Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2003   by Andrew Ross, Editor and Publisher

Ghosts of the Past

Recent projects have given me cause to look back in the stacks of old copies of Jobber News, and what I found there might surprise you.

“Why Machine Shop Price Cutting Always Fails” may sound familiar as a topic, which it should considering it was the title of an article in the January 1958 edition of this magazine. Or how about the comment from the same issue, entitled “No Time for Conventions?”

I think one of my favourite events from that period was the meeting of two of “Canada’s oldest” wholesalers, James Cowan and Company and McMullen Supplies Limited, founded in 1864 and 1923 respectively. The meeting was a UAP event, held on the occasion of both of these wholesalers having been incorporated into the UAP framework. It was, of course, a story of consolidation, but one written with cheer and promise, not foreboding.

I can go back to issues as early as 1931 and find that much has indeed changed, but so many of the key concerns of our industry remain. Profitability, parts proliferation, the role of the jobber, the impact of consolidation, attracting youth into our industry, and the “unrebuildable” designs coming out of the original equipment manufacturers all continue to be issues that are raised again and again over the years.

In fact, so many of the issues remain the same, one might be tempted to believe that nothing has changed in this industry. If one follows that logic, then one might believe that there is no use in trying to effect change. This is a complete misread of the aftermarket’s position in the overall marketplace over time.

Yes, it is true that many issues remain the same, but they remain the same for different reasons, so to speak. Take the plight of the service sector, for example. At one time it was difficult to get new recruits because the jobs paid poorly, the conditions were (let’s face it) dirty and unhealthy, and those with any smarts went elsewhere.

Today, while the automotive technician is still in shorter supply than the industry would like, it is largely because the skills required to fill that role have become much greater than used to be the case, and the required training more expensive. Yes, some of the image concerns remain, but there is no denying that there has been a material change in the requirements of the job, and in the conditions in which technicians work. The grease monkey is a thing of the past, even if that message is sometimes tough to communicate to the public.

The situation is not helped by surveys like the recent one from the inaccurately-named Automobile Protection Association (APA), that skewered the industry at large on the basis of 50 visits to garages in a coast-to-coast survey, broadcast on CTV’s W-Five newsmagazine. This age-old “ghost car” approach is used year after year to tar and feather the industry. I wish the consumer media, and the APA for that matter, would take a new, constructive approach. It would serve consumers better if it did.

In any case, we should not lose sight of the fact that the industry as a whole has changed, even if some businesses within it have not.

Sure, you’re still in the business of getting parts out to your customers, but you’re surely doing a whole lot more. You’re handling safety information, managing some of your customers’ on-site inventories, dealing with tax and warranty calculations of a complexity never imagined before, profiling and re-profiling your inventory in response to vehicle and market trends, getting your customers technical and management training, running retail and wholesale businesses, and a whole host of other functions. And you’re probably doing it with fewer people and lower margins.

Considering that, are you really in the same business as you used to be? Jobber News is still a magazine, but it is a completely different animal than it was even a decade ago. The dictionary definition says a jobber is a middleman. Nothing more. Considering what I see going on at jobbers across this country, that definition just doesn’t fit. Maybe it never did.

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