Southern Exposure

A local man’s passion and marketing savvy help him turn dreams into business-success reality

Jeffery Stiner’s Cavallino Autoworks specializes in the types of cars rarely found in Bellingham — Ferraris, Maseratis, and Aston Martins — so he lures his customers north from King County.

Dan Hiestand
   Walking into the belly of Cavallino Autoworks garage on Horton Road in Bellingham bares some resemblance to wandering the corridors of an art museum: everything seems to have its place, classical music hums discreetly in the background and everywhere you look, there’s art.
    That is, if you consider Ferraris, MGs, Maseratis, Jaguars, Porsches and Aston Martins to be art.
   Jeffery Stiner does — and his company’s fast-track growth seems to indicate he must know what he’s talking about.
    Stiner is the 33-year-old owner and master technician at Cavallino, a company that started a little more than three years ago in a 500-square-foot shop and now calls a 5,000-square-foot facility home.
   The business provides full service, repair and even restoration for high-end Italian, British and German sports and/or luxury cars. Stiner was soft-spoken and articulate as he spoke about his company’s humble beginnings.
   “I started out with 500 square feet — barely enough room for two cars,” he said. “I didn’t take out any business loans, and had about $200 to $300 in my pocket.”
   He said he shared physical space with Pro CNC, a Bellingham-based manufacturing company, a few doors from where his current shop sits. After his customer base increased, he made two location moves: first to a 2,000-square-foot facility next door to the company’s current location, and finally into their current 5,000-square foot building.
   In the beginning, the business focused exclusively on clients with Italian and British automobiles. Now it has branched into the German car industry, and it’s not uncommon to see a wide assortment of luxury and sport cars either in the parking lot or in the garage. Stiner’s list of cars his business works on reads like something out of a car-lovers dream.
   “Lots of Land Rovers, lots of Jags. Lots of older British cars — MGs, Triumphs, Austin Healeys, Aston Martins. We have some Rolls-Royce and Bentley clients as well,” he said. Even the car cleaning products the company carries in its showroom are first-class.
   “We carry a line of Griot’s Garage products, which are very high-end car-cleaning products,” Stiner said. “We had to be interviewed to carry their stuff. You have to have a certain level of clientele, and you have to have a clean atmosphere.”
   Bellingham doesn’t seem to be saturated with the clientele Griot’s was probably referring to, and Stiner agreed that it’s not. So how has he orchestrated his company’s impressive growth in the local market?

Car clubs and customer service fuel company’s growth
   Stiner’s interest in cars was apparent at an early age.
   “I’ve always been into cars,” said Stiner, who was born in Nubury, England and has lived in Whatcom County since 1979. “I don’t know that I can really recollect the day I decided I loved cars. But I can remember as a really young kid, maybe five or six, running around in the parking lots and peeking underneath cars; I was just so fascinated by the mechanics — what makes cars work. And I would tell my dad, ‘That’s a rear-wheel drive car, and that’s a front-wheel drive car.’ I could just kind of see how things worked.”
   His interest remained and grew — but also became more refined. Eventually he became a factory-trained Jaguar and Ferrari technician.
   “I love the cars,” he said, although he doesn’t own a Ferrari and he rides a Harley-Davidson to work. “Each car — especially the British and Italian cars — has a lot of character in it. Italian cars are designed by artists, actual coach-builder artists. You look at these old Mercedes, look at the work that goes into these bumpers or the taillights, or the way the engine sounds or the way the wood smells.”
   His passion eventually translated into the creation of Cavallino in May 2003. At that time, the shop was small — and so was the staff. In fact, Stiner was the staff. Originally, he thought his business would grow to include one more employee in addition to himself. Since its inception, however, it has grown to six employees, including three factory-trained technicians. Stiner said he didn’t know the market would be as fertile as it has become when he first started.
   Stiner has attracted a steady clientele, built primarily on the shoulders of Ferrari, Land Rover and Jaguar servicing, he said. Eighty percent to 90 percent of Ferraris come from the Bellevue-Seattle area — which accounts for roughly a third of the cars his company works on — while most of the Jaguars and Land Rovers are from Bellingham.
   “I think the magic (in my company’s growth) was in the marketing,” he said. “If I could toot my horn in any way, it would be for the way I chose to do that aspect of the business. Because how do you market to Ferrari (owners)? How do you market to Land Rover and Jag (owners)?”
   Answering his own question, he said most of his advertising was targeted at car clubs and car-enthusiast newsletters — outlets that ended up doing a lot of networking for him.
   As an added incentive to potential customers, he also offers his more southerly based clients free pickup and delivery of vehicles — door-to-door, trailer transport. The fact that there are just two other major Ferrari service centers in Western Washington has helped, too, he said.
   “(When I started this business) I was very nervous,” Stiner said. “There were plenty of sleepless nights.” Soon, however, those sleepless nights turned into sweet dreams.
   “When I opened this business, I had more realistic expectations of servicing what was available locally — meaning Land Rovers, MGs, Triumphs — cars that are abundant in this local market,” he said. “As the market opened up outside of Bellingham for my shop, I realized there was a larger pool of clients that were willing to bring their cars up from Bellevue and Seattle to obtain this service. All of a sudden I found out that the cars that I had been dreaming about working on were really going to be coming in, in higher numbers than I had ever thought.”
   “It’s pretty amazing this shop exists in Bellingham, really,” said Noah Dahlstrom, a technician at the shop for about a year. As he talked, he was re-installing the heads on a Maserati to address an oil-consumption issue. “I never thought I would be this close to so many expensive and nice cars — let alone working (on them).”

The customer is NOT always right
   Stiner said finding the right customer is often as important — if not more so — as finding the right car.
   “If (potential customers) are interested in us jimmying the car just to get it down the road, we’re not interested,” he said. “I don’t mean to make it sound like we interview the customers, but to some extent, we want to pick the right customers.”
   The right customers are probably not going to drive economy cars that simply go from point A to point B, he said.
   “A lot of these customers are, again, car enthusiasts, and they are very careful about their cars,” he said. “But they can be high maintenance. Imagine you own a Ferrari, you’re taking it to a shop and you are entrusting it to a shop. It’s not unusual for some of these people to call a couple of times a day and check up.”
   Over the years, Stiner, said he has worked on cars for a variety of clients, including Ferraris belonging to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, several professional athletes, including former Mariner Mike Cameron, and telecommunications billionaire Bruce McCaw. Parked outside his shop is a Ferrari 550 Maranello formerly owned by a Levi Strauss executive that was originally worth $250,000.
   “They’re not like everything else you drive,” he said. “So when you drive down the road in a Ferrari or a Mercedes or a Jag, you just kind of feel like you are not everybody else.”
   Stan Webber, a 65-year-old shipping agent, said he is very pleased with the work Cavallino has done over the past year on his 1961 Austin Healey — which was considerable after the car was involved in an accident last year.
   “They are outstanding,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with them.”
   He’s also surprised the company has taken off like it has.
   “I’m blown away,” he said. “They’ve got cars you only see in magazines. It’s an experience to go into the shop.”
   The price tags and time associated with work on these upscale vehicles also reminds customers they are different. Two servicing examples help illustrate this point: the 30,000-mile checkup and the oil change.
   “If you brought your Volkswagen in to get a 30,000 mile service, you could bring it into the shop early in the morning and expect to get it early afternoon or at the end of the day,” he said. “This Ferrari 355 would take the better part of a week.”
   An oil change that may cost $30 for an economy car would cost between $200 to $300 for a Ferrari, he said. But Stiner said he’s not in it for the money.
   “If I wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t do British-Italian cars, I would do German and Japanese cars because there are lots of them around locally,” he said. “But I think it takes somebody who really loves cars to do a business like this one.”
   He said his technicians must have an attention to detail many mechanics don’t need to have.
   “There is a higher level of care,” he said. “You know, wiping dirty fingerprints off, making sure your shoes are clean. There is a lot more to be aware of.”
   Dahlstrom said the sum of all the details is large, and it can make him nervous.
   “Absolutely,” he admitted. “But in the end it’s just a car. You have to look at it as nuts and bolts like anything else. It’s just the price tag is higher. If you let it get to you, you’ll be afraid to really get in there and actually get yourself dirty working on them.”
   Regardless, Dahlstrom said he knows the stakes.
   “With these cars, if you’re not perfect, the mistakes become exponentially more expensive and so everything you do has to be perfect.”

 

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