Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario has been representing the interests of independent repair facilities since 1939.
The Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario are in a rebuilding phase – both literally and figuratively.
Literally, a flash flood this summer washed out the association’s offices in Burlington, Ont., so they’ve moved upstairs while the facilities are being renovated.
Figuratively, the association’s staff and board of directors have recommitted themselves to better representing the interests of the province’s independent automotive repair businesses. They’ve built new alliances with other associations, and are passionate about promoting the industry as a promising career for young people.
“The people who are on the board now have a vision to take the association to the next level, and bring us into the 21st Century,” says the association’s executive director Diane Freeman. “They’re there because they want to improve our industry. They are great business people. They believe in our association. And they believe in the trade. I think that says a lot for our association.”
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The resurgence comes as the association celebrates its 75th anniversary.
AARO has undergone many changes since 1939, when a group of garage owners in the greater Toronto area got together to compare notes and help each other grow. It gained momentum and eventually boasted a strong membership of over 900 independent shops.
As the industry has changed, the average size of shop has grown, and many smaller shops have disappeared. The membership roster now stands at 700 – a number she’d like to see grow in the coming years.
Working with three dedicated employees (operations manager Luanne Fedesov, membership manager Monica Merinchuk, and training co-ordinator Bev Muldoon), she sells the association as an indispensible resource for independent automotive repair and service facilities.
There is resistance.
“There are those who say, ‘I’ve been doing things the same way for years, and I’m not about to change.’ That kind of person is not about to join any kind of professional organization,” she says. “They just want to be left alone.”
For those who do not want to be left alone, however, she points out that there is strength in numbers.
And there will be some who need convincing that AARO is the association to propel the industry forward. Freeman describes the association’s recent history as “turbulent.”
“Rather than everyone trying to work together to accomplish the end goal of making sure information remained available to the aftermarket, there were a lot of lines drawn, and groups ended up working at odds to each other,” she says. “We don’t do that now. We don’t want to be the lone wolf anymore. We have respect for other associations, and I think they respect us. We get together to discuss things now. I sit on their committees, and they sit on ours. It’s good.”
She describes the association’s three-pronged mandate of lobbying government, assisting members, and improving the image of the industry.
“Our main focus is to advance the interests of independent operators within the automotive repair and service industry. We want to make sure that the voices of our members are heard before provincial and federal governments,” she says.
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On that front, the association has recently been vocal about the new Ontario College of Trades. They insist the college’s fees are too high, and they’re concerned that the college’s “affinity programs” compete with those offered by existing associations. They’re also concerned that OCOT’s inspectors have done little to find and shut down illegal operators in the province, but have instead been “hitting a lot of legitimate shops – ones that have all the proper licenses and where everything is in order.”
She insists the college could be a good thing if it did what they said it was going to do.
“Unfortunately, we are not seeing that,” she says, and she has met with the college’s CEO David Tsubouchi to convey her concerns.
She also stays abreast of provincial and federal initiatives that impact the automotive world, and has been following recent discussions about telematics and who owns the data it produces.
The second prong of its mandate, to offer direct aid to its members, takes form in a growing list of programs for things like group insurance, employee benefits, and reduced credit card fees.
“Affinity programs are something that associations have traditionally offered because their members are busy running their companies,” she explains. “We do all the homework and try to get the best possible deals for them.”
The group has also invested in regular training opportunities for its members. Both technical and management classes are available on a wide spectrum of topics, both advanced and general.
As far as image building is concerned, Freeman describes the association’s ongoing efforts to paint the auto repair industry in a favourable light with consumers and young job seekers. And she has noticed that the industry as a whole is becoming much more retail friendly.
“We talk to our members about their shops and how they present themselves to consumers. It is getting better. Shops are cleaner and friendlier. The people are better dressed. They’re in uniform. Their demeanour is improving, and that’s so important. How they talk to a customer, how to deal with people at the front counter, or on the phone, all of that can make or break the business.”
Overall, she says, the industry is healthy in Ontario.
“Shops are busy. We think people are getting better at maintaining their vehicles. Business is coming through the doors, but there are still a lot of vehicles out there that need work done. It needs to continue to improve.”
She’d like to see a provincial inspections program set up to make sure vehicles are safe to be on public roads.
“We’ve talked to government about that. Of course, the biggest problem is that consumers don’t want to spend the money and government knows it won’t win them any votes. There is no appetite for it,” she says.
Nevertheless, she thinks it could be done in connection with the Drive Clean emissions program, especially if the province transitions that program away from emissions and more toward maintenance.
“I think the future of our industry has more to do with maintenance than repairs,” she explains. “Our members need to look at how to capture all the maintenance on a vehicle, versus repairing what goes wrong.
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