After 60 years in the aftermarket, Ernie Fields still has a glint in his eye and a song in his heart
He’s part of a vanishing breed, maybe even the last of his kind: a real road warrior who has resisted attempts to put him behind the desk since he first took to the road as a salesman for Toronto jobber Regent Automotive.
When he celebrates his 80th birthday this June, Ernie Fields will have been in the aftermarket for nearly 60 years, with nearly 50 years of road work behind him.
For nearly half a century, he has been racking up the miles all over Ontario, from London to the Sioux, Toronto to the Big Nickel: more than 40 years of working with customers, more than 40 years of being an inseparable part of many people’s success in business, and nearly 60 years of working in the aftermarket.
While his long-distance driving has been curtailed over the past couple of winters, that desire to be an integral part of his customers’ businesses has never waned, so it should not come as a surprise that as he was winding down his last days as the key rep for brake manufacturer ProMax Auto Parts, we decided to meet at Paste Auto Parts, a jobber store in Northwest Toronto.
“You know, I’ve been offered opportunities to ‘move upstairs’ more than once. I probably would have ended up with more money and all, but I just enjoy being in front of customers and being a part of their success too much,” says Fields, with youthful verve.
That has not gone unnoticed.
“For the last 13 years I have been the owner of Paste Auto Parts, and before that I was a sales rep for seven years,” says Jacob Yako. “For 20 years being in the automotive business, I have never met a rep like Ernie Fields. To my knowledge he’s the best and most respected sales rep in the automotive business. Mr. Fields is family to us, not just a rep. What we at Paste Auto Parts would love to say is, ‘Ernie Fields, thank you for being there for us.’”
It’s just that kind of feedback that has kept the jump in Field’s step for all these years.
After a couple of stints with other jobs after high school, Fields joined Regent Automotive’s Esplanade location, near Tor-onto’s waterfront.
“I knew their warehouse manager personally. He brought me into the business and I started out as a truck driver. I did that for six months, and then they brought me into the warehouse and [started] to teach me the ropes about the entire business. I was in shipping, receiving, order picking – and they knew that I had graduated from high school, and they brought me into the office and I became office manager for probably ten years.”
A move up to the larger Lawrence and Caledonia location in 1965 set the stage for a conversation that put him on the road for good in 1969.
“We had one salesman on the road and we had a lot of business in the Toronto area, and they asked me if I would consider going out on the road. I thought it would be a good idea. I enjoyed being with people and building relationships.
“That was in 1969. I have been out on the road ever since. I have really enjoyed it. “
Not that it’s all been rosy. Fields has seen his fair share of the impact of mergers and acquisitions over the decades, working for such names as Acklands, Century Automotive, Consolidated Parts, Uni-Select, and Replacement Parts Depot Ltd. (RPDL).
When Uni-Select bought RPDL in 2008, Fields had put 15 years in at the independent RPDL warehouse. About that time, he struck up a conversation with customer Jacob Yako of Paste Auto Parts about ProMax. “They were just over a year into their own business and had gotten together with me. After getting to know them pretty well I decided to come on board.”
It has been, by all accounts, a fruitful, enjoyable association.
“To be this long in this business you have to enjoy it,” says Fields with a smile. “What I’m most proud of is developing a tremendous amount of solid relationships with my customers, to the point where they are almost personal friends. I would go out of my way to help them any way I can. Whenever something was unattainable, under normal circumstances I was able to help them out.
“I treated my customers’ business as if it was my own; I have always treated the companies I have worked for as my own business. I think everyone should treat it that way.
“Even as I retire, there are a lot of customers who don’t want to see the end of me and they won’t. For old time’s sake, I intend to keep in contact with everybody.”
For most, that would be enough: A very positive legacy in the industry. A loving family, Laura, wife of 52 years, a son and a daughter both grown. Five grandchildren.
And if that were it, that would be a good end to this story. But it’s not.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, Ernie Fields can sing.
Now, I’m not talking about in the car and occasional party singing. Real singing, up on stage with a band and fellow singers. And he’s been doing it for almost as long as he’s been working in the aftermarket.
Going back to 1960, Fields and his vocal group The Hideaways made some noise, even landing a spot on a summer CBC series with Tommy Ambrose. Yes, there was that recording trip to Nashville – Fields admits they were pretty naive and took the free studio time over rights to their recordings, which eventually sold some 35,000 copies. Still, not bad for a bunch of kids who were mostly still in high school.
You can see their performance on the show on YouTube (search for the Hideaways “Jeepers Creepers”), and Ernie continued to perform with some of the members of the troupe for decades.
It should not come as a surprise that he was in it for the long haul. As Rain, Fields and Lewis and an eight-piece band, they continued to perform with a heavy schedule for decades, at events, parties, weddings – some aftermarket-related, most not – until the bookings started to eat into the business schedules of the members, so by the mid-1980s they were forced to wind down the regular bookings and focus on their day jobs.
Still, it was never far from front and centre, and the group performed at the Seniors Jubilee at Roy Thomson Hall as recently as 2010 – with some of the same guys he’d been singing with since he was in high school. That’s quite a feat in itself.
And maybe that’s part of his secret. He’s kept his customers happy by always being there for them. And he’s been singing all along, for good measure. In life, as in music, it’s good to end on a high note.
“It’s been very fulfilling, all of it.”
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