TAMPA — Charles Calise decided to jump into the auto repair business while waiting for his car to be fixed.
"I was trying to get some work done in this decrepit waiting room with my laptop balanced on a metal folding chair that was held together with duct tape," recalled the 43-year-old former packaged goods industry executive. "It hit me that auto repair is among the last industries getting away with abusing its customers. As a marketing guy, I saw that as a point of difference."
Research told him motorists keep their cars longer. Two-thirds of all repair work is done at nondealer shops. Half the customers are women who think repair shops overcharged them for years.
So at his 2-month-old Signature Tire & Auto Care at 2205 W Kennedy Blvd., Calise is trying to one-up even the new car dealers who ladled on creature comforts.
• A no-kids-allowed business center equipped with a desktop computer, color printer, HDTV with a remote, free WiFi and easy chairs with laptop holders.
• A glassed-in kids play area outfitted with an Xbox, a toy kitchen, games, coloring books and HDTV tuned to the Disney Channel.
• Free coffee, tea, soda, juice boxes, bottled water and salty snacks.
• Picture windows with bar stools for customers who want to see every lug nut spun in the 12 service bays. Signature posts prices, pays mechanics by the hour rather than commission and limits mechanics to separate restrooms.
There's more. The bathroom countertops are granite. The tire display has its own room because not everybody likes the scent of rubber. Customers control the remote on a big-screen HDTV, which offers HBO channels.
Car repair was not a big step for Calise, who graduated from Citrus High near Inverness as the kid who drove the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, a 1964 Impala and a 1966 Mustang. He grew up in a family of car restorers led by a father, a former New York City sanitation foreman, whose spotless 1951 Nash Ambassador is displayed in a floor-to-ceiling photo at Signature.
Calise parlayed an MBA from Notre Dame into a brand management career at Kimberly Clark, the maker of Huggies diapers and Viva paper towels. He ventured out on his own two years ago after losing his Cott Corp. job when the Tampa soda bottler chose to stick with making store brands that mimic the big brands rather than dream up its own drinks.
He envisions two or three Signature stores, then franchising.
To be sure, Signature will live or die on its repair work, not the frills. So Calise recruited a 22-year service manager from Courtesy Nissan. He invested in diagnostic computers.
So far only half his customers use the waiting room. So staffers uses their own cars to ferry customers around until he gets a courtesy van.
Despite the extras, Calise insists he is not pandering to the premium market. He priced Signature in the middle of the aftermarket repair shops clustered along South Tampa's Gasoline Alley. Of the $2 million he spent transforming a former postal annex into an auto repair shop, only $45,000 of it went to waiting room extras.
"And we'll get that back in a year or two," he said.
The only drawback, he said, has been kids bellyaching when it's time to leave.
Signature struck a chord with Laurin Jacobson, owner of a Mercedes, a BMW and a Mini Cooper.
"I ditched all my car guys," said the 59-year-old teacher. "This waiting room is so nice I bring a book and just have a good time."
She got so caught up in the spirit she donated two dishes of hard candy and potted orchids to spiff up the service desk.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.