Bento de Sao Jose still remembers the day he took possession of his first automotive service operation at Bathurst and College in Toronto, a Shell operation that had a car service centre as part of its gasoline sales business. He remembers the day because it was also the day his son Philip was born. He still laughs about it, saying he never forgets either event.
That first operation was the start of what has become a forty-year career as an independent service provider in Toronto, a career that would, at one point, include four service operations around the city, pioneering 24-hour auto repairs and service for the city, and running a new-and-used vehicle sales operation and bodyshop.
Commitment to the Customer
Bento de Sao Jose is a whirlwind of activity. He effortlessly moves between his office and the service desk, working with his staff to answer customer’s cus questions to help them understand what is wrong with their vehicles and what needs to be done to maintain and fix them. What strikes even the casual observer after a few minutes is the dedication Bento de Sao Jose and his staff have to their customers, treating each question asked without condescension and with the upmost respect. When asked what is the most important thing the customer looks for from an independent service provider like himself, he does not hesitate to say that it comes right down to honesty.
“We need to be honest with the customer,” he told assembled press and local community dignitaries and politicians who came out to honour him when he was presented with the Garage of the Year award from SSGM. “Today’s customer is more informed than ever, using the Internet to gain knowledge about their vehicle, its proper maintenance and about the independent shop they will take their vehicle to. Because of that knowledge, it is critical to be open [and] honest with customers and to share our knowledge with them so they leave us satisfied and returns once more.”
Leaving the customer satisfied means also working to make the service experience a pleasant one. Bento de Sao Jose’s current location on Dundas Street West — which he first used as a vehicle dealership before transitioning the location to a full- service operation in 1992 and now uses as his main service operation — has a spacious waiting area with lots of natural light, carefully placed tire displays from various manufacturers along with displays for batteries and other vehicle maintenance-related educational materials. The service writers have their own desks at the main entrance with flat-screen computer monitors and systems which communicate seamlessly to the bays in the back on the Lankar software system from Autogence Inc. As well, the waiting area features a large-screen television along with comfortable places to sit.
“People remember the little things,” Bento de Sao Jose says. “We have an area where small children can play with toys and games. It does not seem like much, but people do remember something like that, as they remember fresh coffee or our staff coming out and greeting them, talking to them about their day as we work to find out what is wrong with the vehicle. Even the kids remember us. Sometimes, if the child is really happy with a toy, we let them keep it. Sure, we have to later go out and buy a replacement, but it’s worth it if it keeps everyone happy and coming back.”
Commitment To The Community, To The Future
Many independent service operation owners know the value of community involvement. Investment in the community, in supporting various worthy charities and sponsoring school and local children’s sports, bring dividends of increased business to a service operation. People, on the whole, support business that show support for the community. Bento de Sao Jose for many years has involved himself directly in the issue of immigration and helping recent immigrants settle and succeed in Canada. He has worked directly with provincial and federal officials on matters covering immigration reform, refugee issues and improving the educational prospects for newcomers. He is especially
proud of his work with the Ontario ombudsman in the 1990s that helped bring about better programs for new immigrants to the province. He believes strongly that helping new immigrants successfully integrate into Canada, helping them find work and helping their children navigate the school systems has long-term benefits to society as a whole, as well as for the immediate community. Many new immigrants, he says, will go and start their own businesses which help the local community prosper.
Bento de Sao Jose also makes it a point to open his shop up to new immigrants looking for their first job.
“We have technicians and apprentices here who are from Iran, Iraq, China and Kuwait,” he adds. “I really believe in helping newcomers learn a trade, to get the skills needed to succeed. There is another advantage as well. I have many people come here to my shop whose first language is not English and when they see someone from their community working there, they feel comfortable coming here and we have someone who can speak with them and help them with their problems.”
Cheri DiNovo, MPP for Parkdale-Highpark, spoke of Bento de Sao Jose’s work on immigrant issues and how important his business is for new Canadians.
“What it says to a number of immigrants — my husband is second-generation Portuguese and my parents are Italian — is there is hope here in Canada and you can make a successful life your yourself,” DiNovo says. “I’m also a small business critic and come from a small business background, and I know that businesses like Mr. Bento’s are responsible for 90 per cent of new jobs in Ontario.”
“What sets him apart is his wealth of knowledge and his commitment to the automotive industry,” says Errol Williams, AARS field representative, automotive services, CAA South Central Ontario. “We are going to be releasing a new program and we are going to approach him about that program and we are confident that he will join us on that program.”
Bento de Sao Jose also believes in investing in the future. His shop, the effort of forty years of work, is a legacy he wishes to pass onto his family, his son-in-law and his grandchildren who he holds out hope will take the business forward. His son Philip works as a manager at the shop, and handles the day-to-day operations of the shop and management of the staff.
“Today, one of the biggest challenges is new technology,” says Philip de Sao Jose. “As vehicles evolve, so must the machinery to repair them. This in turn means we must keep purchasing new equipment to keep up. Independent shops like ours must remain competitive and we must constantly invest in new machinery. We want to assure our customers that we have the best tools when we repair their vehicles. By combining great tools with knowledgeable mechanics we are able to guarantee our work.”
Philip de Sao Jose also makes sure the shop has a ready- supply of parts available on-site as operating 24 hours means parts have to be at-hand at a moments notice to meet customer’s expectations.
“Customers rely heavily on their cars,” he adds. “Therefore, having parts in stock or the ability to get them quickly to our shop, means we can get a customer’s car ready sooner rather than later. Being open 24 hours appeals to them. They are able to leave their cars with us whenever it is convenient for them. Often times, this means leaving their car with us after work and picking it up in the morning.”
Bento de Sao Jose believes in leaving a strong legacy of quality of service and expertise, which is why he continues to invest heavily in ongoing technical training for all of his staff. He recently paid for their education on hybrid vehicle technology and encourages every technician to help each other learn more about new systems and tools. Bento De Sao Jose is also well known in the industry for his support on the Right-to-Repair. Two years ago he had 150 technicians come to a special presentation by AIA Canada and MP for Windsor West Brian Masse on Right-to-Repair, and helped spur grass-root support for the proposed legislation. Bento de Sao Jose was able to later present 5,000 signatures for the legislation.
But where he wants to see more emphasis placed upon by the industry as a whole is developing more effective business training for shop owners. Technical training is important, he says, but knowing how to balance the books, manage accounts, deal with human resource issues and the like are just as important, and need to be taught to many first-time business owners.