Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2010   by Andrew Ross

Mister Cool

Lorne Johnston, General Auto Parts, Toronto, Ont. - 2010 Counterperson of the Year

For Lorne Johnston, the many daily challenges of working the counter are taken in stride–but it wasn’t always so for the 30-year veteran of inside sales.

In his early years behind the counter, Mister Cool was a moniker that would have been used only in irony. “I have learned over the years that you just have to let some things go in one ear and out the other,” he says with a smile. “Not to let it get to you. But there were times when things would get to you, parts went flying and phones got busted. But I’m older and more mature now.”

And at least part of that calmness he credits to the other half of the business relationship: the customer.

“The customers we have now seem to be a pretty good bunch. There’s not much yelling goes on.” And there’s a lesson in here for those starting out.

“You have to understand that we’re under pressure and they’re under pressure. Everybody is under pressure, all because the customer wants his car fixed. The biggest problem is the garage is afraid they’ll lose the business if they say the car won’t be ready in the afternoon.”

And that, he adds, is the way it has always been.

This ongoing reality goes hand in hand with the daily struggle to get the information he needs to serve the customer.

“Still, after all these years, these guys still come to the phone with no information. I had one guy who wanted a track bar for a pickup. I asked if it was a half-ton, or three- quarter-ton. He says, ‘I don’t know, but it takes 10-ply tires.’ That’s the kind of stuff you have to put up with every day. And you seem to survive and get to the next day to see what happens.”

Of course something has changed over the years: technology. He has seen the counterperson’s most valuable tool evolve over the years.

“When the computer first came out, it was, ‘What’s going to happen? What if we sent the wrong part? How do we redo bills and credits?'” It was, he says, a tool that took some getting used to, but now it’s invaluable.

“The cataloguing has made a real difference, especially with the addition of pictures. That helps immensely. Sometimes you have two different part numbers for the same application; maybe [it’s] the way it was mounted, or a part has five bolts or six. Being able to describe the parts to a customer saves on returns, and helps counterpeople serve customers better.”

Still, he says, the tool doesn’t do away with the need to have a strong automotive knowledge–advice that’s wise for young, aspiring counterpeople to take to heart.

“You need a basic knowledge of the automobile. In order to keep the customer in line, you have know what questions to ask right away. Don’t send them to the car three or four times,” he says.

Johnston gives the impression of a man who deals with adversity with a wry smile and just a touch of humour. Not the kind of person to be overtly demonstrative, his patient manner keeps him and his customers on an even keel when finding information gets tough.

But don’t mistake his calm exterior for a lack of caring. He will patiently search for what a customer needs–he held patiently onto the phone for 10 minutes during my visit as the customer tried to find out what pitch of thread he needed on a cylinder pressure tester–and will go the extra mile.

Perhaps the best illustration of how far he will go, and how calm he can be, is an incident from five years ago. He was a counterperson at British Auto Supply in Toronto when a fire started mid-morning. His reaction? “We just calmly walked out of the building.”

But what he did next, as the business struggled to find a temporary home, was extraordinary. That temporary home ended up being his home.

“It was only supposed to be for a month, but it ended up being six months. We put the computer on the table and away we went,” he remembers.

And yet he doesn’t see it as extraordinary. “They’d always been good to me, and I thought I would try to help them.” Eventually, after a new location was found, the business collapsed under the weight of financial pressures, but that, as they say, was then and this is now.

Today, he is enjoying the much larger environment at General Auto Parts. There’s a great, experienced crew there, he says, and everybody helps each other out.

“I started out as a driver; I think pretty much everybody in this business has. Do you know what? They are the guys who see the parts these days. We never see parts anymore.


Our place is more in the position of being in sales, as opposed to being hands-on with the part.”

He still believes that the path upward from driver is valuable for the aspiring counterperson.

“If they are on the ball, they can move up in this business. They are inside the warehouse and see what’s going out.” And the observant ones will wonder why they sell one of these, but two of those. And, he adds, the drivers are a valuable part of the business.

“A driver is probably your number-one salesperson on the road. It helps if you have good drivers, and most of our guys have been here a long time.”

Also on the plus side of the General Auto Parts environment is the hands-off approach of owner Harold Baker. He leaves you to do your job without interference, says Johnston.

But that doesn’t mean Baker doesn’t know what’s going on.

He certainly knows very well the qualities that Johnston brings to the job.

One example offered by Baker is how Johnston has embraced the newer technologies at his disposal, despite the years he has spent behind the counter.

“You know how you have younger counterpeople who can adapt to the new technology easily, and you can have some older counterpeople who are great but don’t adapt so easily? Lorne’s not like that. He really embraces all the new tools. And that really helps us.”

That’s a pretty heady endorsement for someone who never imagined he would spend a career honing his skills in the aftermarket. He was really just looking for a job when he landed in the aftermarket; and he didn’t even look to the aftermarket initially.

Way back in 1975, he was studying air conditioning system design, but found that experience was a must before he could get a job; and then he found a home in the aftermarket. Their loss was our gain.

And considering that, maybe Mister Cool is a more apt nickname than one could have imagined.

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