We all like to keep up with what is new and relevant to our lives: what new cars are on the market, what are the cool new tools and other such interesting bits of news and technology.
However, if you have been paying attention to the other news, for example world news and economics, you will have realized that there some problems in the world. Are we in a depression or a recession? No one knows for certain. Perhaps our grandchildren will know when they are reading about it in their history classrooms many years from now.
Yes, like singer/actor Tom Waits has said many times, “Times are tough all over.” However, if you run your shop and your life wisely these tough times are survivable.
Here at SSGM Magazine, we have been giving a Garage of the Year award for the past ten years; yes, from those so heady and optimistic times at the cusp of the New Millennium through to this great economic meltdown. As this is the tenth year of our award, we decided to revisit the past winners and see how life is treating them.
The good news is that all the past winners are still in business. The even better news is that their businesses are all thriving and growing.
You would not expect too many changes from last year’s winner Bento’s Auto & Tire Centre Ltd. located just west of downtown Toronto. He did set up two televisions tuned to the World Cup over the summer for his customers, although none were located on the shop floor. The 71-year-old owner, Bento de Sao Jose is not resting or planning a retirement party just yet. “I’m going to add a Rapid Lube service to the business,” he noted. He said this will be a good feature for his existing customers and will bring in new customers. “Everything has to be modern.”
Another past winner who has not had much to change was the Auto Centre Dufferin County located in Shelburne, Ontario. Owner Steve Bowles had moved into his nine-bay, 6,000 square foot newly built shop in 2003. “In reality, not much has changed,” he said. “Business is good. We were always an Ontario Emission testing facility and we have added now, for our customer’s benefit, an authorized Rust Check program. That came in the spring of 2009. It is one more service that we can provide to our customer.”
The winner of the first ever Garage of the Year prize Roy Rump from Ottawa, Ontario said, “Everything is the same except for the technology.” He also had a new purpose-built facility just before being awarded, in 1997. Besides new scanners and diagnostic and repair technologies he has acquired to help diagnose and repair his customer’s cars better, he has just installed WiFi for his customers to use while waiting for their service to be completed.
Reflecting on the tough times in the economy, Tim Togeretz said, “We are happy to still be here as most of our competition has shut down.” His shop, in Kitchener, Ontario, OK Tire & Auto Service won the award in 2007. Other than the disappearance of some of his competitors, “Not much is new,” he remarks. “We have upgraded a bit. In 2006, when we built the shop, it was state of the art so not much had to be done.”
2004 winner Ed Jagt from Barrie, Ontario recently closed off a part of his business since winning the award. “I closed the gas bar because I was losing too much money,” he said. “I had it in 2004, but closed it last year.” His shop, Pro-Tech Tire & Auto has had some positive changes though. Kevin, his oldest son, “is working in the shop,” he proudly said. “He was licensed last year and has been with the company since 2002.”
Although he still does not service diesel engines, Jagt is very proud of their move to get certified to service hybrid vehicles. “We are the first independent repair facility in Canada to be certified for all makes and models of hybrid cars,” he said. He took the courses offered by Craig Van Batenburg and because of the certification, “We have done a few hybrids and are doing more and more. People come from miles around They come from Barrie, Collingwood, Brantford and Newmarket.”
If you are looking for Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, the 2003 winner, you won’t find them as they have had a name change. Carlo Sabucco, took over the business from his father Silvano. “He is fully retired and enjoying the non-working life,” said Carlo. “From Sil’s Auto Diagnostic Centre we changed it to Sil’s Complete Auto Care Centre. We did this from a legal side but primarily from a marketing side – it just has better appeal to the consumer.” He said that they still run a rewards program. “The customer gets three per cent back for service to put to the next service. It works like all the other loyalty cards.”
In Agassiz, British Columbia, the 2002 winner, Modern Tire & Towing has a new owner. Brenda Major bought the company over a year ago. “I’ve been employed with the company for fifteen years before I bought it – I was the accounts manager,” she said. “The family owned the company – and the shareholders, for succession reasons wanted to sell it to dispense of the company.” She said that in the past year, “customers have increased and we installed a new 24,000 pound hoist and have implemented an air conditioning service as this was not provided before. We are doing more advertising in the local newspapers. My husband, Fred, and I live in the community and are very active in the community by volunteering here at different levels. This has also generated customers to come back and new customers to come in.”
The economy has bee particularly harsh in Windsor, the centre of Canada’s car industry. 2005 winner, John Sawatsky said that his shop MSJ Automotive has been doing fine. “We have able to weather the tough times in the economy especially in our area,” he said. “Our business has not suffered because we have kept up our service at a high level.” His success can be linked to his ability to get service contracts from some local corporate fleets. “That is just 50 per cent of our business – the other half is retail customers,” he noted. “The retail customers are who got us to where we are today.
We take care of them and stay diversified and not concentrate solely on the corporate clients. And they are the ones that keep us sharp.”
The story is a bit different in Calgary for Richard Dansereau of L.A.D.’s Auto Repair. “It is unbelievable. What economic downturn,” he asked. “It has been an upturn in fact.” The 2006 winner said, “This is our record year this year. We kind of exploded since we won the award.” The year they won the award they were a six-bay operation and, “by the time we are done all our expansion we will have 18 bays,” Dansereau said. “Things go better when the downturn comes because people are fixing their cars, keeping them longer instead of buying new ones.”
Bruce Eccles the owner operator of Bruce Eccles Auto Service in Dundas, Ontario has also been expanding since he won the award in 2001. “We are twice as big as in 2001,” he said. “I opened up a second shop three years ago. I took over a shop down the road – a four bay operation. My son Scott runs that. Everything is within a quick walk and I basically have 12 operating bays.” The reason for his success, he says, is to keep up with technology and to provide great customer service. “We are completely in tune with the new clientele. We use email, of course, but we are also on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – we have a blog,” he said. “We are the most advanced shop in Canada – bar none. I say that with complete confidence – there might be a shop that is tied but no one is ahead.”