It is not often that the site of an automotive service operation is as interesting as its staff and the work they do. Deer Park Auto Service sits nestled on a quiet residential side street off of Toronto’s Spadina Ave. as it cuts through one of the city’s most prosperous and well-heeled neighbourhoods. The unassuming white, two-story building lacks the traditional signage of today’s service operations, opting for a vintage hanging sign and its name in a traditional font across the front of the building.
The owner Edward Wang says that this unassuming front serves two purposes: one is to make the building fit nicely into the residential character of the operation’s location; and to preserve the over century old character of the structure. Edward proudly explains that the building first served as a horse livery and carriage repair facility, its lower story holding stables for the horses and the upper facility the carriages and repair facility. As the horse and carriage gave way to the automobile, the facility changed with the times as well. Today, the shop has three lifts in the lower section, with another to be shortly installed, and two additional lifts in the upper. The upper section is also used to store vehicles waiting to be worked on and when the operation is closed in the evening.
Edward began working at the shop in 1982 as a full-time technician and decided to take over the operation in 1986 when the owner decided to retire.
“I had a choice of either losing my job or taking over the garage, and I decided to take the challenge of owning and operating the facility,” he says with a smile. “I was very lucky that I was successful right in the first few months of taking over, and I’ve been able to grow the business since then.”
Success Built on Reputation
Edward says his location has proven to have some unique challenges for running an automotive service operation. While many shop owners use newspaper advertising, signage and flyers to generate needed business, Edward discovered that such traditional advertising has little traction where he is. Instead, success and growth comes from trust.
“People here know that you are trustworthy and do good, solid work,” he adds. “Once they know that, they will bring their business to you and will recommend you to others. This is a business that is built on trust and grows because of trust and quality work.”
To prove his point, Edward tells a story of how he once sent out nearly a thousand flyers to see if he could generate new business. “I only got two cars to come into the shop from that advertising. What I have learned over my many years here is that traditional advertising just does not work.”
Edward explains that he sees this as an overall trend in the service industry as a whole, not one restricted to just vehicle repair. People want to build a relationship with a trusted partner, someone who will be honest with them about what they need. A low-cost oil change, for example, is not enough to build a relationship with a customer that then translates into repeat business.
“People treat me as a trusted friend and I treat their vehicles as if they were my own cars,” Edward adds. “When I do an oil change, I will also do an inspection and make sure we look up all manufacturers’ recommended service work and recommend that we do that work to the customer. In that way, we build trust with vehicle owners that we are here to help them and to keep their vehicles in good working order.”
Edward has also built profitable relationships with other service providers in the area.
“I like to create a win-win situation for businesses which I work with,” Edward says. “There is a Mr. Lube at the corner of Spadina and Eglinton Ave., and I give them free technical support if there is a problem with one of their customer’s vehicles.
“I know a very good bodyshop and I helped its owner build up his bodyshop business as I sent my customers to him for any needed vehicle bodywork. He uses high-quality parts and does excellent work, all of which builds a good relationship with my customers for him and for me.
“In the automotive business, we often hear about competition between shops. If we work together, the future of this industry will be bright.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Edward and his staff is the increasing complexity of today’s vehicle technology. More vehicles today are relying on complex computer controls and electronics to operate engines and transmissions; and even simple service work now requires re-flashing of the ECM.
“Everything is becoming high-tech, including such service-maintenance jobs as the oil change,” Edward explains. “Today, you spend a lot of time resetting vehicle electronics. I have one technician who has a lot of experience with vehicle electronics and has a background in computers. He has been a tremendous help in keeping us up-to-date on the electronics and computer technologies in today’s vehicles. I also have another fully-licensed mechanic and three apprentices, as well as a part-time technician. We are incredibly busy.”
Finding New Technicians
Another challenge that comes from the increasing vehicle complexity is finding qualified technicians who can work on the vehicles. Part of that is that many young people are not interested in taking up the trade.
“Few young people today are entering the trade and once they have finished their apprenticeship and have gotten their license, they still have a long way to go to begin working on today’s vehicles. Today’s technician has to be ready for constant training and learning new systems,” Edward adds.