Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2006   by Allan Janssen

Building your workforce

AutoTec, in Saint John, N.B., may well be one of the biggest paradoxes in the Canadian aftermarket.

It’s a sophisticated auto repair business with theStories very latest in diagnostic equipment, housed in a heritage building that dates back over 100 years. The oldest part of the building was built in the late 1800s. The "new" section was built in the early part of the last century.

Despite the antiquated setting, however, AutoTec handles some of the toughest automotive diagnostic work in the city and is known as the go-to shop for professionals with troubleshooting problems.

"There are a lot of constraints about what we can and can’t do with this buildingý but we make it work," says Doug Reevey, owner and president of AutoTec. "There are only four hoists. It’s a bit of a trick, but we have enough room to work on 13 cars at a time if we have to."

Formerly a chartered accountant, Doug bought the business from his father who had turned a tiny supply shop into a chain of auto-electrical jobber stores. The 13 branch sites were eventually sold to McKerlie-Millen (later bought by Carquest) but the deal didn’t include the company’s original location in downtown Saint John. So Ted sold it to Doug, who was tiring of the road-life of a chartered accountant and wanted to settle down.

"I learned a lot as a C.A. I liked meeting senior people at a wide variety of businesses. You had access to them and you could ask them questions about what made them successful. But it wasn’t a very stable job," he says.

A few years at the helm of AutoTec have certainly changed his life. Now he’s married, and he and his wife are raising their three-year-old daughter Claire. And, unlike before, he is concentrating all of his professional efforts on only one business: his own.

"When I walked in on that first Monday morning, I was very intimidated," he admits. Back then the business divided its efforts between electrical rebuilding, a related parts counter, and automotive sales.

"We had two guys rebuilding alternators, and starters, but for light-duty that’s just not a viable business anymore," says Doug. "We knew that business was going away." His first task was to chart a new course for the business as a whole – and that meant understanding every part of it.

"I put myself to work. First in the parts department, and when I had learned that business, I moved over to the service desk," he says. "It didn’t take me long to figure out that our background in electrical was going to be a big part of our success moving forward. As cars continue to become more complicated, electrical diagnostics was going to be a larger component of fixing them."

So he started to invest heavily in the bays, providing his techs with the latest scan tools, equipment, and repair information. And he widened the range of services they offered, so they could stop sending cars down the street.

"We used to give away the tire work and the oil changes. But that’s the easy stuff," he says. "We started to ask ourselves why we were doing all the hard stuff and letting the easy stuff go? So we decided to go full-service and we invested appropriately."

He knew the move was not without its risks.

"It is difficult to do well in automotive service," Doug admits. "But I saw that as an opportunity. I figured if I found it difficult, other people must find it difficult too. And if they dropped out, there would be less competition for us. So I said, ýLet’s really drive hard at this.’"

And they did. He grew his staff from four to 10 – including six technicians, a service manager, and a service writer – and made training a priority. One of the biggest challenges he’s anticipating in years to come, is maintaining a strong workforce to handle the tough diagnostic work that has become their specialty.

"We all know there’s a growing labor shortage," he says. "It’s getting tougher and tougher to find young people coming into this trade, willing to put in the time to become really good at this job."

In fact, Doug participated in a panel discussion on issues facing the industry at a recent Automotive Industries Association of Canada event in Moncton. Speaking to industry leaders, he described his strategy of being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to recruiting new talent.

"There’s no question that skilled labor is increasingly difficult to find – not only in our trade but in many trades," he said. "Our approach is to make a front-end investment in the top graduates coming out of community college. We’ve got strong ties at the college and we’ll hire promising people even if we don’t really need the help immediately. It gives me an incentive to get more work to keep them busy. Obviously I can’t do it every year, but I’ve done it the last couple of years and it has worked out well. It’s important for us to have a strong workforce that we can count on in the future. My senior guys will retire one day and I will have to replace them."
Part of his strategy also involves making sure the compensation package is attractive enough to keep people longer.

"If you don’t want people to leave, you have to give them a reason to stay," he says. "You have to pay well and offer a full benefits package with vacation and family days. You have to treat people the way you’d want to be treated."

In addition, Doug always talks positively about the business, encouraging young people to get into the trade.

"This is a relationship business," he says. "Every day we’re trying to build stronger relationships – with employees, with new clients, and with existing clients. You learn something new every day but the most important stuff is all about building trust."

His advice to other shop owners is to concentrate on the basics of their business.

"Don’t make thing more complicated than they have to be. If you offer friendly service, and competent work at a fair price, people will keep coming back to you," he says. "That sounds simple on the surface. There’s a lot of work that has to go on in the background to make that happen, but if we keep challenging ourselves to do things better, we’ll keep getting better. I see that as my main job. I have to stand back and figure out what we can do better than our competitors."

Despite the many challenges facing our industry, Doug remains optimistic about its future – particularly for those who believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

"When my competitors just see challenges and no real solutions, I see that as an opportunity to hang in there," he says. "When they fall away, I’ll still be standing. We’re going to go through some good times and bad times and I’m a firm believer in that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger."

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1 Comment » for Building your workforce
  1. carlo sabucco says:

    Great article. I fully believe in the need to implement this system in tire change overS for winter. However if Costco, Canadaian tire and many dealerships are still selling without TPMS then dont expect the independents to go charging along. Tire sales = other work, other work = shop sales that is the bottom line truth. When the insurance industry starts charging along and pushing that ” if you dont install these tpms sensors in winters we’ll cancel your policy” then things will change fast! With a government that does not even update their safety standards manual with these additional safety systems, why would i turn away business just becuase the consumer HAS AGREEDED AND SIGNED to not install them in his winter tires. Insurance and Government that push policies. I know we “could” be liable, but that would be the same for me letting a safety inspection pass with a car with the TPMS light on, or ABS or stability control system light. I truly appreciate our associations pushing government and thank them very much. Push the insurance industry and then they’ll push government even harder then we can!!!

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