Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2003   by Andrew Ross

Incoming Chairman Ken Coulter: Down to the Nitty Gritty

Reinventing the Automotive Industries Association of Canada

Like all big changes, reinventing an association takes time. Now, after months of analysis, focus groups, surveys, checking and rechecking with stakeholders, it is time to start moving ahead with a new plan, a new mandate: time to get down to the nitty gritty.

Beginning just more than a year ago, and especially following the 2002 Canadian International Automotive Show in Toronto last April, work has been going on behind the scenes to set a new course for the Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA).

It has taken more than a little soul searching to get to this point, says incoming chairman Ken Coulter, and now the implementation of much of the new direction comes under his watch.

Coulter, who has spent many years at the supplier level and for the past few has been a principal at Specialty Sales & Marketing, is regarded as a consensus builder. He also has a knack for speaking plainly without losing track of the important details. Perhaps it is in his nature, or perhaps it is years of working to address customer concerns, but his focus is on delivering what works for the customer and recognizing that this may not be the same for everyone. He brings that approach to the chairman’s position.

What the association executive heard over and over again, he says, was that the show had to go. This led to the cancellation of the 2004 edition originally scheduled for Montreal, and a complete rethink of where the priorities ought to be placed.

It also required a complete overhaul of the association’s funding model and more than a little painful rewriting of decades-old association bylaws, to allow the flexibility to fund and act on the new priorities.

Four key priorities came to the forefront in all discussions: networking, enhancing the aftermarket’s image, information sharing and, above all, government relations.

“It is extremely important for the AIA to become intimately involved at the federal and provincial government levels, and to provide assistance at the municipal level, where possible. There absolutely has to be a voice for our industry.”

Look at proposed the performance regulations in Ontario, offers Coulter. The proposed regulations under Ontario Bill 241 could threaten to make virtually every type of aftermarket performance accessory illegal, in a far-reaching bill targeting street racing and other road safety issues.

The AIA did respond after that bill was introduced into the provincial parliament, but had no role in any discussions leading up to its writing. And, while it is looking increasingly likely that the bill will die as a result of an upcoming provincial election, it still highlights the need for greater activity by the association, says Coulter. “How does a little shop in Bolton, Ont., find out what is going on and how does he voice an opinion? We should be going one step further than just sending out a letter.”

There are many issues in the wings, he adds, and he says he is grateful to have Government Relations Committee chairman Robert Blair on the case.

“Now the committee is really humming,” says Coulter. “The plan for the committee is that federal issues have to be juggled in order of importance, and the provincial issues addressed based on importance. You can’t do everything.” Still, Coulter rhymes off a shortlist of some issues that are on the priority list: skills shortages; emissions regulations in Quebec; expensive building code requirements in Toronto that treat automotive paint facilities differently from household paint outlets; waste diversion requirements for garages in Toronto; training and apprenticeship funding in British Columbia; waste oil and filter legislation in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec; vehicle safety issues in Newfoundland.

Coulter says that in many cases the industry is caught unawares when new regulatory regimes come into force. In the case of the new regulations for waste diversion in Toronto, for example, a simple mailer from the city requesting detailed information on practices and plans often went unheeded by the independent garages. Then, several months later, visits by city officials raised alarm bells, prompting overreactions and, in some cases, unnecessarily costly decisions.

Coulter says he’d like to institute a hotline to help avoid a repeat of this type of situation.

“The intricacies of what takes place by province, by city and by town, and how it affects our industry whether it is the wholesaler or installer, is huge. With a hotline you could find out whether or not we had heard about something, and what needed to be done. That kind of resource is something that our industry is saying we have to be. Right now, people don’t know where to go.”

It is clear that many of these issues affect more than just the AIA’s current membership. For the most part, they encompass the service provider, often most directly. This point is not lost on Coulter, but the issue of how an association can effectively address issues at that level when its own charter and the wishes of its existing membership don’t allow membership by service providers, is not a new one.

Many of the activities at the association must continue to be geared to the supplier and distribution chain, and yet everyone seems to agree on the fact that the AIA can bring a great deal of value to the industry’s trade customers. It remains a difficult paradox to come to terms with.

“A one-year window is a very short time for any chairman, especially during a transition year, but one thing that we really have to start thinking about is that we have a community of some 30,000 installers who rely on a whole bunch of different resources, but not the AIA.”

They are, he says, members of provincial associations, dealer groups, and other organizations that seek to help them with government relations and business issues. So many issues tackled by the AIA have a direct impact on those businesses, yet there is no participation from that community.

“One of the things we will investigate, and we’ll have passed forward one way or the other by September, is how we get part of our association to that installer base. There is a clear direction from our membership that having the installer as a standalone member is not in the cards. It is not part and parcel of what they want.” But, he adds, he may just have a model of what might work. Fittingly, for an industry that conducts so much of its business on the golf course, it is inspired by the Pro Golfers Association.

“You can get an associate membership in the PGA for about $30. I get some really neat information that I enjoy reading and it also gives me some passes to golf tournaments and some preferred pricing if I wanted to golf at a certain course. But it doesn’t allow me to go play at the Masters. It is not a tour card; it is an associate membership card.”

Coulter says that this may be a mechanism for membership that provides a connection to the AIA without compromising the focus of the association, or seeking to replace the existing regional associations that so many service providers value.

“I am not saying that they should be full members. What I am saying is that we need to set up a communication network.” He offers a recent example to highlight the need for greater communication.

“I went out to five installers near my office and not one of them knew about the tool tax deduction. Not one. All of them said that their accountant would probably tell them, but every one of them said they sure could have used an apprentice and didn’t know enough to be able to use it as a selling tool.

“So I took it one step further and went out to see some dealerships. Every one of them knew about it because they had it communicated through their system. Who keeps the independent in tune with all these neat things we’re doing? Who is the one who is going to feed them with the information?

“I believe that there is some viability to have an associate member program that can act to improve communication to the independent installer.”

Communication is, of course, an issue with the jobber community, too. The association has, for years
, fought for better representation at the jobber level, and now seems to have hit on a program that is delivering a significant share of the jobbers in the marketplace.

The association’s Group Marketing Program has yielded full membership from a number of distribution networks by allowing the membership to be channelled through WD organizations’ head offices, rather than each individual jobber. In exchange, a significant discount on membership is offered. This has benefits for the association in terms of both representation and streamlining of operations–they will no longer spend thousands of man hours simply administering dues payments and billings.

But with membership now through a head office, couldn’t a certain connection with the individual jobber be at risk?

“That is definitely one of the things that has been discussed. It’s uncharted territory,” says Coulter. It is, he says, added incentive to create value at the grassroots level. “We have started this year with the regional convention in Red Deer, Alta., but we want to take it one step further. In Southwestern Ontario, for example, the division has five meetings lined up, in five different areas. There could be 20 or 30 people in attendance at each, but hopefully they are 20 or 30 wholesalers, because we will talk about Transportation of Dangerous Goods issues, a speaker, other items and there will be a solid two- or three-hour meeting with a little supper.” The AIA’s national office in Ottawa is assisting in getting the word out. AIA field reps will be following up with jobbers to urge their participation. It is, he says, a good model.

“Does the jobber in Essex County or Leamington, who has never had exposure to the AIA, now feel part of the group because he only has to drive to Windsor? That’s the secret to getting back down to the grassroots: to get all these folks on board so they can see, feel and taste the value in what they’re getting out of their membership dues.

“I think the way Southwestern Ontario is doing it is great. If we can get five meetings with 30 wholesalers at each, that’s a greater impact to the division and the membership than doing one or two big events in Toronto.”

Quebec has, he says, had good success with its events over the past year and a half. It is, he says, a blueprint for the future, sketched out by Coulter’s predecessor Sean Corcelli, who put it succinctly when he said that Canada is a very big country; travelling is a way of life and business in this land. To succeed, the AIA must take its show on the road.

“There aren’t too many events that I’ll be missing this year for that very reason. If we can get more people out just from my being there and talking about the AIA and what’s coming down the road, then that’s the way we’re going to do it.”

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