Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2009   by Andrew Ross

From Streetcars To Satellites Changing To Succeed

Spark Auto Electric, 2009 Jobber Of The Year

In many ways Toronto is unique in the Canadian business landscape: competitive to a fault, by virtue of its position as Canada’s most populous centre, where gridlock can spring up at any time of day, putting customers only a few kilometres beyond your service reach — and where jobbers vie for business with thousands of repair businesses, with numerous competitors large and small jammed between. From the outside, the city can seem like an unfriendly place, with little room for the personal touch.

But to understand how Spark Auto Electric grew from a one-man rebuilding shop to a 40-plus person, full-service jobbing operation means understanding that Toronto is also a city where community is no less important than anywhere else in the Canadian landscape.

At the core of Spark Auto Electric is Stavros Bintas, just now turned 65 and showing no intention of retirement. He arrived in Canada in 1966 already an experienced entrepreneur, having started an electrical shop in Greece at age 16.

He’s full of stories about how he saw others doing what, with a small loan from his grandfather, he would eventually do. Shortly after arriving in Canada, he began applying what he learned in that first experience, aided by younger brother Peter, who would join him in Toronto two years later.

A short stint with a rebuilder in Toronto gave him the local experience he was looking for, before he went off to forge his own path as a rebuilder of starters and alternators. This time, the loan of a few thousand dollars came not from grandpapa, but from his father-in-law: it was a family investment that the industrious young Greek was determined to make pay.

Opening in 1967, that first business, QAS, quickly became Steve’s Auto, then later, Spark Auto Electric; with four different locations through the years, it is now a bustling enterprise with 45 employees and 20,000 square feet of space.

Still, in those first days it was little more than a man and a workbench, where Stavros rebuilt each starter and alternator by hand. There wasn’t even a delivery vehicle. But there was a streetcar stop just up the road.

“At that time I still didn’t have my licence,” remembers Stavros. “The first business I opened was at Broadview and Dundas. My father-in-law had one friend who was a mechanic with a shop. He was the first customer.” And so Stavros dutifully ran starters and alternators up Broadview just north of the Danforth to Mike and Nick’s Auto via public transit. Granted, this only lasted for about a week, but then, very little has stood still at Spark Auto Electric. For though the Bintas’ attitude about loyalty and service may be timeless, what they do to deliver value to their customers is ever-changing.

The most significant change occurred in the waning years of the 1980s. Stavros and brother Peter, now joined by Stavros’ sons Jim and Nick, realized that the growth of their thriving business would be limited if it remained solely a rebuilder.

“I’ve got all of my customers,” Stavros recalls thinking, “but I’m only selling them starters and alternators. I thought to myself, I can make something of this.” Even today, you can hear the conviction in his voice. ” I thought for a week, spoke to Peter and my two sons and together we decided to start the parts business.”

It was now 1989, and with a strong existing customer base, the new venture’s growth was swift– swift enough to warrant acceptance by Bestbuy Distributors in 1992, and then as an ACDelco distributor a year later.

Never ones to stand on ceremony, the Bintas moved quickly, adding staff and upgrading computer functionality. Eventually, the repair side was closed to make room for inventory, while staff and suppliers had to vie with busy tourist traffic on Danforth Avenue, the heart of Toronto’s Greek Town.

Peter, Stavros, and sons agree that the push to grow and shift the business from an electrical rebuilder to a dedicated jobber, in effect leaving the company’s roots behind, was difficult, but the right one.

Proof of this is the growth that required a doubling in facility size and the need for easier access that resulted in a move to the current location in 2002.

The pursuit of state-of-the-art computerization is noted as a key to growth. “We were the first to get started with bar code scanning,” recalls Jim Bintas. “That was something different that nobody else had. We really wanted to receive product quicker and be able to improve communication between customers, counter staff, and the warehouse, knowing whether a part was in the docking area or still sitting in the carriage waiting to go on the shelf. Is it out the door, does the driver have it?

“And now with the delivery tracking system”–which shows via GPS where each delivery truck is– “we’re able to communicate with our customers a lot faster. It’s all about the service.

“While there is a lot of talk about larger shops, a lot of the shops are still one-bay operations. These ma and pa shops need to get the car in and get the car out. Time is money, and Spark Auto has been pretty good about delivering the goods and having the communication all along the way.”

Staying on top of such technology fits into the pillars of the business they feel are important.

“Our current vision is to grow by strengthening our loyalty and relationships with our staff, our management, suppliers, computer business tools, training, and most of all our clients,” says Nick Bintas. “You need to have relationships.

“We believe that any success has been from team effort: by the drivers to the order desk, the warehouse staff to the salesperson, to the office, and the management. It’s a team.

“We treat people the way that we want to be treated,” he adds. “You have to talk to people the way you want to be spoken to. Sometimes you have to be tougher, but in most cases we try to have a happy environment and communicate with staff how we want to do things.”

Offers Jim, “The whole family has had a hands-on approach to the company. To this very day, my brother and I still answer phones.”

He says that some newer customers are surprised when they find out that they have been speaking to an owner, or that they might sometimes find them back in the warehouse pushing pallets around.

“I guess there is a misconception that we just sit around collecting money and pushing a pen,” he laughs.

“Good customers will sometimes want to talk to us directly,” says Nick. “At the end of the day you make relationships, and we have grown with these people.”

“A lot of the guys who we are dealing with today started their business 20 or 25 years ago,” chimes in Jim–adding that the sons of one of the owners of that first customer, Mike of Mike and Nick’s Auto, remain good customers of Spark.

“They saw me when I was working on the rebuilding bench and delivering parts,” he says of many long-time customers.

“They’ve seen Nick go from answering phones to running the operations here.”

The hands-on approach is also what led them to add satellite training through their ACDelco association a decade ago, when it was just entering the market–a decision the brothers are still proud to have made–yet it is, paradoxically, that same close contact with customers that caused them to end that training approach when excitement over it waned. The history of Spark is full of shifts and changes like that.

Today, challenges abound. Especially in a recessionary economy, the focus is not just on growth, but on ensuring that financial exposure is limited.

“We made a decision a while back to take a tighter view of credit,” says Jim Bintas succinctly. While community is obviously important to the Bintas family, they tacitly acknowledge that when it came to receivables, some may have taken advantage of their good nature in the past, and they made a decision some years ago to set aside some personal feelings for the health of the business.

Stavros, in his inimitable old-school way, expl
ains the simple facts. “If you give a customer $10,000 in credit and 30 days and he can’t pay, how’s he going to pay $20,000 next month? After that he goes to forty or fifty? You can’t sell them anymore; you lose the customer. And only maybe do you get the money.” Ultimately, you end up with more drivers and more people on the phones just to handle the volume, with no expectation of getting paid for those sales.

“You’re spinning your wheels,” adds Jim. “We monitor our credit limits tightly. The good thing about the Activant system is it has the bells and whistles to set off alarms for those situations. In the old days, we used to do invoices by hand and had to run all those reports,” he says, exasperated at the memory. “Nowadays we can run a report and know exactly what is going on with the company. It’s crucial.”

Today, the Bintas family and Spark Auto are well positioned technologically, and aligned with key suppliers through their Bestbuy and ACDelco associations, but they are clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead for the aftermarket, both locally and for the industry in general.

They’re watching larger issues such as right to repair and the changing dealer landscape carefully, but they’re also aware that locally, the culture within shops is changing. While the brothers acknowledge that loyalty continues to be strong among the customer base, a shifting cultural mix among shop owners is impossible to ignore. Some might see that as a barrier, but the Bintas brothers view these new customers with a sense of kinship.

“After all,” says Nick, “we were once part of a ‘new ethnic mix’ back in the ’60s and were given the opportunities that allowed us to grow. So we will continue to adapt and to develop new relationships.”

And, he adds, service is still important regardless of a customer’s cultural background, and so they are still successful. The challenges are just different.

“Our affiliations with ACDelco and Bestbuy will keep us up to date with quality parts, competitive pricing, marketing, training, and banner programs,” emphasizes Nick.

“It’s not just about price. It really can’t be just about price. Service, quality, and price: ‘pick two’ has stuck in our brains. You can’t have all three. You try to maintain a balance, but at the end of the day the phones are ringing, people want parts, and people buy from people.

“We hear it a lot that there is no loyalty–and we say it too—but there is loyalty. People do want to deal with people they feel comfortable with. We have the same thing. We deal with Bestbuy, we deal with ACDelco, we deal with Activant. These are three big partners for us. Technology, parts, service, distribution.

“Nobody is perfect, but we are loyal to them and our customers are still calling. So there is loyalty.”

“Spark has always kept the philosophy that the small guy is just as important as the large guy,” says Jim. “It’s part of the whole landscape. You have to show value out there.”

And that is the underlying theme of Spark Auto Electric’s success. Whether it was the first days of father Stavros taking the streetcar to deliver his first orders, to satellite training, to being able to tell customers exactly where their order is en route through the GPS tracking system, in a changing landscape the Bintas family has been able to combine a traditional approach of personal service with innovation, and managed to keep themselves, and their customers, at the top of their game.

As Jim puts it: “Change is hard. Change is necessary.”


Peter Bintas, younger brother to Stavros and a partner in the business, has played an important role throughout the development of Spark Auto Electric, going back to the first business that Stavros founded in Greece.

On an extended trip to Greece throughout the production of this article, the entire Bintas family wanted to ensure that the enduring important role that he has played in the business to the present day was not neglected in the telling of their story.

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