Kevin and Stacey Gustafson of Gustafson’s Auto Clinic in Athabasca, Alberta
You’d be forgiven if you walked into Gustafson’s Auto Clinic in Athabasca, Alberta, and thought you were in the wrong building.
It’s happened with customers — they open the doors and expect to see what has been engrained in their minds of what an automotive repair centre should look like: an uninspiring space, drab and unkept with dim lighting. They also expect to smell the unmistakable odour of tires, oil and other chemicals wafting in from the shop on the other side of the door further down.
But not when you enter Gustafson’s. It looks nothing like your typical shop.
“People will come in and they walk out — and they come back in and go, ‘Is this Gustafson’s? I thought this is a lawyer’s office,’” said Stacey Gustafson, who, along with her husband Kevin, owns the shop.
It’s a dedication to professionalism and raising the bar of what a shop can and should be that earned Gustafson’s Auto Clinic the title of 2022 Shop of the Year from CARS.
The Gustafsons strive to present a professional industry to the world. They believe the job of a technician — that’s what the job is today; not a mechanic and certainly not an installer — is highly skilled and requires extensive training, thus commanding the respect of the industry and the public.
“I think one thing that industry is really lacking is the idea that this is a profession; a technician is a profession,” Kevin explained. “So the better we can pay our guys, and the more we can do for them, the more it is a profession, and the more we can attract qualified people.”
From left, Ty Rouault, Alesha Potter, Stacey Gustafson, Taz Pichota, Kevin Gustafson, Colton Gustafson, Chester Kyle Pangilinan and Shane Collison
It’s not hard to see the difficulties in attracting skilled, qualified people to the automotive aftermarket, he added. That’s why shops need to change how they operate. This can be a great industry to work in — though shop owners need to be the leaders in making it so.
“When you run the shop properly, and you charge accordingly, you can afford to pay your techs right and update your equipment, do your training and all these things,” Kevin said.
Kevin has been in the industry since he was a kid. After running a Texaco Service Station, his father opened the shop with Kevin joining as a technician. Stacey essentially fell into the industry. Her mother ran the restaurant in a local hotel and Stacey helped out. Her mom taught her how to run the business, including doing bookkeeping. That set her up to join the aftermarket when Kevin’s dad needed a bookkeeper in his business. She joined part-time at first in 1987.
“Then it became a full-time and lifetime job,” Stacey said with a laugh.
They gradually took on more responsibility in the business before fully owning it in 2001. Since then, they’ve been a leader in how an aftermarket service and repair shop should operate.
“I’d be the first one to say that, when I started, you just worked hard and lost money. You worked very hard, and you lost money because you didn’t have the business side of it to understand that there’s a procedure and a way to charge and manage it all,” Kevin said.
“We’re very disciplined in how we run our business, the numbers that we measure and how we manage,” Stacey explained. “Our technicians, it’s mandatory for them to have management training.”
Connor Anderson and Jessica Langridge, Milwaukee Tool territory representatives, present Stacey and Kevin Gustafson with a $3,500 prize pack as the Shop the Year winner.
It’s a way for their technicians to be invested in the business. Stacey said their techs have been mistaken as business owners at management training because they maintain a professional appearance compared to most technicians who often look like they just came from working underneath a vehicle.
“They are professional, and it is a career,” Stacey said of technicians.
When they’re recruiting, a candidate who says they’re looking for a career stands out to them. “They’re not saying they want a job — they want a career. That really stands out to us because that’s what our philosophy is,” she added. “We want them to have a career, we want them to be paid professionally. With the technology that’s out right now, they’re not just a trade, they’re like computer geniuses.”
But it’s difficult getting people to understand. The Gustafsons told the story of their son — Colton, who now works with them as a licenced technician — who was in an advanced math class in high school. The teacher said anyone planning on being in a trade shouldn’t be in that class.
“It was disheartening to hear the teacher say that,” Stacey recalled.
They talked to the school about it. They pointed out that being in the trades doesn’t mean someone isn’t smart — and many advanced courses are needed to be a tech.
Edwin Parr Composite High School in Athabasca is without a shop instructor at the moment, which means kids aren’t getting an opportunity to learn about the industry’s potential. The Gustafsons are trying to get involved with the school’s Career Day so they can speak first-hand about working in the automotive industry — with professionalism being front and centre.
For the Gustafsons, part of being professional is having a professional-looking business. They don’t have a typical-looking shop. There are no tires in the showroom. They installed extra doors to keep odours from the bays out of the customer waiting areas. There are essential oil diffusers as well, along with a coffee bar inside. More recently, an outdoor patio was added.
“Probably a little bit selfishly, we wanted it for ourselves on a nice summer day to be able to sit out there when you have a break or whatever,” Stacey explained. “Our clientele really likes it and we call it the ‘garage patio.’ They love sitting out there. They want to know when the drinks are being served.”
Stacey and Kevin ensure their shop doesn’t just appear to be professional — they back it up. They have built a culture within the shop with their staff as well as with the customers of the community.
They believe in doing full inspections, educating the customer and ensuring preventive maintenance — making sure the vehicle is running the way it is supposed to.
“Preventive maintenance is a big thing,” Stacey said. “We don’t want our clients to have those big breakdowns where it’s costing them a whole bunch of money. We would rather have them do their maintenance to prevent those things from happening so that they can keep their vehicles for a longer period of time.”
They put the same effort into making sure their staff are taken care of as well. The way the Gustanfsons see it, they’re responsible for their employees and their families. So they offer profit sharing, retirement plan savings and full health coverage. Staff get tool allowances and all uniforms are provided.
“Our guys do not wear coveralls. They do not wear hats. They’re very clean looking. They have dress shirts and black pants on. They’re very professional looking,” Stacey said.
Amid all the professionalism, there’s a time to play as well. The Gustafsons ensure staff have fun. For example, the company hosts a golf tournament every year. They added a Happy Gilmore Hole where, as the titular character from the movie does, participants putted using a mini hockey stick. And since most employees are golfers, the shop pays a portion of the staff’s golf membership.
And that’s essential because a business is nothing without its staff – Gustafson’s included. They believe each person plays a role in the success of the business.
“They’ve taken an investment in it, they feel like they’re a part of it, they know all the numbers of the business because they need to know what it costs to run a business and why,” Stacey explained. “We just don’t put our goals up on the wall without them knowing what’s behind that goal and what it takes. And if you properly manage your business, then you have the money to invest in your staff.”
Everyone who works at Gustafson’s is like family, Kevin added.
“It’s a small-town thing but I think you can do that anywhere in your business, your culture,” Kevin said. “The guys are very involved with whom we hire. We don’t hire somebody without getting involved with all the staff. We want their input too because you need to get along with everybody.”
This feels uncommon in the aftermarket. But The Gustafsons are adamant that this isn’t the aftermarket of old. Times have changed and so should how shops operate.
“We’re a profession. We’re not mechanics anymore. The cars aren’t a carbureted, oil-leaking, rundown whatever — they’re rolling computers,” Kevin said. “And if you’ve looked at some of the vehicles on the road, and what they look like and how they work, and what they do, the shops should look the same. You don’t take your Mercedes to a Mercedes dealership and get a handwritten invoice with a guy with greasy fingers doing the paperwork. The aftermarket needs to step it up.”
The Gustafsons make sure their technicians are on top of training, be it through AVI, their first-call jobber Automotive Parts Distributors, ACDelco, or Car Gurus. They will make occasional trips to SEMA for training, as well as Lindertech as well. Because they’re not in a major city, getting to live in-person training events can be difficult.
“You got to go there to get the training. And so that’s just another reason why you need to charge properly, so you can afford to keep your techs up to date,” Kevin said.
The company is fully staffed for the first time in three years, but the Gustafsons noted that they had to take on people they saw potential in and train them in the auto repair industry. As mentioned, they ensure their staff attends training, whether it’s virtual or in person. Two of their techs got licenced over COVID — as a reward, they attended the SEMA Show to get more in-person training opportunities.
“It was kind of a neat experience for them,” Kevin said.
Those who knew Bob Greenwood well enough may feel like they’re hearing his voice in Kevin and Stacey’s. That may be because they were long-time students of the legendary aftermarket coach.
“We are huge Greenwood supporters and we’ve been involved with him for many years and really are still mourning his loss,” Stacey said. “He just gave so much to the industry and [kept us] so up to date on everything.”
The Gustafsons credited Greenwood with teaching them how to be a proper business. “He taught us so much about how to measure and manage the business. So it’s a huge loss to us and to the industry. I still use all of his stuff,” Stacey said.
While we can go back and read old columns or watch old videos of Bob — those lessons are still applicable — it’s his eye on the future that is missed most.
“Bob was always looking at the next stage of what’s evolving in this business and he would prepare us — ‘OK, EV cars are coming down the line, this is what’s going to happen and we’re going to get training for your guys’ — he always was on top of that,” Kevin said. “It was just kind of a kick in the rear to get yourself prepared for these things that were about to happen. And that’s all gone now.
“It’s just that with the industry changing, how do we adjust that now? And I don’t know the answer to that either. We’ve got the basic knowledge; we all have to adjust on our own. But we haven’t got that person who’s replaced him.”
The ‘Garage Patio’ at Gustafson’s Auto Clinic
What advice would the Shop of the Year winners like to pass on to their peers? For Stacey, it’s to stay disciplined.
“It takes a lot of discipline to run an automotive repair shop. Bob always said this is the toughest business to try and run and be successful at. So be disciplined,” she said. “You have to be so disciplined. And you have to stay relevant in this industry if you want to continue.”
For Kevin, he urged everyone to up their business training.
“Get some business training, management training, because most of us shop owners are good technicians that decided to start a shop and know nothing about business. And I’m not saying that in a bad way because I was that person,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work, if you’re not charging properly and taking care of that end of it, you just bought yourself a job.”