The Independent Ways of Dick Fisher and Fisher Auto Parts & Equipment
Dick Fisher is one of those guys you just can’t seem to bottle up.
His irrepressible desire to do things his way has led to more than one clash with employers, even when he has had their best interests at heart.
“I was,” he allows with a smile, “a bit of a black sheep. I always looked for something different. You never know where the automotive trade is going to go. You always have to be looking for a different niche.”
It is an attitude which has led him in, and out of, heavy-duty parts, to seek business however small with local industry and schools, and even to selling two skids’ worth of hand pumps at a local plowing match.
It was an approach that got under the skin of his partners at Bourk’s Ignition, where he had worked since 1963.
The story of Bourk’s and Fisher Auto Parts & Equipment are strongly linked. The Fisher operation was in fact the Kingston, Ont., wing of Bourk’s until 2000, when Fisher completed a buyout of the Kingston branches when Bourk’s main operations were being sold to a large chain operating in eastern Ontario.
But his impact on the company, and on Kingston, goes back much further.
Fisher’s tenure with Bourk’s began when he was hired by Ted Hyde, a partner in Ottawa-based Bourk’s business. Fisher, fresh from tossing aside a career in wool grading–no kidding–was focused on becoming a technician, but Hyde talked him into angling his career toward sales. He obviously recognized Fisher’s strong communication skills and easygoing manner.
Fisher may be an individualist, but he’s no furrowed-brow campaigner. He is personable and quick to laugh. He talks of his talents and his shortcomings with a glint in his eye. He comes across as pleased rather than proud. It is a trait that has served him well over the years.
In 1973, 10 years after joining Bourk’s, he started buying shares from Bob Cable; in that same year he also began spearheading the company’s expansion into new markets.
Fisher continued to make his play for customers out on the road for many years.
He rings off a long list of places he ran the circuit through. “Smiths Falls to Perth, Carleton Place, Almonte, Arnprior, Douglas, Golden Lake, Pembroke . . .” and so on. “I did about 1,000 miles a week,” he says with a smile. Through his travels he would uncover opportunities.
He’d bring those opportunities to the attention of his partners, they would say he was crazy, and he’d make most of them work anyway–not always the way he had hoped, but there were few failures.
Keeping customers happy was his motivation. “I just hate saying no.”
Despite the fact that he has built his business and his reputation on independence, he is quick to point out that this does not mean he is on his own. He has a very strong, experienced staff at the company’s two stores–one at the east end of Kingston, the other in the west end–and he also has the ability to draw on whatever resources he needs through ACDelco and Regional Automotive Warehousing.
He has been called on by virtually every distribution group, even taking a call from one the day I visited, but he has pretty much settled on the pairing of ACDelco and Regional Automotive Warehousing as his key suppliers.
“If you place an order large enough, and commit to the inventory, take the risk, then you can buy some direct,” he says. He says that he doesn’t complicate his market, or slash pricing.
“In fact if anything we’re trying to get our grosses up. That’s been a struggle and we work so hard to get there. We work at it every day. There is always somebody who is trying to sell for less. You can take that sale, or walk away. We’ll only go so far, then we’ll walk away.”
Too often, he says, the customers who are the most apt to focus on price and push beyond the limits he can accommodate are a high risk too.
That is, he says, the biggest challenge in the market today. While pricing and dealer competition are not to be overlooked, receivables are a constant concern. For his wife Donna, they are an obsession.
Dick is, she says, not the best collector in the world, or even the best in Kingston. Dick says that honour goes to Donna.
There is no doubt that past-due receivables can strain business and personal relationships with customers, and Fisher says that some have asked to be put on cash on delivery as a result. For these customers, it is not dishonesty that drives them past due; it is their lack of financial management skills. They have a good month, pay some bills, maybe even splurge a bit, and then come up short.
Forcing themselves to get off this merry-go-round may be difficult, but it works, and keeps these customers buying, and paying–something that doesn’t happen when they’re being hammered for monies owed. This is something that virtually every business can identify with, as can another fact of business life.
“Overall, 80% of your business comes from 20% of the customers. It is the same friends and loyal customers that have kept us in a good position. The good accounts are always looking for quality parts at the best price and the best service.
“We still stock all the quality lines. I don’t go for the lower-end stuff, except on some of the chassis parts if the customer is dealing with a car lot.” Used car lots are notorious for wanting white box parts. He says that it was simply a decision not to walk away from that specific side of the business, though he does not want it to spread to other areas due to the impact it would have on the dollar margin.
“If you sell something for 10 bucks versus 20, what does that do to your margin?”
While the cost of acquisition is probably an obsession for every auto parts wholesaler, one of the key attractions of many distribution group associate programs is the myriad of marketing programs available. The opportunity to be promoted to the public at large, and to have other promotions created for them, is significant. Fisher is no different.
“I don’t think that enough is being done to advertise in the local marketplace. They’re not letting the public know what kind of trained people there are in the local communities. Maybe they are doing some of it, but to my mind, not enough.”
His support of the local garage is not just lip service.
“We started doing training in Kingston in 1973. We had our own training facility and if we couldn’t do it there, we would find somewhere else. That has gone on over the years. Every one of our top customers has gone to those training programs. They really concentrate on that and that is the only thing that is going to keep them current and help them compete with the dealer.”
That idea grew into the Kingston Independent Garage Operators (IGO) association, which he continues to support to this day, nearly a decade after its formation. The garages, he says, run it even if he offers some help. He also encourages other jobbers to join.
While he has access to the TSS program and virtually all independent training, funnelling the programs through the IGO has provided many of the benefits that might otherwise only be available through more formal programs. It means Fisher can ensure that shop owners have access to quality training on a variety of subjects, regardless of affiliation or lack thereof.
“If we put on a clinic or do some training ourselves, I always have it put through the IGO. We might say that Fisher helped as a sponsor, but I don’t want to make anybody feel that they’re not welcome. The IGO does charge the garages a fee for membership, but we want to get them out and get some input from them on how they are conducting business.”
He adds that they don’t get as many as he would like, but for the six general sessions a year, the average attendance at non-clinic events is in the range of 15 to 20; a chassis clinic recently attracted 60 technicians and shop owners. It is a necessity, he says; it’s about the survival of the independent aftermarket.
He also tries to keep abreast of training programs at schools and colleges, and sees a dearth of training in skills that jobbers could use.
“I think it should be the same as any
other trade. If there is shop in a high school to learn auto mechanics and one to learn carpentry and one to learn electrical, why can’t we have one to learn inventory control and how to look up parts?” It doesn’t have to be restricted to automotive, he says; it could be electrical, say, and could include the broad range of skills required for dealing with the public and the trade.
“There is some very good training for those already in the field, but not for those who are out in the market looking for jobs.” While he is happy to give credit to 22 skilled staff, some with 20 years’ plus experience with the operation, new blood is needed.
The situation is so critical that it has held back his company’s growth. He sees opportunities in the market, but without the people, he cannot consider it.
“There needs to be more money spent in the schools to encourage people to come into the trades, whether it is our trade or another. Tradespeople are in big demand, but everyone just wants to know how to run a computer now.”
Fisher, who has had to curtail his on-road activities after some medical issues in the spring of 2003, spends more time in his office than he really wants. He misses seeing so many customers, but it has forced him to hand off some duties to sons Shannon and Shawn, which is providing a forced transition, so to speak. It is a family business, with his wife, two sons and niece Michelle working in the operation, and succession plans are in place.
Looking back, he doesn’t see much he would have changed. He might have taken more time to go through his apprenticeship, but that is about it.
Maybe it was all those days alone in the car early in his career, or maybe it is part that and part his independent-minded personality, but Fisher has an irresistible need to do things his own way. He likes the gamble, the adrenaline rush of taking a chance and of winning or losing by your own hand. In 2000, when Bourk’s was to be sold, he used his shares to take ownership of the Kingston operations. In a market that is moving toward more ties to distribution and more sophisticated marketing packages, it was a risk.
“I am sure there were a lot of people who thought we wouldn’t make it on our own, but I really believe that we have built up customer loyalty over the years, and maybe doing the training, and definitely doing what we say we are going to do.”
It has undeniably worked out pretty well, for him, for Fisher Auto Parts & Equipment, and for the entire Kingston automotive aftermarket.
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