Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2011   by Tom Venetis, Editor SSGM Magazine

Redline Automotive SSGM’s 2011 Garage of the Year

A love of cars has translated into a nearly 30-year successful independent service shop

Eric Latino loves cars. He loves everything about them and all the technology surrounding cars. As with anyone who loves cars, he soon began to fix them; then he decided to open his own independent service shop in 1985.
“It was a small shop in an industrial area in Scarborough,” said Sue Latino, wife of Eric Latino and now operator of the successful Redline Automotive, the 2011 SSGM Garage of the Year winner, sponsored by Valvoline Canada. “It was for the love of working on cars and his love of working on performance cars. When he opened, he specialized in Corvettes and Camaros.”
By 1993, Redline Automotive grew beyond the performance market to cover general repair and maintenance, and the original, small Scarborough location could not accommodate all the work. In 1993, Redline Automotive moved to its current location and expanded to nine working bays. The shop currently has three licensed technicians and two apprentices, and also employees Eric and Sue’s son Brian and brother Charlie Latino.
While Eric Latino continued to work the front desk and in the bays, he soon asked Sue to help him. At first, it was with the shop’s bookkeeping, bringing home the paperwork each evening for her to work through. By the time they married in 1989, she was managing Redline Automotive’s payables and receivables, employee payrolls and soon was handling more of the day-to-day operations, from managing staff to supervising new shop procedures and business practices to grow the customer base and improve efficiencies.
Four years ago, a major change happened at Redline Automotive. Eric Latino, always a car enthusiast and perennial tinker (you can even see Eric and his team on YouTube working on and then racing the Redline Automotive Team’s Pro Mod ’69 Camaro), decided to pursue a new venture, starting Global Emissions Systems Inc. ( Located in Whitby, Ontario, GESi designs, develops and manufactures emissions control technology, specifically a Dry Selective Catalyst system. According to the company’s Web site, this technology will reduce Co, HC and NOx emissions by up to 99 per cent.
With Eric’s new company rapidly growing, it meant Sue had to step-up to managing full-time the business she and Eric had grown together.
Sue said everyone at the shop was encouraging and stood behind her as she took over the operations. But don’t think of calling her ‘The Boss.’
She is quick to say that Redline Automotive is a team, built on a tradition of everyone working together and putting a premium on acquiring and building on new business and technical skills and knowledge to stay ahead of the competition.
“When I stepped up to take over, I really worked hard to learn everything about the business and the operations,” Sue added. “I learned how to sell tires, to sell Redline Automotive’s services and everything I could about how to operate a business. I work very hard with them to make sure everything in the shop runs properly. When I came in, they saw right away that I really wanted to work hard in understanding the business and they industry.”
Sue continued that it is important to consider Redline Automotive a business. While Eric certainly stared Redline Automotive as a hobby shop, driven by his love of performance cars, it is a business. For the person in charge of running the operations of the shop, it means having to know everything from the bookkeeping side of the business to keeping up-to-date on new legal and health and safety regulations for the staff. It also requires a strong focus on customer service.
To speak about customer service and its importance seems to be a cliché. It is a theme SSGM Magazine has written about for a number of years. But it is an important point to make once more. An independent service shop is a business and one that relies on maintaining a high level of customer service, from the moment when a person walks in through the front door to even days or weeks after the vehicle is driven away by the owner.
Let’s once more look at this year’s J.D Power and Associates’ 2011 Canadian Customer Commitment Index Survey which SSGM reported on in the October 2011 edition of the magazine. The study found the annual service market for four- to 12-year old vehicles contracted to $8.4 billion in 2011 form $9.0 billion in 2010. According to the study’s authors, this decline came about both from a drop in the average amount spent per service visit and the number of service visits.
To quote once more from the study: “Overall, the number of service visits has decreased by nine per cent (2.9 visits per vehicle in 2011, on average, vs. 3.2 visits per vehicle in 2010). Average annual expenditures among this vehicle group declines to $736 in 2011 from $821 in 2010.”
The result is more competition for that shrinking service dollar with a greater focus by service providers, therefore, on attracting and keeping customers.
The study found several key factors play into long-term retention rates amongst service providers. These include being attended to promptly by a service provider, having that same service provider put the customer at ease during the whole of the service operation and providing helpful service advice to the vehicle owner.
Customer service comes down to, “providing helpful advice, being respectful of the customer’s time, keeping in constant communication with the customer and letting them know the status of their vehicle when it is in the shop,” said Ryan Robinson, director of the Canadian automotive practice at J.D. Power and Associates in Toronto. “It includes being prompt in answering questions and getting the vehicle back at the time you promised. All of those things build that feeling of trust and lead to customer retention.”
“Customer service is to be acknowledged, to be treated fairly,” added Sue. “I don’t believe people are coming here because they are looking for the cheapest place to go. Customers are looking for shops that use good-quality parts and have good customer service. We know many of our customers on a first-name basis and we have had customers come to us and tell us they were someplace else and they stood in line for 20 minutes and no one acknowledged them. We try to acknowledge people when they walk in and making sure they leave happy.”
A focus on customer service includes a focus on technician training and support. Redline Automotive is part of ACDelco’s TSS program, which Sue speaks highly of. It not only provides her shop with high-quality parts, but she is especially impressed with the technician training and support it provides her service technicians and apprentices, as well as the front-desk support with its business tools.
As well, Redline Automotive also credits the long relationship it has with many parts suppliers, such as ACDelco, the support it receives from long-time tire supplier Bridgestone/Firestone and the hard work of Redline Automotive’s  service managers who can expertly use a range of online tools review up to six parts suppliers at once to find the parts needed for a vehicle and the best price for the customer, as well as making sure those parts arrive quickly.
“Our greatest challenge right now is keeping people coming into the door,” Sue said. “At one time, we never had to advertise and we were just filled to the maximum with work and we really could have put in another shift. And that is to my husband’s credit as he is an amazing mechanic and a great people-person.
“Now, the challenge is making sure we get the right kind of advertising, building and maintaining our Web site and making sure we advertise in all the local papers and media. We have people coming here who have been with us when we started 26 years ago and that is because of our customer service.”