Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2004   by Allan Janssen

Growth mode

John Edelman picked an unlikely place to build his used-car empire.
The sleepy farm community of Cayuga, Ontario lies on the banks of the Grand River, equidistant from the steel mills of Hamilton to the north and the tourist attractions of Niagara Falls to the east.

But these days, if you’re headed to Cayuga you’re either going to the local Speedway or you’re going to buy a car.

And if John Edelman’s vision for Haldimand Motors goes according to plan, there will be a lot more visitors to Cayuga in coming years.

Haldimand Motors is already the largest used-car dealer in Canada, with a perpetually churning inventory of more than 650 cars, and sales of more than 500 cars a month. Over the next decade, Edelman plans an expansion that could make Haldimand Motors the largest used car dealership in North America, with an inventory of more than 2,000 vehicles, and sales in excess of 1,400 a month.

And as part of the expansion, he wants to create one of the largest and most technically advanced aftermarket repair facilities in the country. If everything comes together, Haldimand Motors will boast a service department unlike any other, with more than 180 bays, 90 licensed technicians, dozens of apprentices and pre-apprentices, and a 4,000-square-foot three-bay training center.

Like every business, Haldimand Motors started out small. Ramping up in 1984, in a two-bay former Fina gas station, the only reason John left the repair bays open was to attract business.

“I never wanted to be in the repair business ever,” he says. “In a small community like this, you simply can’t charge what you really need to charge in order to make a decent return.”

So once his used-car business began to take off, he reserved the repair bays for his own purposes only. No outside jobs anymore. His technicians inspected every car and did any required safety work before it was sold. And every car came with a 30-day warranty so customers could have confidence in their new wheels. For those who paid an additional $999, the warranty was extended to two years.

As the business grew, so did the service department. Ten bays… 20 bays… 30 bays… He currently keeps 52 service bays busy, staffed by 21 licensed technicians, 11 apprentices, six pre-apprentices, two full-time alignment technicians, a full-time transmission rebuilder, four service writers, and eight shop-maintenance and vehicle-detailing people.

The next step – already in the works – is ensuring that his staff stays at the top of their game. He’s transforming an old residential school building into a $500,000 state-of-the-art training facility with an extensive library of training resources, up-to-date tools and equipment, gallery seating, and ceiling-mounted cameras.

“It all sounds high-tech, but it’s very doable,” he says. “My mechanics will be trained properly. I’m committed to that.”

When it’s up and running (probably September 2005), the plan is to bring the entire service department staff together for an evening of intensive training every other week.

“We’ll bring in pizza and a professional trainer. We’re already working with someone to set up a program. Initially, they’ll evaluate each technician in the place, and then they’ll help bring the less experienced mechanics to a higher level so the whole group can move forward.”

The depth of training will be critical to his operation, which handles mostly late-model vehicles.

“Not only do these guys have to know every vehicle make, but, more importantly, they have to understand the most up-to-date technology,” says Edelman. “We’re working on 2004 model years. Almost nothing before 2000 anymore. The bulk of the training out there is on cars that are totally out of our loop. Their training doesn’t fit us.”

The training will be a competitive advantage for Haldimand Motors and a means of attracting the most ambitious technicians out there.

Fiercely independent and visionary, John has established a unique operation that, in many ways reflects his progressive thinking.

Rather than paying huge taxes to be connected to the town water supply, for example, he set up an elaborate system of pipes and cisterns that can collect and store 45,000 gallons of rain water.

And, having found the power supply vulnerable during lightning and snow storms, he has invested in generators, powered by used oil, that can service his entire operation.

But John’s most unique business practices pertain to what he describes as his company’s top resource – its people. From the very start, he has made his employees’ quality of life a priority.

“Quality of life is the first thing you have to plan for,” he says, “before customer service even, because if your staff doesn’t have great quality of life you can’t achieve great customer service.”

Technicians at Haldimand Motors work no nights or weekends. And they work a half day on Friday with the option of taking it off completely at some times of the year if they wish.

“That attracts a high-quality staff,” says John. “One of the biggest challenges in this industry is getting good mechanics. We have got guys wanting to come here, which is abnormal. We’re not the highest paying shop, but we have quality of life.”

Not the highest paying shop, perhaps, but there are two levels of profit sharing in place to make up for any pay disparity. Every salaried employee gets a monthly bonus cheque based on the number of cars the whole team puts through the system. And at the end of the year, a profitability calculation determines the size of the annual bonus the employees will get in the second week of December – usually about $500.

So what school of business management is he from? Perhaps the oldest.

“Our business practices are all based on Biblical principles,” he says. “If I’m going to make a decision about any aspect of the business – say, the warranty business – I’ll try to see what the Bible says about that kind of an issue. How am I supposed to operate in order to live up to Biblical standards? How should I approach this problem?”

He’s not one to hide his light under a bushel, either.

“My whole business is built on the foundation of my beliefs, and my staff knows it. The very first page of our employee handbook says we’re a Christian business, operating on Biblical principles. They understand that going into the job,” he says. “I don’t preach at them, but if there’s a problem to be solved, I will use Biblical principles.”

Service manager Paul Lymberner says that approach has created a unique working environment at Haldimand Motors. And, from what he can see on the shop floor, the techs appreciate it.

“Our whole thing is creating an atmosphere that everybody likes to work in. That’s a big part of my job, creating the right atmosphere,” he says. “You do that by building a relationship with every one of the guys.”

Getting to know each technician personally, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, is critical to keeping the cars moving through the shop.

“We have all kinds of different people from all kinds of backgrounds – dealerships, novices, apprentices – it’s tough making sure everyone’s got the work they’re best suited for,” Paul says. “We’ve grown so quickly over the past two or three years that we’re creating new processes all the time and some of them work and others don’t.

It’s a challenge. Lately we’ve found a good rhythm, where every job is going through the right hands. I believe it’ll be an ongoing thing, though, that we’re learning as we go.”

Technician John White says he likes the approach at Haldimand Motors.

“The atmosphere here is very comfortable. It’s very family oriented. If I had to pick up my kids early from the babysitter, it would always be, ‘Go ahead, no problem. We’ll get somebody to finish what you’re doing. If we can’t find somebody, we’ll worry about it tomorrow.’ It’s really laid back.”

He comes to Haldimand from a dealership, and has found many differences in the way the business is run.

“The biggest difference here is we’re not flat rate. It gives you the freedom to do the job properly. You have time. You don’t have to rush or take short cuts. Everything can be 100 per cent before you send it out the door,” he says. “It’s better for everybody. It’s better for the customer, it’s better for John, and it gives us a good reputation.

Nurturing a relaxed atmosphere that emphasizes quality workmanship is going to pay off dividends in the future, because as busy as they are right now, everyone senses that they’re going to get even busier.

The irony is that John Edelman, who never wanted to be in the repair business at all, is at the helm of what could become Canada’s most impressive aftermarket facility.

“I believe I have only scratched the surface of what this business could become,” he says. “Look at the what’s happening with new car prices. Who can afford $40,000 for a vehicle, even if it is with 0% financing? But we’ve got ’04 Intrepids for $13,995 with lots of warranty left and excellent financing. Who can’t afford that?”

It’s about the only time he sounds like a used-car salesman.

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1 Comment » for Growth mode
  1. PAUL EBERTH says:

    Bailment Law in Canada:

    When a person (bailee) acquires temporary possession of a chattel by arrangement with the owner, the bailee is liable for damage done to goods while in his/her possession.

    In this case, the dealership accepted the temporary possession of the vehicle by accepting the keys into their night drop box. Accordingly, they are liable for the keys being taken and the vehicle stolen.

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