Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2013   by Andrew Ross


2013 Jobber of the Year: The Letendre Family and the Team at Groupe Maska

The Letendre Family and Groupe Maska have grown and prospered for more than 60 years.

It’s one thing to build a successful business. It is quite another to keep it successful and growing as it is handed down from one generation to the next.

The Letendre family’s Group Maska Inc. operation, headquartered in the bustling small city of Saint-Hyacinthe on Montreal’s south shore, and now boasting six branches, is proving that it has what it takes to not only make the intergenerational transition, but to thrive on it.

down from one generation to the next.

The Letendre family’s Group Maska Inc. operation, headquartered in the bustling small city of

Saint-Hyacinthe on Montreal’s south shore, and now boasting six branches, is proving that it has what it takes to not only make the intergenerational transition, but to thrive on it.

Groupe Maska has been a member of Uni-Select since 1996 when, on the heels of a departing Autopoint shareholder, the network was looking for a new partner in the region. The relationship has blossomed. More than just a member, Groupe Maska has become one of its most avid supporters and promoters, having signed up a significant proportion of Un-Select’s Quebec banner program members.

There’s no magic to it: hard work and commitment to the customer have kept Groupe Maska growing and finding new opportunities for more than 60 years.

Now into its third generation as Roger Letendre begins to hand increasing responsibilities to his sons Simon, Martin, and Eric for the diverse Groupe Maska operations – comprising automotive, heavy duty power, and power generation divisions – the beginnings under Roger’s father Aurel were modest indeed. Aurel, who will turn 90 next January, still comes into the head office every day and continues to be an active presence within the business; he remembers well the company’s modest early beginnings.

After cutting his teeth in the post-war era at Concorde Automobile, a GM dealer, in 1950 he decided it was time to forge ahead on his own.

Armed with little more than a promise, a bicycle, and his skills as an auto-electric expert, Aurel Letendre made sure to keep on good terms with his former employer, but rode off to his 1,100-square-foot shop, steadily building a customer base, and shaping what he hoped would be a prosperous future for his wife Monique and their newborn son, Roger.

Aurel makes it clear that he did not doubt his chances for success, but there were some tough times in the early years, and he found some goodwill from his former employer helped greatly.

“I got married in 1949, and opened [the shop] in September 1950. At the time I didn’t have any money. That first morning, I just had the key and a bicycle.

“The boss where I used to work would say, ‘Aurel, anything you need, you let me know.’” One can only imagine how rare such a good relationship would seem in today’s hypercompetitive environment.

Sometimes in the early days, it was necessary to make some tough decisions. “When I started I didn’t have any money, so I sold my wife’s piano to be able to pay ACDelco for batteries. And I promised her that the first time we had the money, I would buy her a new piano.

“And then she started doing the books for me, so she didn’t have time to play anyway,” he says with a smile. “But in a few years I did buy that new piano, and she started playing again.” Roger Letendre told me later that whenever she hears that story, his mother cries.

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of expansion, with branches added in Granby, Drummondville, and Sorel-Tracy. Aurel also started Maska Auto Spring, a separate truck suspension specialist business in nearby Saint-Rosalie, in 1954. (There was a family expansion too, with Louise, Pierre, Andrée, Élaine, and Manon arriving in due course.)

But one of the firm’s biggest transitions to that time – the first succession – occurred in 1970. Precipitated by the coming major changes to the tax code regarding capital gains, Aurel split the enterprise between sons Roger and Pierre, five years his junior; Roger took over what was to become Groupe Maska, while Pierre took on the growing Maska Auto Spring business, renamed Ressorts Maska after Bill 101 enforced French language rules, and another spring shop in Trois-Rivières named Centre du Ressorts T.R.

Roger recalls that the transition was a tough one. While he had grown up with the business, there was still much to learn. And Aurel, who had a very traditional approach to both business and parenting, was a tough taskmaster for the then-20-year-old Roger, thrust suddenly into the position of owner.

“I was young, so I knew everything,” he says with a laugh. “To work with your dad is something special. It is a hard school, learning with your dad, but it’s a rewarding experience. Your dad always wants you to perform at 100%.”

He still values those lessons, but also recognizes that times have changed, and he’s trying to take a more collaborative approach to the transition.

“I was on both sides. I learned with my dad, and now I am trying to have my kids learn from me. The worst thing is that the older man has more experience. The hardest thing for you is that the old man is probably right more often than he is wrong. So it’s a hard way to do it, but it is worth the effort, because no teacher would take the time to push you as much as your dad would.”

A key point in the Letendre succession has been that one generation is still around during and after the handing over of ownership. While some owners hang onto power, responsibility, and the rewards till they exit the business, Roger Letendre has encouraged a gradual approach – albeit one that provides incentives along the way.

Martin, who is now 27, became responsible for the diesel and generation business six years ago. Simon, now 23, is just taking on the automotive side of the business. Eric, 30, is most comfortable behind the scenes, and is an expert at keeping operations and logistics running smoothly. (In June, both Martin and Simon were appointed vice-presidents of their respective divisions.)

But it all starts with the right question. “First of all, you have to find out whether your kids are going to like it or not.” Working summers and weekends gives them a taste, he says, and he has been very open about his plans for succession. “If they wouldn’t be happy, there’s no use to make a succession plan.

“You have to ask the question. After realizing that they are interested, you have to interest them more on a financial basis. It is part of the reward system; if you put in the effort, you get more money.

“It’s part of the ongoing situation. They need rewards. They need pride. In many family-owned companies, you would work for your dad for 30 years before you would get shares. He would be the president, vice-president, and everyone on down to employee number 15.”

While Roger approaches the topic with humility, it is clearly an approach that has been working. The diesel business that he brought onstream in the early 1970s has continued to grow, while the generator division, once a small sideline, is a burgeoning responsibility. Automotive has prospered – they recently acquired a branch in Boucherville and opened a new building housing the Granby operation – bringing the branch total to six.

He attributes the company’s success to hard work, and taking a modest approach to expansion. The main headquarters in Saint-Hyacinthe serves as a good example, a metaphor in bricks and mortar; the story of successive expansions are written in the clean-swept concrete floors.

While it’s not obvious from the outside, that first 1,100-square-foot building is still part of the structure. It’s been a case of expansion piece by piece: simply knocking a hole in the wall and pushing out to the neighbouring building, and so on and so forth. Now the operation runs at approximately 50,000 square feet.

Roger says their careful approach has served them well. “Some people are putting up new buildings and fancy things. But whenever the interest rate goes up, like it did in the early ’80s, or the economy doesn’t go too well, you’re overextended with bricks and walls.”

He’d rather invest in inventory and people. Accordingly, Roger, who recognizes that learning at the knee of your father has its challenges, pulled former Uni-Select sales manager Richard Roy out of retirement to act as a consultant, with the primary task of helping Simon learn and grow quickly.

“He brought me in to help coach him and help his youngest son grow as quickly as possible in the business sense,” says Roy. “That takes a lot of vision, and it takes some courage. He had to have the trust in me to make sure that I would offer the right counselling based on how he sees business. He has to trust me and he has to love his son in providing him with the best possible help to make sure he is comfortable.”

“If you tell something to your son, maybe he will get some of it,” interjects Roger. “But if somebody else tells him something similar, it is different.”

“And it’s quite something on Simon’s part, too,” adds Roy, “but he had to be humble enough to know that he would have a coach for a couple of years. It is a special person to go along with that. Some young guys might not.”

Roger Letendre says that the approach needs to be different, because times and the business environment are different. Starting out the way his father did is not really an option anymore.

“When you look at business in this town, most of it started in the 1950s. A guy started with a small hardware shop, and today he’s a Rona. Another started with a small furniture shop, and now he’s a big furniture outlet. Another was a small drugstore owner, and now he’s a Jean Coutu. How can you start a drug store today? How can you start a hardware store? How can you start an auto parts store? There’s no room. You have to be part of a group. If they already exist in your town, you’re not going to make a go of it.

“There has been consolidation of the business, in every industry, which prevents people from starting on their own with small operations. The room is already full. So what you need to do is make sure that the existing business will continue.”

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