Customer satisfaction drives Columbia Auto Center

On a sun-soaked Friday morning at Columbia Auto Center, mechanics inspected car engines, office staff answered ringing phones, and customers waited to pick up their road-ready vehicles.

Shop owners Dar and Brian were in the middle of it all, as they have been for the last nine years. They only go by their first names because that’s what customers know them by.

“We’ve kept improving,” Brian said, overseeing the body shop-side of the business. “We were a smaller shop, but now we’re one of the biggest in the area.

Columbia Auto Center offers real discounts. Mechanic Zane Walker works on a Jaguar at Columbia Auto Center in Howard County. (Andrew Cannarsa)

The shop owners aren’t against getting their hands dirty—Dar’s were black on this morning from working on a Jaguar—even though both have rich education and career backgrounds.

Dar earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and has done things like examine mechanical failures for Ford and design water dams in New Zealand. Brian began working in Columbia-area auto shops at 18; he furthered his education with computer science studies and worked for several years doing computer networking for the Washington, D.C. public school system.

Dar owned and operated Das Auto Repair in Columbia since 1985, but nine years ago, he sold that shop and partnered with Brian to open Columbia Auto Center on Dobbin Center Way.

They started the business, doing body work with two auto body workers and one painter. Today, they’re running a full body shop, a full repair shop (that Dar oversees), and have about 25 staffers between the two operations. The business services all vehicle makes and models and has long-time clients from the Baltimore-Washington area who have been with the business since day one.

Head mechanic Frank Knecht works on a vehicle. (Erik Hoffman)

“Building those relationships takes time,” Brian said. “You’ve got to dedicate yourself to the business and worker harder. Word-of-mouth and referral business has really helped us out.

“On the body shop side, the price and the quality of service have to be there to be competitive in this market. Insurance companies inspect your work, and if it’s not up to standard, they won’t send business to you,” he added. “The mechanic shop has to have quality service, but the price has to be there, because people today, of course, shop around.”

Dar believes the best way to generate and maintain business is by providing consistent, quality service. Columbia Auto Center offers a variety of coupons on its website that customers can use after the work on their vehicle has been completed and the shop has determined the final cost for repairs.  Often times, shops will require customers to present similar coupons before work is done, and final cost numbers can be manipulated so that actual customer savings are minimal, he said.

For example, the shop’s website recently offered coupons for 20 percent off air conditioning service, 15 percent off of brake work, and 10 percent off for new customers.

Customers get their car washed after the work is completed. (Erik Hoffman)

“Our coupons aren’t fake, we’re always trying to be as honest as we can be with our customers,” Dar said. “We’re not playing with the numbers, which is easy to do in this business.”

The commitment to quality service has served him well in the auto-repair field, as he’s taken care of some customers, and those customers’ children, for nearly three decades.

“Twenty-five years in this business is a long time,” he said. “We’re crossing generations here.”

Brian acknowledged the work never stops at Columbia Auto Center, as he, Dar, and their mechanics and office staff are working 10 hours a day, six days a week—but it beats the alternative.

“We’re very happy with where the business is,” Brian said, tapping his fist on his desk. “Knock on wood, because not being busy is very bad!”