Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2002   by Jim Anderton

2002 SSGM Garage of the Year: Mountain Grown

Nestled in picturesque Agassiz, British Columbia, Modern Tire and Towing is a three-generation success story that combines modern business operations with a traditional small-town lifestyle

From the outside, it’s not difficult to imagine Model A Fords, Studebakers and the occasional Nash fueling at Sam Sciotti’s pump island in Agassiz, British Columbia. That service business, founded in 1945, has three generations later become a multi-business enterprise encompassing automotive repair, tire sales and service, towing and recovery, convenience retail, “fast food”, as well as a Chevron gasoline dealership. Modern Tire and Towing is in fact the largest private employer in Agassiz, with a staff of 72, but the heart of the operation is automotive service and towing, which handles some 6000 vehicles a year, something of an achievement in a town with a population of 5000. Third-generation operators of the family business, Rob and Leanne Sciotti, manage with a quality focus that draws a customer base that includes clients in Vancouver, over an hour’s drive west on Highway 1. How do they do it?

Good work requires good facilities, and the Modern operation is divided into a five-bay main building, a three bay tire shop and an outbuilding for recycling. The repair bays retain the original shell of the 1945 operation, but inside it’s definitely 2003. Hi-intensity lighting illuminates bays that are washed twice a week regardless of workload, aided by a sealed floor designed to allow flooding half the surface area at a time. Workbenches feature built in drainage to catch fluids and windows have slanted sills to reject dirt and clutter. Shop supplies and chemicals are kept in closed cabinets, while power and compressed air are fed from overhead drops below a clean suspended ceiling. “You can walk with safety”, says Rob Sciotti simply, adding, “you don’t see cords or airlines on the ground.”

Four licensed technicians and two apprentices work with modern two-post lifts, a 12,000 pound alignment bench and a full complement of diagnostic tools at the facility, which specializes in domestic, Japanese and Korean vehicles. Full service at the CAA-Approved shop means everything from driveability to manual transmission rebuilding on-site. Large RV’s can be accommodated in a high bay within the tire building, and the operation is certified for repairs under British Columbia’s AirCare emissions program. One of the few services subcontracted is air conditioning.

According to service manager Wayne Lakerveld, “we go from MGB’s to three-ton trucks. Many customers come to us for a recommendation about what to buy new; they want to bring it to us for service. And if they ask for our advice, we’ll learn how to work on it.” Lakerveld, who is ASE certified, is also one of the few recovery drivers selected for the Molson Indy Vancouver.

Environmental issues are very important at Modern Tire and Towing, including an extensive recycling program that includes a unique program for plastic oil containers where used bottles are drained for a week to make the plastic palatable to recyclers. Wash water from the bays flows into catchment basin for oil recovery. Underground fuel tanks are double wall and pump island spills are treated with a “Code Four” call on internal radios carried by shop personnel, who respond immediately. Of 188 Chevron stations in B.C., 187 are corporate-owned, down substantially from over 400 in the early ‘Eighties, mainly due to the need for extensive investment to comply with tougher environmental regulations. The single exception is Modern’s operation, which scores a perfect 100 percent on Chevron’s internal environmental audit.

Lifestyle is a major part of small town life, and in Agassiz, Modern Tire is no exception. Not unusually for a small town, many members of the team are related by blood and marriage, and with the technical staff forming a substantial part of the local volunteer fire department, an emergency in town can empty the bays at a moment’s notice. Flexible staffing and high morale keep operations moving, however, and it’s not unusual to see bays open late or one tech covering for another as necessary.

Training and benchmarking are fundamentals at Modern Tire and Towing. Technician training is a combination of in bay and classroom learning. High Tek Training provides diagnostic and emissions instruction, while the British Columbia Institute of Technology has been a source for specialized automotive learning. Local jobber Lordco is a major driver of training initiatives, and business management training is also sourced independently and from the provincial CAA affiliate BCAA.

“A technician that isn’t thoroughly trained will take twice as long as the book to do the job”, says Sciotti, adding, “the customer loses, everybody loses. It’s not just training on technical aspects. We have what we call ‘climate’ here, how we talk to each other, and how we deal with each other. We meet regularly to talk about our working relationships. These guys have a great camaraderie. It shines through to the customer. You can see the pride and you can’t put a value on that.”

Another element in the success of Modern Tire and Towing is their relationship with local jobber Lordco, through whom over 90 percent of parts are sourced. “Lordco has team oriented people like us”, says Sciotti. “They don’t just listen, they hear us and react to it. Ten years ago, we carried over $45,000 dollars in inventory. Today it’s at $10,000.”

Rob mentions benchmarking as a key to successful management, using trade magazines, including SSGM, as a resource. “I had previous training in business, and along with benchmarking numbers I could determine where we were and where we needed to be. It’s a very valuable tool.”

As an active committee member of the Automotive Retailer’s Association, Sciotti visits many area shops with a keen interest. “Asking about what’s working and what doesn’t is the key to success. If you don’t ask owners, customers and technicians, I don’t know how you can make money in this business.”

In the repair business, employees are paid on a salary basis as a percentage of the door rate and have an health/dental/life insurance benefits package. Bonuses are paid on productivity. A written company policy is that technicians and service writers will not generate additional billables by the hardcore upsell. Estimates are three-tier: “Must do, need to do, like to do.” The door rate at Modern Tire is surprisingly low for a high-value operation at $62/hour, of which Rob Sciotti is aware: “I think it’s too low. Our people make less money that the bigger centres; people here traditionally drive older cars. We’re able to be competitive with our door rate because of teamwork. Quality of life is an important factor.”

With majestic scenery and the Harrison Hot Springs just minutes away, Agassiz has an Andy Griffith-like aura as a nice place to live, and the people at Modern Tire and Towing echo those values. Rob Sciotti describes it this way: “Mechanical shops have a bad reputation because one-half or one-quarter of one percent of the shops out there take advantage of the consumer. With us it’s an opportunity to prove who we are. We’ll pull in a customer at two o’clock in the morning, sometimes open the shop late or even bring him into our home for the night. Then we’ll work on the vehicle for a fair price. We have a blast. There are no two days alike and things happen because we make them happen. Day in and day out, it’s a pleasant place to work.”

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