vestors, sus­tain­ing growth through sub­scrip­tion sales, Risich said.

Bolt On ex­pects that 20 mil­lion pho­tos will have been shared on its sys­tem by mid-Novem­ber, dou­ble the num­ber of a year ago. Growth likely would be even more ro­bust if not for the many older work­ers in the au­tore­pair in­dus­try, Risich said.

“We are ask­ing a com­mu­nity that truly is tech-chal­lenged to use new tools to con­tinue to do their job when the tra­di­tion has been ‘Well, this is how we’ve al­ways done it,’” he said. “This in­dus­try is right now no­to­ri­ously filled with older-gen­er­a­tion work­ers.”

The last sig­nif­i­cant tech­nol­ogy in­fu­sion to the in­dus­try was about 10 years ago when ser­vice sta­tions tran­si­tioned to cus­tomer-re­lated man­age­ment sys­tems, or CRMs, en­abling elec­tronic ser­vice reminders and spe­cial pro­mo­tions to ve­hi­cle own­ers that re­placed mailed post­cards and coupons.

Bowe’s Exxon Car Care Cen­ter has seen a lot of change since the late Ed­ward Bowe opened the busi­ness in 1955.

New ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy “has cer­tainly pre­sented chal­lenges in in­vest­ment and equip­ment for in­de­pen­dent re­pair shops,” said son Kevin. “Soft­ware providers like Bolt On have re­ally helped.”

There are oth­ers, he said, but none that in­te­grates with ser­vice cen­ters’ ex­ist­ing soft­ware sys­tems.

Us­ing Bolt On just four months so far, Bowe said it’s too soon to quan­tify its ef­fect on sales, but, to a cus­tomer, “I think we’re do­ing a bet­ter job in­ter­nally pre­sent­ing the full pic­ture of the ve­hi­cle con­di­tion . ... If we call you up and say, ‘Your car needs brakes; they’re me­tal to me­tal,’ we can show you a pic­ture of what a good brak­ing sys­tem looks like and a pic­ture of your car in the shop.”

That, in turn, en­ables faster re­pair de­ci­sions and a more ef­fi­cient pro­cess­ing of ve­hi­cles, par­tic­u­larly valu­able to a shop with lim­ited space, like Bowe’s Exxon with its three ser­vice bays. Al­though cus­tomers might not be able to an­swer phone calls dur­ing a work meet­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing through texts is the way of the world.

Ser­vice cen­ters lose money as ve­hi­cles wait on lifts for own­ers to ap­prove or re­ject re­pair rec­om­men­da­tions.

“That de­lay of not (be­ing) able to reach a cus­tomer for an hour or two crip­ples our whole day,” Bowe said.

JES­SICA GRIF­FIN/PHILADEL­PHIA IN­QUIRER

Michael Risich, left, Founder & CEO, and Frank Drag­oni, right, Di­rec­tor of Sales and Cor­po­rate Part­ner­ships, at Bolt On Tech­nol­ogy, in Southamp­ton, Pa., on Oct. 11.

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