Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2010   by Auto Service World

Ontario’s New Big Player

Vast-Auto Distribution may have entered the Ontario market only three years ago, but what the company’s founder learned and invested in that short time bodes well for both Vast-Auto and the province’s aftermarket.

With firm roots in Canada’s Quebec market, the quarter-century-old organization has for many years recognized that its entry into the Ontario market would require adaptation and adjustment to meet specific market needs.

“We have only been in Ontario for three years, and we entered through the acquisition of another Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance member, Base Automotive Warehousing,” says Tony Del Vasto, vice-president of Vast-Auto Distribution. “But this was the outcome of strategy sessions and planning for the future long before we arrived. It was obvious from those discussions that we were fairly mature in the Quebec market and we weren’t present in the largest market in Canada. So the wheels started turning about how we could get into Ontario.”

“We acquired Base Automotive”–which serviced the Southern Ontario territory– “because of the synergies that meant for the operation.”

The fit between the two organizations became immediately apparent.

“The number-one thing, from an operations standpoint, was the IT system. We could easily manage the operations from an IT perspective, and we shared the same suppliers, product lines, and buying programs.”

Even so, as some of Vast-Auto’s own phi- losophies took hold, it became apparent that further growth was going to require some fundamental changes in the way the organi- zation operated in Ontario. Most of these, though largely invisible, have been evident in improved customer service and more com- plete offerings.

And because that first Vast-Auto Ontario warehouse on Carnforth Road was, crucially, located in Toronto’s east end, it also gave them exposure to one of the most competitive markets in Canada;

delivery windows are so tight in the market that responding to changing customers’ requests can stretch any organization’s capabilities.

“From my point of view, real rapid change started when Tony arrived at Vast-Auto,” says Bob Bobert, vice-president of operations and administration, who worked as an integral part of the Base team for two decades.

A number of new initiatives that improved efficiency and met several specific customer needs more effectively came on-stream not long afterwards. “And that made our custom- ers more competitive,” Bobert observes.

It is undeniable that Vast-Auto’s program changes, responsiveness to its customer base, and improved service capabilities grew the business. “[Before], most of our customers did not rely on us as their primary source; now we have a number of parts stores who depend on us as their preferred business partner. Now we have sales and market- ing programs that parts stores should take a look at considering; they are competitive with what’s out there.”

With a “mere” 60,000 square feet of space at their disposal in the original east-end Toronto location, and the ever- present difficulty of distributing beyond local customers a significant increase in capacity was required. The new Brampton, Ontario distribution centre gives them that increase.

Tony Del Vasto explains the thinking behind the expansion. “From the onset, when we entered the Ontario market, there was a realization that only having a warehouse in the east end of Toronto was not going to satisfy the needs of the whole Ontario market. It was just not positioned for the future. So almost from the beginning, we started looking at opportu- nities in the western part of the city.”

It is important to note that, even though some of the inventory carrying has moved to Brampton as well as centralizing customer ser- vice there, the company remains committed to an east Toronto location and existing custom- ers will feel no effect.

Proof of the company’s commitment to a dual- distribution point strategy is the fact the company has just finalized the lease on a new location in Toronto’s east end, set to open its doors early in 2011, when the lease on the current location expires.

It simply makes sense, in order to service the customer base effectively.

“The Greater Toronto Area is so sprawling that parts stores in the east want to be serviced in the east and the west want to be serviced in the west. We think it gives us a competitive advantage to keep both.”

However, Vast-Auto, through its new DC, is in a position to provide a manifold increase in both inventory and service, with 114,000 square feet on tap, a sophisticated inventory tracking and ordering system in place, a shipping and receiving capability that enables large shipments to be received and stocked promptly, and a 30-minute guarantee on pickup orders.

On top of this, with an increase in the breadth of inventory comprising an additional 15,000 part numbers and 16 new product lines added to the company’s offerings, the Brampton DC represents a huge leap forward for the organization in Ontario.

And they’ve put all that within a stone’s throw of every other major WD facility in the region, located at 10 Driver Road (near Airport Road and Steeles Ave.).

“To sum it all up, the new facility helps us fulfill the location convenience portion of our strategy in a big way, and it also gives us a state- of-the-art facility to meet all of our customers’ needs in a more meaningful way,” says Del Vasto.

He also points out that technology is playing an important role in building customer service. With solid IT systems and warehouse floor technologies like wireless barcode scanners and more nuts-and-bolts efficiency builders like the clear, large mezzanine, zoned picking operations, and hundreds of feet of conveyors, the Brampton facility is purpose-built to provide exceptional turnaround.

Getting the new processes and common technologies across three warehouses (using the same ordering interface, orders can be pulled from the Montreal warehouse when necessary) has been a big part of the changes put in place for the expansion.

“We have best practices and it is essential that we implement them across the three distribution centres. Customers may not see the activity behind the scenes, but they certainly see the end results.”

In developing their market approach strategy, Vast-Auto has adapted to the unique Ontario market conditions. “The Ontario market is more fragmented and jobbers and installers are less receptive to banners. In terms of how that has shaped our strategy, we believe we have the formula that both small and large parts stores can benefit from.”

Vast-Auto has incorporated those specific Ontario needs into its strategy, adding people to service customers, and taking the time to develop the type of programs that Ontario’s jobbers are looking for.

Del Vasto says that there has been a great deal of positive feedback to this point, especially with the increased capabilities that come with the Brampton warehouse, and that, combined with a mantra that puts responsiveness at the top of the list, is gaining them ground with the jobber market.

“We have maintained our underlying philosophy and approach, allowing us to be very attentive to customer needs. I think we are still perceived as the new kid on the block; however, we have been servicing parts stores for the past 25 years and have the buying and marketing power required to compete as Vast-Auto is a shareholder of one of North America’s largest group, Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance. Three years is not a long time.” And, he says, with the addition of the Brampton facility, Vast-Auto is a very different entity now.

“I have this vision statement that I put together. ‘We exist to serve customers.’ That’s what we are here for: to serve customers. This is our reason for coming to work every day, and it is what has made us who we are.

“The overarching theme is that we are a new entity in the Ontario market, investing heavily for the future and serious about meeting customers’ needs.

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