New group, Mechanics Beyond Borders, aims to set up self-sustaining vocational schools in developing countries.
It all started in 1959 when a car dealer in the south of England took a chance on the high-school drop-out and offered him a five-year indentured apprenticeship. Jim jumped at the chance, working the bench diligently and studying hard for about six years before moving up to service manager.
“The main thing I learned is that you can make more money with your mouth or with a pen than you can with a wrench,” he says with a laugh.
And he proved it beyond doubt when he joined Ford International in London, which sent him around the world – to Germany, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and South Africa – as a district service manager and technical troubleshooter. He was what they called a “block man” who isolates the source of a problem, contains it (or blocks it off), and solves it.
For years he hopped planes to consult with dealerships on effective management, and sorting out difficult problems. In 1976 he landed on Canadian shores and joined Ford of Canada. He got promoted into sales, and then into marketing, and franchising. Eventually he started his own consulting company, Global Automotive Consultants, based in Oakville, Ont.
“I make money telling people things they don’t really want to hear. I’ve been doing that for the last 25 years,” he says. “My mother used to say, ‘If you don’t want to know, don’t ask Jim… because he’ll tell you!’”
Yet he never forgot the help he received when was getting started. In fact, he keeps a micrometer on his desk to remind him of his beginnings in the industry.
“They say the shortest-lived human emotion is gratitude. But I’m still really grateful to the industry because I’ve had a great life. I’ve worked on three continents and traveled on six,” he says. “It inspired me to give back whenever I could.”
Working with charity groups like Habitat for Humanity became a passion for him. And when he met an African doctor named Geoffrey Anguyo from the Kabale Valley in the mountains of Uganda, he caught a vision of how to combine his lifelong interest in cars with his new passion for helping people.
He and Dr. Anguyo got to talking about the dire needs in that area of Uganda. The Kabale region, near the border with Rwanda, is home to 50,000 people (500,000 in the valley, 2 million in the region). Anyone traveling between the Congo and Kenya goes through Kabale.
“It’s a hub,” says Jim. “The vehicles running around there are mainly Toyotas with EFI. There are plenty of tour groups coming through, driving high-tech vehicles. And yet, when I started looking at the facilities in town, I was shocked to see they didn’t have many resources at all. Their service departments didn’t have a tire changer, no wheel alignment machines, no diagnostic tools. More often than not there was no way to service them.”
Jim knew starting a vocational school would be a great help to both the people and the social agencies in the area. An he also knew that while starting it would be difficult, the real challenge would be sustaining it. His idea was to start a four-bay shop, the profits of which would fund an attached vocational school.
“Once it is set up, it’ll be completely self sustaining,” he says, with evident excitement.
He understands that working with the government in Uganda can be a challenge. “Things don’t go in a straight line there. You have to know this guy, who will talk to that guy, who will ask that guy before you can meet the right guy. You have to be very political.”
But he also knows plenty of Canadian dealerships that are upgrading their equipment and who would be happy to exchange some out-dated machinery for a tax slip. He knows he can find people in Canada who are willing to help with both donations and financing. And, more importantly, he has a “dream team” including Dr. Anguyo, on site in Uganda where he has already put a deposit down on four acres of land.
Hopefully, the proposed four-bay shop in Kabale, Uganda, will be the first in a series of self-sustaining vocational schools run by Mechanics Beyond Borders.
“You’ve got to start somewhere. The word will spread when we get one done. When we prove that it can be sustainable, we can do it elsewhere,” he says. “People will come from all over to look at it. And they’ll want one in their own community. Governments will line up to be part of this and bring it to their own people.”
Jim Bell has been running Mechanics Beyond Borders for about a year. He spent most of that time working on the branding, logos, web sites, PR material, and collecting photographs. But he can’t wait for the bricks-and-mortar phase of the project to start.
“We need $10,000 for the land, $10,000 for professional fees, $40,000 for the building, $20,000 to ship a container down,” he says. “Then we’ll have all the parts to make this work.”
He’s working with the Edmonton-based Change For Children organization, which can issue charitable receipts for donations and will oversee the funding of the project.
Already the project is attracting attention. He said several dealer principals immediately pledged support for the project when he started telling people about it. Canadian Tire franchisees in southern Ontario were similarly excited about the project when they were briefed recently. The technicians at Budd’s BMW in Oakville even got together to raise $1,000 for Mechanics Beyond Borders.
“They came up with a G-note. Just the technicians. That’s fantastic!” he says. “This is the kind of thing it feels good to be a part of.”
When the school opens, your contribution will be acknowledged in Canadian Technician magazine, and you’ll get a Certificate of Partnership to hang in your shop.Income tax receipts available for donations over $20.
Send a cheque:
Mechanics Beyond Borders
31 Skipper Lane
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