Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2012   by Noelle Stapinsky

Best In Class

An independent northern Alberta service shop raises the bar on business excellence and becomes the first Canadian shop to achieve a prestigious AAIA award

When Gustafson’s Auto Clinic Inc., a family-run service shop in Athabasca, Alta, burned to the ground in a devastating fire in 2003, husband and wife team Kevin and Stacey Gustafson did the only thing they could — got back to work.

In fact, they only missed two days of work before they set up a makeshift shop at Stacey’s family farm. To keep the business going, they found a small, temporary location in town. “The building was smaller than our old shop and we couldn’t keep all our staff,” says Stacey. “One of our techs was offered a job by another shop and he took it so someone else wouldn’t be laid off. And we sent some of our other guys to school to training.”

Having such perseverance, dedication and a close-knit family culture is what has powered the business for almost 30 years.

Kevin’s father opened the shop in 1984. Becoming a licensed technician, Kevin joined the family business a year later. Stacey joined the operations in 1987, taking care of the books. In 2001, they purchased the family business.

Just seven months after the fire, the Gustafson’s rebuilt their shop — with a new floor plan and larger waiting room — and were up and running at full capacity once again.

The Gustafson’s business has always been based on portraying a professional image, and delivering top-notch service and quality. But when they met Bob Greenwood, president and CEO of the Automotive Aftermarket E-Learning Centre (AAEC) a couple years later, their business really started to evolve into the progressive shop it is today.

“We were introduced to Bob through our supplier, Automotive Parts Distributor (APD). They want to see shops succeed and offer a business management program by AAEC,” says Stacey. “A lot of shop owners don’t have management training and are usually technicians that just want to start their own shop. We realized we didn’t really have management experience so we took Bob’s course and joined a program through APD. They watched our numbers and gave us advice.”

And when Greenwood launched the BEST program — which stands for Business Evaluation Support and Training — the Gustafsons were the first to sign up. Through this program, shops are able to establish a management base and gain control and understanding of their revenue numbers.

“First, we look at the overall business concept of how a shop needs to be run to meet the future demands of the consumer and the technology entering the industry. Shops need to realize they need competency internally to execute it properly — staffing is top priority for this,” says Greenwood. “Next, we reorganize their numbers so they get a complete monthly report and analysis of their business, showing the objectives they want to attain and measuring those on a monthly and year to date basis.”

Stacey says that the BEST program gave them clarity with their numbers, and with AAEC’s Rui Martins help with process solutions, everything began to skyrocket.

As Greenwood advises, you don’t want to upset your business by doing a whole bunch of things at once. You should only change two things and work on them until they become a proven part of the business culture. The Gustafson’s have done just that, working at a steady pace over the years to sculpt their business model and improve best practices.

When new customers enter their business, they often do a double take and ask if it’s an actual repair shop. The warm coloured walls, candles, leather couches and flat panel TV gives it a comfortable living room feel. The countermen sport ties, the office furniture is new and pristinely kept, and the walls are free of advertising posters and other typical promotional materials.

The shop floor is also clean and professional. With five bays, each workstation is equipped with a laptop, and the four full-time technicians have iPads for diagnostics and accessing online resources such as Mitchell, ALLDATA and Identifix. Matching uniforms are provided to the employees, who also get an annual tool and boot allowance.

And to the Gustafson’s, education is key for all of their employees. “They’ve invested tremendously in their staff,” says Greenwood. “On average they invest about $10,000 per employee each year on education and keeping them engulfed in their profession.”

Every employee — the technicians, countermen, service advisor, parts person, the owners, and even Kevin’s father, who drives the company shuttle service — have a well-rounded education in everything from technical training to management and customer service.

Kevin says that they’ve started purchasing OEM scan tools, are constantly upgrading technology and they’re always on the hunt for new training programs. They’ve even sent techs as far as Toronto — all expenses paid — for training.

“You need that education and training to stay on top of your game if you want to be up there competitively,” says Kevin.

What’s more, they match employee RSP contributions, offer a $500 bonus after the first year of employment, and a yearly $1,000 bonus for each additional year of service. And most recently the shop introduced profit sharing. “If we meet our goals or anything over and above — obviously we put a certain amount of money back in the shop for new equipment and business upgrades — it gets evenly distributed amongst our employees,” says Stacey.

For business transparency, there’s a white board that displays daily goal status, a running overall total month-to-date and what the shops average billed hours are on a daily basis. “A lot of shop owners don’t think their employees need to know the numbers of the business. We’re the opposite. They do need to know what it costs to run the shop,” says Stacey. “This gives them a sense of ownership. They have a sense of pride and feel empowered and part of the business.”

Upholding a clean and professional environment also helps create customer loyalty. Gustafson’s Auto Clinic specializes in diagnostics and complete vehicle maintenance. As a member of Be Car Care Aware — Automotive Industries Association’s (AIA) preventative maintenance program, this Alberta shops strives to educate its clientele and manage their vehicles for safety and reliability.

“We’re in the knowledge business with today’s technology, not the breakdown and repair business we were years ago,” says Stacey. “We counsel our clients. We don’t talk about price, but rather the total investment they’re making in their vehicles. And if someone is behind on preventative maintenance and need $500 worth of flushes, but their ball joint is falling out, we’ll work on the safety issue first, then set up a plan that suits their budget to get them caught up.”

They also try to pre-book their clients’ next visit, giving them information about what repairs or maintenance will need to be done, why it needs to be done, and how much it will cost to help them budget accordingly.

Of course, when Greenwood was contacted by the Automotive Aftermarket Industries Association (AAIA) — AIA’s American counterpart — for a referral of a Canadian service shop worthy of applying for the prestigious “Best in Class” award, he didn’t hesitate to recommend Gustafson’s Auto Clinic.

Awarded at this year’s AAPEX show, the Gustafsons’ business is the first Canadian shop to ever win the “Best in Class” award.

When asked about this achievement, both Stacey and Kevin laugh and say, “It’s overwhelming.”

“It’s very humbling to be considered, let alone winning it. It’s kind of cool,” says Kevin.

Stacey adds, “It’s taken a lot of hard work and self discipline, but without our team, we can’t do what we do. With Bob, Rui and [AAEC’s] Rob Ward, we’ve had a lot of mentoring. And we’ve been surrounded by a lot of people that have confidence in us.”

In the wake of all this excitement and recognition, the Gustafsons don’t intend on riding on their coat tails. “There’s so much more we want to achieve and plans for continuously moving forward — and we’re also planning to double the size of our facility in the near future,” says Stacey.

As the aftermarket industry transitions from a trade to more of a technical profession, this small town Alberta shop’s progressive business model is certainly poised for future growth, while blazing the trail for the shop of tomorrow.

Print this page


Have your say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *