Auto Service World
Feature   May 18, 2020   by Allan Janssen

New AIA chairman to focus on communication


By Allan Janssen

There has never been a greater need for communication between an association and its members. And it comes at a time when there are more ways of communicating than ever before.

The incoming chairman of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada would like to harness the various ways people express themselves to create a unified aftermarket response to rapidly changing technology.

Susan Hitchon, who will be elected to the head of the AIA’s executive committee at the annual general meeting in April, says despite the grave issues facing the industry, information is falling through the cracks, partly because communication styles have splintered.

“We have plenty to talk about,” says Susan Hitchon. “Unfortunately, you hear people say too often that they are unaware of new developments at AIA. They didn’t hear it through their regular channels. Or they didn’t see it. As an industry, we have to figure out how to make sure we’re all up-to-date.”

Hitchon says she’ll work closely with AIA staff to make communication more efficient.

“We have an issue, not of content, but of medium,” she says. “How do we communicate with our members and the broader industry? How do they want to hear from us? I think that’s something we really need to understand.”

She points out that the association’s renewed commitment to market reports offer a wealth of information.

“We all know that autonomous vehicles are going to change the industry. We all know that telematics, and access to data is a huge issue. We all know that electrification is going to transform the service world. We all know that parts management and logistics is going to change. Now how do we best get input, direction, and feedback from members to move the needle forward in not only sustaining, but growing the aftermarket, despite these challenges?”

Hitchon is prepared to stand behind those words, by making herself the target for anyone who has a viewpoint they want to share.

“I’m an open book. I always have been. I speak my mind, and I’m always open to hearing people’s views,” she says. “So call me, email me, corner me at an event, give me your input. I’ll lend an ear. And don’t be worried you’ll get drafted onto a committee. You can say no to that. But we need to know what you know, and we want to address your concerns.”

Another way to discover untapped resources is to encourage member companies to bring more of their team members to industry events.

“I would love to see more new faces at our events. Not only would important information get filtered further down within our member companies, but we would hear more views, beyond just those of the senior members who regularly attend our events,” she says.

“Let’s start adding more depth to our industry events. If every company invited three new people, say someone from H.R., someone from finance, and someone from product management, these people would add so much to our discussions on key topics!”

No newcomer to the industry, Hitchon cut her teeth at Gates Canada in 1995, where she first learned the ins and outs of product development, new launches, and category growth. After a season in the industrial division, she moved over to automotive, where she managed about 50,000 part numbers in multiple brand families for some of the aftermarket’s biggest customers.

“Fit, form, and function. That was where I learned how the aftermarket worked,” she said. “I was so fortunate to work with great people like Ray Osika, Randy Chupka, and Sandy Wallace. It was a great growth opportunity for me. I learned everything that I could learn about the aftermarket from people who were smart, passionate, loved what they do.”

In 2010, she saw an opportunity to expand her knowledge even further, and she moved over to sister company Schrader, which was developing a new line of tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) sensors.

The launch was particularly complicated in Canada because while TPMS had been mandated for all U.S. vehicles following a series of high-profile vehicle roll-overs linked to improper tire pressure, the Canadian government hadn’t followed suit.

“We had to figure out how to position the product, who to sell it to, and how to introduce it to the Canadian market,” she said. “It was a very exciting few years, to take something from its infancy to what I would consider a hugely successful product line in Canada.”

The experience of creating an information campaign that positioned TPMS as a valuable safety system had a big impact on her professionally, helping to prepare her for an eventual role in association politics. She embarked on a speaking tour that took her to every corner of the country, explaining the new technology to consumers and service professionals alike. Along the way, she gained a greater appreciation of the work that technicians do, and the challenges faced by repair shops.

She also spent time with warehouse-distributors, jobbers, and large retail customers who wanted to take on the product and sell it through their channels.

The incoming chairman gave her acceptance speech during the AIA’s Annual General Meeting video conference call in April.

And she played the role of a lobbyist, in an effort to convince legislators that the U.S. had taken the correct approach on TPMS.

“That was difficult. Government was not receptive,” she said. “They were happy to leave it to the auto service provider to educate the consumer, but I don’t think that’s fair when you’re talking about a safety feature. You’ll never convince me that TPMS is not a valuable feature that can save lives.”

AIA has a role to play in similar new technologies that will make the roads safer, and require similar problem-solving strategies.

“We’ve never been afraid to tackle new topics,” she says. “It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about the association.”

Hitchon said she has enjoyed working work with previous board chairmen David Fifield of Wakefield Canada and Brent Hesje of Fountain Tire who have brought unique perspectives and experience to the table. This coming year she’ll be working  closely with outgoing chairman Jason Best of Uni-Select on whom she’ll rely to achieve this year’s objectives.

There’s a lot of wisdom around the board table,” she said. “When we sit down together and look around the room, the knowledge and experience is impressive. It is something we should, as an association, be very proud of.”