When most people think about the auto repair industry, they think about men poking around under the hood to diagnose the problem. It’s not a field that typically attracts women. But Margarita Hernández and her daughter aren’t your typical women. A strong connection to Cuba and a passion for classic cars from the 1950s led Hernández and her daughter, Cristina, to becoming owners of a 77-year-old auto repair shop in the heart of Little Havana.
“It all started with my father, José, in 1938,” Hernández said. “He owned a popular chain of car dealerships called Cadena Automovilista in Cuba.”
But that changed in 1961 when Hernández and her family fled Cuba.
“We left everything behind to come to Miami,” Hernández said. “It was a very difficult time for many in Cuba looking to flee a communist regime.”
When Hernández’s family came to Miami in 1961, her father was able to gather enough money to open AAA Million Auto Parts in Little Havana.
“When my dad opened the business here, it was very small and most of our business came in through word-of-mouth,” Hernández said. “He grew the business over the years, and when he passed away 10 years ago, he left it to me and my daughter.”
For Hernández, the prospect of owning an auto repair shop wasn’t daunting.
“I grew up in the auto parts business,” she said. “In fact, when my father passed away my daughter and I had been working for the business for years, so we knew the ins and outs of it.”
What Hernández didn’t know, however, was how to market the business and increase sales.
“We were so used to do business the old-fashioned way,” Hernández said. “But we knew we had to modernize our marketing to grow.”
To find answers, Hernández turned to the Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover to help them determine how to incorporate social media, email marketing and take advantage of government contracting opportunities. The Herald, in turn, brought in Miami SCORE, a national nonprofit organization of retired volunteers who have been successful entrepreneurs and built thriving businesses. SCORE volunteers use their entrepreneurial skills and offer mentoring services to small business owners free of charge. SCORE identified three counselors to help AAA Million Auto Parts.
The SCORE team included Orlando Espinosa, co-founder of Emineo Media, who has more than 25 years of experience in branding and social media. He has also led training programs for entrepreneurs both in the United States and abroad. Althea Harris is the Assistant District Director for Marketing and Outreach for the Small Business Administration (SBA) Area 1 in Miami. She has more than 20 years of experience and previously worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce. She assists small businesses looking for ways to take advantage of government contracting. Julio Canas is the business development director for Harbor Ithaka Wealth Management. Canas previously worked in banking for Banvalor Banco Comercial in Caracas, Venezuela. He has more than 10 years of experience in banking and business development. Raju Mohandas serves as a senior business consultant for International Services Inc., where he advises companies on how to grow their businesses through strategic planning and financing. He has moer than 30 years of experience in sales and marketing, operations and finance. Mohandas has successfully restructured and helped small businesses obtain capital for their assets and operational needs.
After working with AAA Million Auto Parts for three weeks, the counselors identified several major areas for improvement. First, the company needed to focus on its website and bolstering its online presence, particularly in terms of search engine optimization. Another issue was the company’s need for a business plan. The company also wanted help to understand what opportunities were in available in government contracting through the SBA and how to automate their business operations in an effort to maximize profit.
The counselors agreed that Hernández needed to first concentrate on the company’s website and improving its online presence. The counselors felt that developing a business plan focused on growth and taking advantage of SBA government contracting programs will help the company achieve increased sales. To accomplish these goals, the SCORE team had the following advice to offer:
Revamp the website: “This is key area for the company to focus on,” Espinosa said. “Right now, their website is pretty basic. They need to almost immediately revamp the site, optimize it for mobile devices and for search engine optimization.”
Espinosa recommended rolling out the new website in the next 60 days.
“For the company to achieve their goals and get into government contracting, they need a website that is well-organized and easy to navigate.” Espinosa said. “The company needs to view their website as a sort of digital business card. It’s where potential customers and government entities will go to learn about the company and decide whether to do business with them.”
Create a business plan: “Because the business has been around for so long, having a formal written business plan was not a priority,” Mohandas said. “But in order to grow and move toward modernization, it’s important for the company to create a business map that will be their road map to achieving the goals set forth by the owners.”
Mohandas recommended focusing on the things the company does and realizing what they don’t do.
“You can’t be all things to all people,” Mohandas said. “It’s important for this business to focus on their strengths — unique and antique auto parts for classic cars. That’s what makes them different.”
But Hernández disagrees.
“We do focus on the antique auto parts, but we also repair modern cars every day,” Hernandez said. “So we want to continue focusing on that and making sure our services are affordable.”
Mohandas also recommended looking for potential customers outside of the immediate area of the business.
“I suggest looking for new clients outside of the shop,” Mohandas said. “Research online for antique car dealers, collectors and others looking for parts. They don’t have to only sell to the public, they can also sell to the trade. The key focus is to increase their sales margins.”
Explore government contracting: Harris worked with the company to help them understand how government contracting works and the opportunities offered by the SBA. Harris recommended that the company register as a woman-owned business in the SBA contracting program and to get their 8a certification. Harris is also working with the company to determine whether they are eligible for the Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZone) program, which helps small businesses in urban communities gain preferred access to federal procurement opportunities.
“These certifications will give the business several advantages in the $500 billion federal marketplace,” Harris said. “It will also make them attractive to large government suppliers who are required to subcontract to small business.”
Harris recommended that the company ask for introductions and referrals to federal buyers looking for auto parts or other related commodities.
Consider automating business processes: Canas recommended that the company look at areas where they can automate business processes.
“The company is using Quickbooks software for their accounting,” Canas said. “But they need to take a hard look at the business and see what other functions lend themselves to automation such as inventory and orders.
Canas also suggested reviewing their pricing model to ensure competitiveness.
“The way I see it,” said Canas. “Big competitors like Advanced Auto Parts and Auto Zone have made this business a commodity. When this happens, the only dimension of competition is price.”
With an annual revenue of $250K to $500K, Canas pointed out that the company does well for a small business, but there is room for growth.
Hernandez was grateful for the advice of the SCORE counselors.
“We always knew that we had to move toward modern times and increase our marketing,” Hernández said. “Thanks to the counselors at SCORE, we are well on our way.
The business: AAA Million Auto Parts has been in business for 77 years. The company was established in Cuba in 1938 by José R. Hernández. In 2005, Hernández passed away and his daughter, Margarita Hernández, and granddaughter, Cristina, took over the business, which provides auto repair services. The firm also offers a selection of rare parts for classic cars from the 1950s and ’60s.
The challenge: Modernizing the company’s marketing efforts to increase business sales
The experts: SCORE Miami-Dade counselor Orlando Espinosa, co-founder of Emineo Media, has more than 25 years of experience in branding and social media. Althea Harris is the Assistant District Director for Marketing and Outreach for the Small Business Administration (SBA) Area 1 in Miami. She is an expert in government contracting and has worked in the industry since 1993. Julio Canas is the business development director for Harbor Ithaka Wealth Management. He has worked in wealth and asset management for more than 10 years.
The makeover: In just under three weeks, the SCORE team developed a solid marketing strategy for AAA Million Auto Parks. They walked the owner and her daughter through strategies for improving their social media presence, automating their business processes and updating their website.