Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2005   by Andrew Ross

Agent of Change

The Chairman's Role Will Never Be the Same

Malcolm Sissmore has the agenda to end all agendas–if he has his way about it, that is.

Sissmore, who is beginning his term as the chairman of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA), doesn’t just want to put forth a set of initiatives. He wants to change the very way the chairmanship works, and how the association sets its direction.

“As I have become more intimately involved with the association over the years, it started occurring to me that it should not be my agenda. I’m representing the entire membership and, more importantly, the future of the association.”

Sissmore, who serves as the vice-president of sales and marketing for exhaust manufacturer Ultra Fit Exhaust, says that he inherits a legacy of change in the association. Many of these changes stem from the cancellation of the biennial trade show, one consequence of which is a different model for revenue generation as well as a different set of priorities.

“All those changes have taken place, and I am concerned that all that has happened is the changes. We knew we needed to make the changes and they have all been right, but I want to make sure that we are in lockstep with our membership in what we want to do.

“From a planning point of view and from an execution point of view, we can’t just be talking one year anymore. Because of each person’s individual business and personal commitments, some chairmen have the opportunity to be more active than others.”

Active chairmen drive more initiatives, driving association staff resources to their limit. A less active chairman leaves them wondering which initiatives to focus on. It strains resources and can make the association appear, at times, directionless.

“I don’t want any part of that.”

It should not be about personal affinities, he says. Ask him what his personal issues would be, and he’ll tell you that his roots as a machinist would cause him to focus on automotive machinist training.

His first involvement with the AIA came when he was “volunteered” for association work by Andy Siefker, owner of Siefker Automotive in Essex, Ont., who also served as the chairman of the Engine Rebuilders Council some 16 years ago. Sissmore was plant manager at Advance Engines at the time and he ended up helping write the Ontario apprenticeship exam.

In fact, Sissmore has spent most of his time in the aftermarket in the engine parts sector, so the issue of attracting and training machinists has been with him since the beginning.

“As important as it is, it is not the right thing for our association to have the chairman going down the road championing that cause. And if I said I would have the other important issues plus this one, we would end up having too many issues.”

With virtually every association council calling for initiatives, and others bubbling up from industry itself, the sheer numbers can easily exceed the ability of the association to handle them effectively.

“We have to make sure that all issues are brought to the table, but look at it from the view of what we can champion the best. What can we have the best, quickest effect on? What does our membership really want?”

Membership input should drive the association’s agenda, he says — input that gets formalized by the executive board into a rolling five-year strategic plan.

As new members join the executive, they will learn the details of the plan and have four years of input into its evolution before they take over the big chair. Some current initiatives he is clear should remain on the plan; others he is not so sure about.

While there is no question that the Transportation of Dangerous Goods training and permits are valuable, many association volunteers also spend a great deal of time generating funds for scholarships that struggle to find applicants. Some scholarships are even going un-awarded as a result.

“Is that the right thing for our regional divisions to be spending their time on? Is that really the best use of our members’ charitable donations?”

Sissmore believes that while it is important for the association to provide an avenue for young people to gain access to the industry, it may be more important to build an industry that they want to be a part of.

There is simply not enough money or people to do everything, says Sissmore, and this requires the association to pick and choose.

While any decision will involve all parties, perhaps some of those efforts would be better put to use generating funds to support Be Car Care Aware programs and the fight to improve access to tools and information for the service provider, in what has become known as the Right to Repair movement.

Regardless, those initiatives are going forward and will require the association to become more involved with independent service providers.

“I am tired of our association saying that we represent the aftermarket, but none of the automotive service providers unless they are retail-oriented.”

Sissmore knows there is still work to be done to convince the individual regional service provider associations that there are honourable motives here. And it remains a point of contention within the association itself, since some members have trouble seeing how that segment would fit into the existing framework of the association.

“Let’s be frank. The biggest driving factor within the association is the transfer of commerce and goods from one level to another, from the manufacturer to the warehouse distributor to the jobber. That’s what our association is there for. To make that function, we need to do all the good things that an association does. I think that for a long time it has been a nice happy group. We haven’t needed to go any further.”

But today’s market is a different place, and automotive service providers have come to the fore in so many issues they can no longer be ignored, as they are the link to the consumer.

“Let’s look at the Be Car Care Aware campaign and the Right to Repair. They are both car owner-focused. It is the vehicle owner’s right to repair, not the garage’s right to repair. And it is about the vehicle owner’s choice to maintain the car.”

To target the consumer and leapfrog the businesses that provide the service would make no sense; hence the imperative to bring that segment closer.

“Primarily our work has been with other provincial associations, and we want to embrace that,” says Sissmore. “The value proposition has to be something that they don’t have–primarily government lobbying, the national voice, the U.S. connections, the ear of the OEMs in Canada.”

He understands that not all regional groups are convinced of their motives, but argues that the added benefits of a relationship with the AIA will improve their own member services.

“We will probably help build those associations’ membership ranks, because we will help build the value of those associations to their membership. Those local associations have a much better grasp on local initiatives and challenges. The AIA has its strengths in national and provincial programs. The joint effort will, I think, overshadow the opinion that the AIA is just on a membership grab.

“Again, the current membership has to believe in the fact that automotive service providers must be included as an integral part of our association, or there will remain a big gap in our membership.”

And Sissmore says that the emergence of service provider associations of national scope–the National Automotive Trades Association and the Canadian Independent Automotive Association, to name two–shows that there is a large constituency of businesses at that level of the aftermarket who feel that they have not had a voice.

“I think the AIA is in the best position to deliver that. I think that all those regional and local associations can be part of that. This is much more in the spirit of what is good for our entire industry and the vehicle owner than it is just the AIA.

“It is in the interest of our memberships to make sure they have access to the repair information, both short-term and long-term.”

Following up on the Automotive Services Association’s success in the U.S with the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), Sissmore believes that such an agreement can be struck in Canada, perhaps as soon as this year.

“Do we need to have long-term plans to make sure that the government has it in place? Sure we do. We need to be in the room when there is discussion about legislation.”

Sissmore is clear that if a voluntary agreement is not in the offing, a legislative approach must be sought. “But we are a long way away from that.”

His vision of how that connection to the service provider is forged is by working with the local and provincial associations to which technicians and garage owners belong. They are, quite simply, better equipped to deal with many issues at that level.

But, he believes, improved communication between the AIA and those associations, along with communication among those associations, is an inevitable outcome that will benefit all concerned.

“If we can help show people from Alberta what goes on in P.E.I., and vice versa, and bring a national voice with the local associations delivering on these issues, then we can accomplish more.”

While Right to Repair is an important issue today, there are other ongoing issues that affect the aftermarket and the association. Issues such as these cannot be planned for, but legislation on emissions, safety inspections, or other government initiatives, as well as important issues regarding industry image and promotion, will continue.

Sissmore’s hope is that there is more continuity in the issues being addressed by the association, that there is more consistent pressure exerted on government on the important issues, and that there is a more consistent approach to industry initiatives in general.

In essence, his agenda is to do away with the chairman’s agenda as the determinant of what the AIA will embark on during a chairman’s tenure.

He knows that there will be some within the association who might bristle at the fact that every program will have to be justified, and that some that were regarded as sacred cows may fall victim to the need to apply resources to other initiatives.

But those won’t be fleeting issues. And they won’t be coming just from him, or his successor, for that matter.

“The membership has put me here so that I can raise a flag when something looks wrong. The unfortunate thing is that you almost have to become chairman before your flag is looked at. I want that to stop. If the plan is there in place, you have just as much power on the executive by being chairman, or second vice chairman, etc.

“We need to have a strategic plan that flows through the years so that there are no hiccups, no matter who is chairman. If there was any type of legacy that I would like to leave is to be able to look back five or six years from now and still have that five-year plan. That would be an accomplishment.”

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