When mechanic Dan Shirtliff and his wife Joanne moved from Toronto to Huntsville, Ont., in the late 70s, they only planned to stay for one year. Little did they know the next 36 years would be spent building a family business that would become...
When mechanic Dan Shirtliff and his wife Joanne moved from Toronto to Huntsville, Ont., in the late 70s, they only planned to stay for one year. Little did they know the next 36 years would be spent building a family business that would become one of the area’s oldest independent automotive service shops – Huntsville TireCraft and Auto Repair.
Perhaps it was the picturesque cottage country landscape that drew the Torontonians in – it certainly wasn’t losing all his tools in a fire at his first job in the area – but within that first year they had purchased land to build a house and they were expecting their first child.
Joanne, a nurse at the time, was working at the local hospital and Shirtliff started picking up service contracts performing repair and maintenance on everything from passenger vehicles to transports and forklifts. It is this kind of perseverance and the ability to roll with the opportunities that came their way that propelled this couple throughout the years in building a booming business with a loyal clientele.
Consequently, the more people Shirtliff met, the busier he got – travelling to where service needed to be done at local plants, working out of his home, and finally renting a garage to keep up with demand.
When the opportunity came along to purchase an existing service shop – the current Huntsville TireCraft and Auto – it opened up a whole new world for Shirtliff. This new location has been a fixture on Huntsville’s Main Street for 50 years. And true to the traditional full-service automotive shops of the past, it was equipped with service bays and gas pumps.
“I didn’t have any experience in the gas business, but it was a really good drawing card and a great way to meet people,” says Shirtliff. “We were probably the smallest place in Huntsville at the time but we kept plugging away, and built a great gas clientele.”
To offset the costs of owning the 6,000-sq.-ft. shop, Shirtliff landed contracts with parcel service companies, and even rented out a portion of the building to Canpar shipping service to use as a depot. And when the Grey Coach Bus line needed a place to park in the evening, Shirtliff accommodated it as well.
But as the business grew over the years, the Shirtliffs had to continuously change the operation for new opportunities and to meet demand.
When Canpar moved out in the late 80s, Shirtliff transformed that area of the garage into a workshop, where they refurbished radiators and re-coated gas tanks. At that time Shirtliff was the only game in town offering these services. But when radiators and gas tanks started coming out around the same price as his service, he switched to just selling new ones.
“I thought we’d only remanufacture tanks for about five years, but we got a good seven or eight years out of it. When it was time to stop, we needed the space to do other things anyway,” says Shirtliff. “People still call and ask about refurbishing rads.”
In 2007, they got out of the gas business when the contract was up. “I felt the business had the strength to carry on without gas,” says Shirtliff. “It was a big shock at first, but we didn’t lose customers because of it.”
Progressive even in its early days, Huntsville TireCraft and Auto has also always offered vehicle undercoating applied by a licensed mechanic. “I’ve always had a licensed man do the undercoating. It may cost more, but we know where to spray, what needs to be moved for alignments and how to avoid nuts and bolts from seizing forever,” says Shirtliff.
For Shirtliff and his shop manager, Brian Zubatiuk, fiddling with cars has always been in their blood. Years ago, Zubatiuk owned a dragster and Shirtliff raced CASCAR (now the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series), winning the eastern series championship in 1996 with Zubatiuk as his head mechanic. Experiencing decades of change in automotive technology, the two often reminisce about the days before fuel injection systems, figuring out issues on the fly and leafing through large vehicle specification manuals.
Today, Shirtliff’s team uses ShopKey and other online resources. “That’s why I see a bright future in this trade. There’s a lot of information out there and beautiful rewards for people that take it seriously,” he says.
And when it comes to recruiting talent for the family operation – Joanne has headed up the accounting since they opened – Shirtliff keeps an eye on the local high school and close ties to its guidance department. “We’ve always had apprentices, some of which have gone on to become competitors of mine in Huntsville,” says Shirtliff. “I’m kind of proud of that because I know they’re doing well.”
Today, this independent employs six, including the owners, with full benefits, a business policy Shirtliff has maintained throughout his ownership of the business.
Their son, Kyle, heads up the shop’s extensive tire operation. As an associate TireCraft dealer, there’s a dedicated area – where they used to refurbish radiators – and an enormous building behind the shop to store its inventory and customers’ seasonal tires.
And the two full-time mechanics, Nathan Caron and Chris Greer, man the shop floor with Zubatiuk.
“I could talk about my team’s dynamic for hours. It’s really interesting to listen and watch how younger people address the trade,” says Shirtliff. “Nathan started with us as an apprentice and now has his license – he scored over 90 per cent in his final exam. I found him washing cars at a dealership and within 10 minutes of talking to him, I knew he wanted to move up in his career.”
According to Shirtliff, Caron has a “thing” for clean cars and will even remove the seats and dash to get at every speck of dust.
“I can’t afford to pay him to clean cars. We need him fixing them. But he brings that meticulous nature to his work,” laughs Shirtliff. “And Chris came to us as a licensed mechanic eager to learn more. That’s what he asked me for and that’s why he got the job. He’s become a real asset to our business.”
Over the years Huntsville has flourished as a city and there is certainly no lack of competition. Dealerships for many of the major manufacturers have staked their claim and there’s an extraordinary amount of jobbers to choose from – Shirtliff has dealt with local supplier Muskoka Auto Parts since he opened.
For Huntsville TireCraft and Auto, it’s all about staying tuned in to the constantly changing vehicle technology, keeping its equipment and technology up-to-date and always looking for the next opportunity. In fact, Shirtliff has Castrol Premium Express as part of his business, which is usually a standalone operation, but which he has had from the days when he pumped gas.
With today’s vehicles being made to last more than 12 years, Shirtliff’s philosophy is “unless you want a new car, why keep buying one when you can keep the one you have by maintaining it.” Shirtliff’s shop track record is proof of the power of regular maintenance – it’s been servicing cars for some of its loyal customers for over 25 years, and in some cases helping them sell the vehicle when they are no longer able to drive.
Looking to the future, with his young talented staff at hand, Shirtliff has his eye on the next generation of drivers, because they will be his shop’s loyal customers for the decades to come.