On any given day a customer could pull into Advanced Automotive Car Care with an engine issue, autobody repair need or to get some defiant training wheels put on their kid’s bike. They don’t advertise this sort of service or their automotive services, for that matter — the shop’s popularity is all by word-of-mouth — but, yes, if a customer comes in with a broken metal shovel or chair, a snow blower that won’t start or just to get some air in the tires of a bike, the staff is happy to oblige.
Burrowed on a small side-street close to the high traffic intersection of Leslie Street and York Mills Road, in Toronto’s North York district, Advanced Automotive might just be this neighbourhood’s best kept secret.
“We fix everything … it’s one stop shopping,” co-owner Robert Elford says with a big smile. “People used to bring stuff to their local gas station to get things fixed. They could get gas, get their car fixed and put motor oil in the lawnmower. At gas stations now, the service is gone and you have to pay two dollars for air. But people still need a place they can go and ask ‘Can you help me?’ That’s what I grew up with and I’m trying to keep that alive.”
Although they don’t offer fuel, Elford and co-owner Ed Ross are the ones that often handle the “crazy” or unique non-automotive requests, which are free of charge since it’s next to impossible to price out something like a spot weld on an old shovel.
Elford and Ross have been in business together for more than 15 years, opening their first shop, which was a franchise, not far from their current location. But about 10 years ago, the lease came up and the landlord didn’t want to renew it — automotive facilities aren’t a favourite for the city or its property owners, and zoning laws are pushing them further and further out of the city. To make matters worse, the franchise company didn’t do much to help them find a new location. That’s when Elford started knocking on neighbourhood doors and found the current location, where they’ve been established as an independent shop ever since.
“It was just a warehouse when we bought it. There were no bay doors or anything automotive related. We had to make it a garage,” says Elford.
Today, the 8,000-square-foot facility features seven service bays, offering all automotive services including autobody repair — full body paint jobs are sent to a sister shop in Scarborough. This shop also specializes in tires, most recently becoming an authorized Tirecraft dealer.
There are nine employees in total, including the owners, keeping this service operation humming along six days a week, 12 hours a day. And it’s all hands on deck. Even the service manager is a licensed mechanic, who can jump out on the floor at a moment’s notice.
In terms of running a business, Elford says, “I didn’t take a business course. It’s just about learning, leading by example and watching other people. I’ve worked at other shops and a lot of owners come in at 10 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. to play golf. That doesn’t work in this trade. They [the employees] see me busting my butt from seven to seven every day and they do it too.”
Indeed, before the SSGM interview, Elford was dashing in and out of the building and answering questions over his shoulder as he zoomed by on his way to the next urgent matter. And even during the interview, techs would start to ask a question, prompting Elford into full work mode, often finishing their sentences and providing them with the information they needed without missing a beat.
At Advanced Automotive, education and training is key to staying competitive. There are computers at every station on the shop floor for techs to access data from sites such as Mitchell and ALLDATA. And the entire shop is WiFi enabled so they can access information on the fly using their smartphones.
Twenty years ago, when Elford got into the business, the shop’s database was whoever could retain the most information. “You’d go to him to ask questions and he’d say something like, look for a broken ground wire under the passenger seat. You thought he was a god. Today with computers, and as long as you have the latest information, all my guys are gods. That’s the next generation of mechanics.”
And in today’s ever evolving world of technology, customers have also become an even greater challenge for many shops. Of course they’ve always thought they can diagnose automotive issues, offering techs their two cents, but they’re now powered by Google. Elford says now they come in thinking they know what’s wrong with the vehicle because they found it online, and as fast as you can quote a job or price a part, they’re searching for a cheaper price on their phones.
This is a challenge that can only be overcome by great customer service and knowledgeable staff.
To stay on top of the latest technology and techniques, Advanced Automotive uses online training courses. “We get a lot of it [training] from our suppliers such as Warden Automotive, WORLDPAC and Auto-Camping Ltd., and we’re associated with AARO, where we get more generic stuff such as scope training and management training. The technology is constantly changing and you need to stay on top of it,” says Elford.
The shop is also associated with Drive Clean. And when Elford is not on the shop floor, he’s running Drive Clean training programs for Parsons Canada Ltd. at local colleges.
To even further its diagnostic intelligence, Advanced Automotive recently invested in a John Bean RFV 2000 fully automated wheel balancer and diagnostics unit, which is capable of diagnosing faults in the rim, wheel and tire. “Components on cars today are lighter weight and you can feel everything. So if a customer is complaining about a vibration or hopping feeling on the highway, how are you to know whether it’s the wheel or the car?” says Elford. “You could end up putting a lot of components on the car — ball joints, wheel bearings, etc. — and never actually fix the problem. This machine has the ability to tell you if there’s a piece of paper caught between the tire and the rim.”
In the spirit of education and attracting new talent, Advanced Automotive also takes on apprentices — one that’s currently working there is 41 years old and making a career change. And it annually takes on high school co-op students as well, two of which have been full-time employees for the past six years.
But to work at Advanced Automotive you have to bring your game and be willing to learn. Whether it’s older professionals or young budding newbies, Elford and Ross will often give them a chance. “But to work here no one can say ‘I can’t.’ You have to try. If you don’t, you won’t achieve or learn,” says Elford.
What’s next for this independent shop? They have plans for a showroom, where customers can view all of their products and services. And for those Google-happy customers, Elford is thinking about implementing some form of “cork fee” — similar to restaurants that allow patrons to bring their own wine — for when they insist on buying cheaper parts elsewhere. An inventive idea such as that aside, Advanced Automotive’s business is growing and expansion to meet customer demand — and their peculiar small jobs — is top of mind.