Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2006   by

Scotch Blend

Not far from the banks of the mighty Fraser River, just south of Vancouver, sits the small community of Ladner. And right in the middle of that community, on the banks of a small stream, sits Johnýs Thistle Auto – a repair shop known for its friendly staff and quality service.

Owner John McCafferty, a Scot who immigrated 22 years ago, explains how the business got its name.

"The thistle is the emblem of Scotland," says John, "and the fellow I worked for, who was also from Scotland, called it Thistle Auto Repair."

John’s first job upon arriving in Canada was at Thistle Auto, and when he eventually took over the business, he renamed it John’s Thistle Auto. The 3,200-square-foot building boasts five bays, each with its own hoist.

"I’ve got four technicians – three licensed and one second-year apprentice." John himself is a licensed technician, as is his service advisor, Phil Breton. "Phil was a Snap-on dealer for many, many years, so lots of people know him."

But although John is from "the old country," he’s a great believer in new schooling and in keeping up with the times.

"While I was on the tools, I read all the time, took courses, trained myself on (the trade), and bought the best equipment I could afford at the time. And I think that’s basically what’s kept me going."

While John enjoys new technology, he knows it can be frustrating. A case in point was when he needed to reset the computer on one of his own Jaguars. His personal scanner revealed the problem, but that was as far as it went. "I knew what I was looking at," he explains, "but I didnýt have the capability to reset the computer. When I took it to Jag and told them what I wanted done, I just got this big song and dance from them and a $250 bill – and the car was still the same." In the end he had to contact an equipment salesman to come in and demo a scanner with Jag capabilities. "He did what I asked him to do, and my car’s running perfect. And it didn’t cost me anything."

Keeping his equipment up-to-date is critical to John, but he acknowledges the high costs involved. "Ah, it’s tough. But because we’re well-established with a good clientele, and because we do a decent volume of business, we can afford to update our equipment in small stages. We keep abreast of that."

They rely on information systems such as Mitchell-on-Demand and Alldata, as well as iATN (the International Automotive Technicianýs Network) via an in-shop internet port.

"We use iATN as a diagnostic tool," says John. Their most recent purchase is a GM Tech 2 scanner, which as John puts it, "does amazing things with GM."

But being in a small community of 20,000 people, it’s the staff, not the equipment, that make John’s Thistle Auto the place to go for professional repair work.

Ralph Bender, John’s top technician, has been with the company over 15 years.

"He did his apprenticeship under me and now he’s my top diagnostic guy," says John. "He’s got all his certificates, and he’s got two awards from AirCare for quality repairs. So he does his stuff."

When asked about how often Ralph attends training courses, John just laughs. "I’d say Ralph is constantly in a training course! When a course comes up, he takes it." And even though Ralph has offered to go half on the costs, John insists on paying everything, considering it a worthwhile investment in his business.

Ralph enjoys handling the difficult repair problems, but notes there is a cost: "Yep, I don’t have much hair left…!" he jokes. "But it’s a learning process; every day it gets a little bit easier."

He feels his best help has come from a series of training courses offered locally by Dave Hurtubise of Hi-Tek Training. "Dave uses real-car failures when you go to his course; actual case studies."

John agrees. "We do lots of training through Dave; we think it is the best training that’s out there. Heýs hands-on, he’s been in the field; he knows what it’s all about, and heýs a guru as far as I’m concerned with this new stuff."

Matt Carr, who began his apprenticeship at Thistle Auto 10 years ago, is another technician who delves into advanced diagnostics. "None of it is really easy anymore; the thing is to find out exactly what the problem is. You always have a suspicion, but itýs a matter of proving it."

Technician Pascal Bajgar and apprentice Kevin O’Brien round out the team at John’s Thistle Auto, where the crew sees lots of pickup trucks, as well as a large selection of Japanese imports like Toyotas and Hondas.

"Being from the UK," John adds, "I do tend to attract a lot of Jags and any of the British stuff thatýs around." Being a general repair shop, Thistle Auto doesnýt try to specialize. "However we do have a name for fixing BMWs and Jags. We get a lot more than the average repair shop would get." He estimates that 20 per cent of his business is European vehicles.

Some key things besides good staff training that help Thistle Auto thrive include having two major parts supplies right across the street.

"Between Lordco and NAPA, I’ve got half a million dollars of inventory right on my doorstep, so I keep the usual oil filters and oil, and that’s about it." There are also only three other shops to compete with locally.

But John credits a lot of his continuing success to the business management courses he takes through Dave Meunier of Total Automotive Consulting & Training (T.A.C.T). Over a 10-month period, shop owners meet for lunch one day a month and spend the afternoon going over their sales numbers.

"They cover everything from service advising, how to set up your office, how to look after your guy’s time, time management, and preventive maintenance programs." Then at night, the technicians are invited along to get a handle on how they can contribute to the overall success of the business.

John doesn’t follow Daveýs procedures to the letter, but adapts it to his style and shop environment. He readily recommends that other shop owners take similar training. "A lot of it has to do with preventive maintenance; this is basically what the industry is today."

At $85 per hour, Thistle Auto has one of the highest shop rates in the area, spins a lot of the business profits back into staff training and equipment upgrades, and rarely gives any type of discount on parts, "I’ve got to get my shop mark-up to keep in business, and to keep upgrading," explains John.

So how do they survive in the competitive world of automotive repair?

"We have a good loyal clientele," says a modest John McCafferty. Looking around the busy shop, it’s easy to see that he’s telling the truth. But it’s also obvious that Thistle Auto has earned that loyalty through hard work, proper training, and perhaps just more than a little of that Old World Scottish charm.

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1 Comment » for Scotch Blend
  1. N AGUIAR says:

    yes i do first hafe to start paying a mechanic well not with da amount of difrent 3 like charging 99 per unit and give us 30 is to far, far more i kno the problem is flat rate is ok for same and bad for others including ctc, flat rate was ok wen it was fare 60/40 now they keep incrising door rate not us, that is very bad

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