A love for the industry fuels the desire for excellence
It is rare when someone says they love their job, as it is a sentiment rarely expressed with true conviction. Jim Colalillo, owner of the Mississauga, Ontario-based Colalillo Automotive Services Ltd., is an exception. He truly and with the deepest conviction loves his job. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
“This was my dream from day one,” Colalillo says in the office of his service operation, a 10-bay facility sitting on one of the busiest thoroughfares in Canada’s sixth-most populous municipality, only a stone’s-throw from Mississauga City Hall and one of Canada’s largest shopping malls, Square One. “If you have a goal in life, you have everything covered. If you have a goal in life and you have a direction, you are half-way there.”
Colalillo says he always wanted to be a mechanic and operate his own service operation from his high school days when he first caught the mechanic’s bug and began to tinker with cars. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Centennial College’s automotive program and then began apprenticing with an Esso service operation in Brampton, Ontario at a time when major oil companies not only sold gasoline but ran automotive repair facilities as well. Colalillo admits even before taking his first apprentice position, he was already making plans to run his own facility. After eight years as an apprentice and nursing his ambitions, Colalillo got his chance when Texaco offered him the opportunity to operate a service operation and gas bar at Kennedy Road and Highway 7.
Colalillo says he took many of the lessons on how to run a successful shop he absorbed while an apprentice and applied it to his new venture. He emphasizes quality mechanical work, training and keeping the operations clean and inviting.
“In the first two years I was at the location, the head office loved what I was doing,” he says. “I kept the operations clean, organized and busy. It is the same lesson and work ethic I still use. When people come into my shop, they see my place is spotless and professional, and staffed by professionals who know what they are doing.”
Over the next 15 years, Colalillo operated another Texaco service operation, making it one of the most successful in the area. It was while operating this facility on Burnhamthorpe Road and Tomken Road that Colalillo says an opportunity presented itself that would allow him to realize another dream, of building a service operation that would challenge person’s notions of what an independent service operation could be.
‘Where is the Garage?’
It was while road testing a vehicle after a routine brake job that Colalillo made a fortuitous turn onto Burnhamthorpe Road from Mavis Road. A ‘For Sale’ sign sat in an empty field. At the time, Colalillo says the area was very different from what it is today. Where today there are luxury condominiums, office towers and retail operations, back when Colalillo was doing his road test there was vast empty fields with a lone Esso gasoline bar. So he was surprised to see such a sign. He phoned his real estate agent to see who owned the property and to see if he could make an offer.
“At first, my real estate agent could not find the sign, but he made some inquiries and he managed to find the owner of the property who, at first, was reluctant to sell it — but we made an offer. We went back and forth on this until we came to a mutually agreed-upon price,” he says. “Then I got to work designing the operation I always wanted to have.”
What Colalillo and his architect envisioned was a service operation that goes against every stereotype of what people think an independent service operation is. It would be decisive in winning over a Mississauga City Council that was not enthusiastic about having a ‘garage’ on what was envisioned by the members as one of the city’s future main retail and residential thoroughfares.
“All the ‘red flags’ went up in the council, and the council did give us a hard time because all they saw was ‘garage,’” Colalillo says. “What they imagined was some greasy, dirty place. The whole council put me through the wringer for two hours. Imagine sixteen members of council sitting around a table with Mayor Hazel McCallion at the head grilling you. It was only at the end when my architect unveiled the plans and drawings that the room went quiet. Finally, one fellow said, “Where’s the garage?’ After that, they wanted to know how the operation was going to work and once we explained to them how everything worked, they became very supportive.”
Driving down the very-busy Burnhamthorpe Road one will likely think Colalillo Automotive Services Ltd. is a two-story retail and office property, its modernist design, cladded exterior and well-maintained landscaping fitting perfectly with the surrounding office towers and condominiums. It is only the operation’s sign and CAA approved service operation window-display and the signage announcing the operation’s vehicle rental operation that tells someone this is an independent service operation (the second floor holds three professional offices that Colalillo leases). When customers enter they are greeted by a smart, clean waiting area and carefully arranged displays of tires, rims, lubricants and motor oils. Behind the service counter sits Susan Newman, who Colalillo says is his right hand, having worked with him now 21 years.
“She knows everything,” he adds. “She has everything under control. If someone comes in asking for tires, she can tell them what kind of tires they need. If they explain to her what is wrong with their car, she can tell them what the problem is. I can’t imagine this place without her.”
Working alongside Susan is Claudia Sarmiento, who Colalillo has high praise for as well. In the four years she has been with his service operation, she and Susan work as a well-oiled machine, keeping the shop’s workflow moving smoothly and customers feeling comfortable with bringing their vehicles into the operation. You will often find her behind the desk of the Express Car Rental operation that Colalillo operates as well. The atmosphere is one of friendly professionalism.
He is also proud of his daughter Melissa Colalillo who successfully operates the second Express Car Rental operation located in Toronto at Bridgeland Ave.
From the customer waiting area, one has an unobstructed view of the 10 bays. The works areas are kept spotless and organized, and there is plenty of room for the technicians work and move about the vehicles. The high ceiling has numerous skylights and there are days during the summer that Colalillo says he never turns on the lights in the bays because of the sunlight the skylights allow into the bays. The four certified technicians and the apprentice have computers on the shop floor with access to Mitchell on Demand, ALLDATA and Identifix.
“I want my staff to be able to find all the information they need easily and quickly, and to be able to order the parts they need right away,” Colalillo says. Because his technicians deal with a large volume of foreign nameplate vehicles, he sources parts from WORLDPAC, AutoCamping and OE suppliers as on those vehicles owners demand OE or as close to OE-quality from aftermarket parts. He keeps at-the-ready a wide range of vehicle fluids from Valvoline, QuakerState, Mobile 1, Lubro Moly and OE-specific fluids and coolants. Colalillo also carries a wide-range of tires and works closely with Kal Tire and OK Tire. Just as important for Colalillo is his membership in the UCDA (Used Car Dealers Association of Ontario) and the OMVIC (The Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council), organizations that protect vehicle owners and promote industry professionalism.
If there is an animating philosophy behind Colalillo’s business success it is the demand that only the highest quality of service and work is acceptable. He says he strives in all cases for ‘Zero Comebacks.’ He does not want to have any customer believe they did not get the best service available from his technicians and front office staff. He puts a high premium on technician training and regularly invests in the newest equipment and scan tools. At the time of his being awarded the ‘Garage of the Year’ by SSGM Magazine, Colalillo had purchased new Hunter alignment systems, tire balancers and changers, and had booked training for all of his technicians on the new equipment with the manufacturer.
He is also not afraid to inspect the work of even his most senior technician to make sure things are done right, or take out a customer’s vehicle for a road test.
This might seem a recipe for employee and management friction, but it works and his staff is appreciative of the close attention he gives to their work and ensuring they get the tools and training they need. He also pays his technician a salary, rather than a flat rate.
“There is no pressure for speed here,” he says. “What I want is the work to be done right. I don’t want a customer coming back. No one is pushing you to work fast. Instead, I just want the work to be done right and for everyone to strive for zero comebacks.”
This attention to quality and service and having a service operation that challenges people’s preconceived notions of the traditional ‘garage’ has proven a successful formula for Colalillo and his staff. The proudest moment for Jim Colalillo was when his parents came to see his new facility and his father, normally a reticent man, turned to his son and said he had accomplished something wonderful and was proud of everything he had done and was going to continue doing.
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