We received 21 nominations for our annual Canadian Technician of the Year award. After the first round of judging we’re down to a short list of just three guys. We’d like to introduce them to you. Over the next three weeks, we’ll tell you about our finalists. And in November, we’ll announce a winner. So stay tuned!
Finalist for the Canadian Technician of the Year award says reducing impact on the environment is all about choices.
Aaron Van de Kemp runs an “earth-friendly” auto repair shop in Invermere, B.C. But his environmental approach is much more than just a marketing hook for his business. It’s part of who he is.
He and his wife Stephanie lead active lives of hiking and biking in the beautiful Rocky Mountain town west of Calgary. It’s fair to say that being green comes naturally to them.
“It just carried over from our personal lives. I wouldn’t say we’re hippies, but I guess we’re along that line,” he says with a laugh.
The 32-year-old owner of Cleanline Automotive is a gifted technician with an easy-going demeanour, a head for business, and a flair for explaining automotive concepts to consumers.
He’s also a community-minded shop owner with a personal mission to change the impression people have of the repair and service world.
And now he’s one of three finalists for the 2014 Canadian Technician of the Year award.
Aaron started at in the automotive aftermarket as an apprentice at a Honda dealership in southwestern Ontario but he knew he wouldn’t be satisfied working on only one kind of vehicle for his entire career.
“I wanted to branch out,” he says. “I liked the job, but there were some things that I knew I would never get to do at the dealership. At some point I thought, ‘You know, I better go to a shop that can teach me some other things.’”
He finished his apprenticeship at Kingma Auto Centre, an independent shop in Guelph, Ont., and then went on a working vacation to Australia before settling down to start his career.
“I spent six months at a mechanical shop in Coolangatta on Australia’s gold coast, south of Brisbane,” he says. “It was really enjoyable. There was a big learning curve. But when it really comes down to it, it’s all mechanical. There’s not a lot of difference fromone engine to another.”
His wife, Stephanie, who nominated him, worked in the surf industry down under… and he got hooked on the sport.
“We basically travel to surf now,” he laughs.
There’s not much surfing in Invermere, but that’s where they ultimately decided to put down roots. They have two children, two-year-old Eden, and the newest addition to the family, baby Marie who was born in August.
After a time at Walker’s Repair Centre, Aaron started thinking about becoming his own boss. He found an excellent two-bay space with an office attached in an industrial area of town, and started Cleanline Automotive from scratch.
Earlier this year, the one-man operation tripled in size with the hiring of fourth-year apprentice Andrew Patterson and service advisor Michelle Rievaj. Stephanie works from home, taking care of a lot of the paperwork and handling the marketing efforts – in particular the photography on the company’s well-designed and extremely inviting website.
On the site, Aaron is referred to as “the big wheel” while Stephanie is jokingly referred to as “the spare tire.”
“Things are going really well,” he says. “We’re swamped. In fact we were considering doing even more marketing, but then we thought, ‘Why would we do that? We have enough on our plate as it is!’
The growth has been organic.
“We’re not on the main drag, we’re in an industrial section off the main road,” he says. “So everyone who has come has been by word of mouth. They sought us out. They didn’t just drop in for bottom-dollar pricing.”
Things are going so well, in fact, that Stephanie predicts that the next hurdle is going to be finding more space.
“With every change we make, it just feels like we’re keeping up again,” she says. “That’s a good problem to have, but it also means constantly thinking a year or two ahead.
Aaron believes a big part of the shop’s success is its clear mandate to minimize its impact on the environment.
“The customers really respond to it,” he says. “A lot of people will comment on our stance and say they appreciate that we’re putting our best foot forward.”
Stephanie agrees with the impact the green philosophy has had.
“It has been cool to watch him apply his values to the business,” she says. “He started his own business because he wanted to promote certain values. One of those is caring about the environment. Another is caring about people, and taking the time to educate them and empower them when it comes to their vehicles. He’s really pushing the boundaries of what the industry can be.”
Aaron insists it is easy to be earth-friendly, even in the automotive world. He doesn’t use solvent-based brake cleaners or degreasers. Instead, he opts for more natural products that do the same job in a clean and non-carcinogenic way.
He also buys as little bottled fluids as possible.
“You have to have some, of course, but we buy most of our oil, antifreeze, and window washer in bulk to minimize packaging and waste.”
The wheel weights he uses are not the traditional lead variety.
“Wheel weights fly off all the time and end up in ditches to start impacting run-off water, streams, and the water table,” he explains. “So we’ll choose zinc or stainless steel weights, which have less impact on the environment. They cost marginally more, but it doesn’t affect the bottom line at all. You hardly notice it.”
He has been learning from a shop called The Green Garage in Colorado, and he expects this kind of earth-friendly approach to become more standard within the automotive aftermarket because it does so much to improve the industry’s image in an increasingly environmentally sensitive culture.
To put his money where his mouth is, he donates $1 from every oil change to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
“We really appreciate what they do. They buy up land so it won’t be developed and they just let it grow natural. There are a lot of sections of land in our area that have been purchased by them and there are bike trails and hiking areas on it. They do a really great thing preserving land in this way,” he says.
It’s not their only charity contribution. They also set aside a certain amount of money each year to donate to local causes and community projects that they believe in.
In the town of about 3,000, there are about six auto repair shops in town, including a Canadian Tire.
“We work together really well,” he says. “To have enemies in business doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re all friendly. We stop by and see each other and chat. It makes for a nice work environment when shops aren’t bad-mouthing one another.”
Aaron himself is still very much involved in the technical side of his job. (While speaking on the phone for this story, he was working out a seized bolt. You could hear it squeaking as it turned.) He has taken courses on hybrid-electrical vehicles and has become known for “odd-ball jobs” like right-hand drive vehicles and conversions to full-electric or waste vegetable oil.
Though he loves mechanical challenges, his plan is to eventually get to the point where he no longer has to work in the bay.
“I bounce from front to back quite a bit, but I give Michelle as much free rein as possible to run the shop. We have a good system set up, but sometimes it makes sense for me to join her on the counter. Ultimately I’d like to have a full-time tech so I can work full-time on the business.”
With that in mind, he has taken the NAPA Shop Improvement Program (SIP) management training course, and joined a performance group. He goes to Calgary once a month to sit down with other shop owners, going over numbers and discussing strategies.
“It’s really excellent,” he says. “We put our numbers up and we talk. I ask a lot of questions. It’s really refreshing.”
Previously he’d been shutting the shop down for the day in order to participate in the group. Now that he has a competent staff behind him, he can leave it open, knowing that the business is in good hands.
The winner of the Canadian Technician of the Year award will be announced early in November.