Columbia Auto Service of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, winner of the 2014 SSGM Magazine Garage of the Year award, might have to find new digs soon – just to have room to display all the awards they’ve won over the years. Previous honours include NAPA AUTOPRO of the Year for Ontario in 2012, the NAPA Leadership Award (three times), and ten consecutive years as winner of the CAA Customer Service Award. As part of the NAPA National group, Columbia has also won the J.D. Power Customer Service Award for four out of the last six years – the award recognizes excellence in NAPA AUTOPRO facilities across Canada.
Columbia’s unique combination of outstanding service, teamwork and relationship-building continues to draw an expanding customer base by word of mouth, enabling the operation to continue to grow, attract new customers – and keep winning awards – without needing to spend a lot of time and money on marketing.
One advantage Columbia has is three generations’ worth of experience. Owner and manager Jim Voigt recalls that Columbia’s heritage goes back to 1954, when his grandfather founded a White Rose service station. He eventually moved on to a position in the oil industry, and there was a hiatus in the Voigt family’s involvement in the automotive trade. That ended in 1968, when Jim’s father established what would become Columbia Auto Service. Jim and his wife Laurie bought the company from Jim’s father in 1992.
Voigt has known from the start that this was his life’s work. “From the time I was old enough to walk people were saying I was going to be a technician,” he recalls. He has never worked anywhere else. After qualifying as a technician, he immediately began to ply his new trade in the family business. He still remembers his grandfather taking him aside to offer advice on how to provide superior customer service.
Voigt says that over the last two decades, sales and profits have flatlined in only a single year. Other than that, Columbia has expanded steadily, going from a 2,000-square-foot space in the rear of their current building to occupy 10,000 square feet, almost the entire building.
Rapid growth is the best problem to have – but it can still be a problem. At one point, Columbia was bursting at the seams and badly needed new space. The challenge: another tenant occupied almost half the building and didn’t want to break its lease. So Voigt opened a second location and for three years Columbia operated out of two facilities.
“The second location was used primarily for tire storage, but we decided to do some things there that we weren’t doing here, such as rustproofing, cleaning and detailing, car sales and drive-in oil changes, and Saturday hours. It was like starting a new business.” Research in Motion (now BlackBerry), the flagship tech giant of Kitchener-Waterloo, built a campus nearby, which helped as a lot of RIM employees took their cars there.
“It worked out,” Voigt says, “but when the tenant here finally decided to move out, it was an easy decision to move everything back. We were storing about 2300 tires there, and we had a truck going back and forth between locations every day, getting tomorrow’s tires, putting tires back in storage. It was expensive.”
Today Columbia boasts a total of nine bays – seven mechanical bays in the main shop, and two more in the detailing shop, one used for rustproofing and the other serving as a spare mechanical bay. The total of 18 employees includes five licensed technicians (including Voigt) and four apprentices. Two employees handle full-time shuttle driving of customers as well as courtesy washes. On the cleaning and detailing side there’s a manager and two employees. Columbia has four service advisors on hand at all times.
“Growth just keeps happening,” Voigt says. “Other shops in town close down, we’ve always gotten great word-of-mouth referrals – basically we can’t stop growing!” The tire storage operation is maxed out already, and while Voigt doesn’t like the idea of moving, he admits that his attitude may have to change in a few years.
Columbia depends on a large and diversified network of suppliers and business partners, but no visitor can miss the NAPA AUTOPRO connection, which has been the mainstay of Columbia’s success. “NAPA is our major parts supplier,” Voigt says. “We buy a lot from them – specifically Britton Automotive.” NAPA also provides crucial training and marketing tools and support. “We get great mileage from NAPA’s Excellence program. We ask our techs to take a course once a month and our service advisors have access to it.”
Columbia was the first NAPA AUTOPRO shop in Kitchener-Waterloo, signing on in 1983. “That NAPA logo means a lot,” Voigt says. “It’s a very well recognized trademark. But for us, AUTOPRO has really become the major sign in terms of customer recognition and credibility.”
Other significant suppliers include Brewers Car Parts Plus, which handles the bulk of Columbia’s ACDelco parts supply, and Auto-Camping, which provides parts for European makes. RTD Trican serves as the main tire supplier. Voigt likes them for their easy ordering system and quick delivery. Columbia is a Tirecraft and Signature Tire dealer, but Trican manages both programs. For scan tools, Columbia looks to Launch, Autel and Snap-on’s Modis, though they also have other brands. The lifts are mostly from Rotary and Valvoline is the chosen oil brand.
Technology and Trust
On the business management side, Voigt says that Columbia’s Protractor shop management software plays a huge role in customer relations and face-to-face trust-building. It enables techs to print out inspection forms for each job that spell out all the components of a service charge so the customer can see exactly what’s been done. “Then they know you didn’t just think about it for a couple of minutes,” Voigt says. “You have to provide all the details of exactly what you did. It helps in the process of communicating with the customer.”
One trend Voigt has witnessed over his years in the business is the constant increase in the skill levels required of technicians. “I was fortunate to become a licensed tech in the early 80s, where I learned the basics – how to use a wrench and screwdriver, adjust points and rebuild carburetors. But computerization was also coming in, so I also learned about sensors and PCMs and all the electronics that go along with it.”
Voigt says that a few decades ago even a tech that wasn’t very skilled with computers and electronics could still apply the basic skills to a host of different kinds of work, like brake or suspension jobs. “Now, you have to use scan tools to do brake jobs on certain cars. If you’re not up on the latest technology, you’re not going to be able to do very much.” Also, diagnostic work has also become a huge part of what any garage does. “It used to be you spent 10 minutes diagnosing a problem and an hour fixing it. Now that ratio is almost reversed.”
But some things don’t change. Voigt believes that customers are still looking for the same things they’ve always looked for. “Honesty, quality, service on time, service done right the first time, no broken promises,” he says. “But communication is the key, and we excel at clear communication. We get emails from customers all the time saying how happy they are with how they’ve been treated. Yes, we’re fixing cars – but really, we’re in the people business.”
When asked about Columbia’s selection as Garage of the Year, Voigt says “I’m just so happy that the whole staff – the managers and the whole organization – is being recognized this way. We’re a team. All of us pull the same way. I think back to my father and grandfather, the family tradition and everything they taught me, and this, to a lot of us, is the best award we could have won.”