Ten years ago, Erin Vaughan was working for a shop when suddenly, it went bankrupt. Not wanting to be out of a job, Vaughan and another employee went out on a limb, and decided to open a shop of their own.
The new shop, with the inauspicious start, was Kinetic Auto Service in Regina, Sask., this year’s winner of the CARS magazine Shop of the Year award.
More than two dozen shops from across the country were nominated for the annual Shop of the Year award, which recognizes a business celebrating a significant milestone or recent innovation. This year’s unanimous winner was Kinetic, chosen for Vaughan’s visionary leadership through a series of business crises.
Recently, it has not all been smooth-sailing for the 100-per-cent female owned and operated enterprise.
In 2016, after her business partner left, Vaughan became the sole owner of Kinetic Auto Service Ltd. in Regina, SK, making it a 100 per cent female-owned and operated enterprise.
Fast-forward to August of last year, Vaughan found herself in the middle of lease negotiations with her landlord. They had come to an agreed upon lease price, when she heard a rumor that the building was sold. As it turns out, the rumor was true, but the previous landlord didn’t have the courtesy to share that with Vaughan. “I had 30 days to find a new place to go,” Vaughan said. “There was a lot of crying, and a lot of sleepless nights.”
With no shop location immediately secured, Vaughan sat her team of four down and gave them a choice: either they continue to push forward as a team, or they could seek out new employment.
“When I realized that we had to move, I said ‘look, I just don’t know if I can make this happen,’” Vaughan said. “’If you guys want to go get new jobs, please, go.’ But they all refused, and said ‘we’re staying with you, and we’re going to make this work.’”
With her team standing strong behind her, Vaughan scouted out a new place that was already equipped with hoists, so she sold her hoists to generate more cash flow for the move. But just when things were looking up, that location fell through the day before Vaughan and her team were set to move in.
Three days after Vaughan was supposed to move, she managed to find another new shop location. It was completely empty, and she was forced to buy all new equipment, including the hoists she sold just days earlier for a fraction of what she ended up having to pay again. One day later, she was on the phone calling everybody, from NAPA (her main parts supplier), to plumbers and electricians, and she successfully had the new shop up and running in three days.
“I was surprised that they [her staff] all stayed, because if that were me, I probably would have fled,” Vaughan said. “I’m also very lucky to know a lot of really good people in this city, who came to my aid when I needed them. I’m so glad that it all worked out; being able to continue to provide good jobs for my staff is very important to me. I’ve worked really hard over the last 10 years to create a business that serves the community in an honest way and to have won this award makes me really feel that all of this was worth it.”
With the unexpected move aside, COVID-19 posed its own set of challenges for Vaughan. Almost immediately, Kinetic Auto Service began promoting pick-up and drop-off service for free and locked the shop’s front door. To date, the shop remains closed for the safety and wellbeing of staff and customers alike.
However, harnessing social media as a business tool has further allowed Vaughan to stay connected to her clients. Leaning on and investing in technology is something Vaughan has been doing for quite some time. In 2018, she began offering digital inspections and this summer, she signed up for an online payment system, which has continued to allow her to seamlessly serve her clients during the pandemic. “Our clients love that they can just click a button online to pay,” Vaughan said. By already having used the digital inspections for over a year, Vaughan says it was easier to get the remainder of her clients onboard with the online payment system, thus retaining her client base.
This February, Vaughan celebrates 10 years in business, and she is well on her way to investing in both the future of the shop and her employees.
A big believer in continuous education, Vaughan currently has one apprentice, Alexandra (Allie) Punga, who is currently in her third year of apprenticeship. After initially being dissuaded from entering the aftermarket, Punga took a leap of faith and started her automotive schooling, leaving behind an eight-year career in the hairstyling industry.
“I always knew I wanted to fix cars but felt discouraged by my lack of experience, and I was told I wouldn’t like it, or that I wouldn’t feel welcome in the field,” Punga shared. “The continuous support and training I’ve received from the employees and owner at Kinetic have been more than I could hope for.”
Allie Punga and Erin Vaughan.
“I don’t think that any of us can know everything and none of us will, and we have to be open to continuous learning, because this ensures that we are the best that we can be,” Vaughan added.
Vaughan also regularly sends her shop manager for training, with the goal that he can run the shop without her, which he already does most of the time. “I feel that my position in the business is to bring in the work, so that I can work on the business, instead of working in the business,” Vaughan said. “I believe in technician training, but it’s hard to find. We have a huge hole in our industry; we get a lot of training as apprentices and on the job, but there is a lack of advanced training in our industry. Unfortunately, there’s not much available that isn’t just about selling a tool, or a product.”
Though that lack of advanced training is a frustrating challenge, Vaughan is taking a proactive approach on what she can control, which is how she educates her clients.
“In the spring, Allie and I are planning on building a series of courses for women, so that we can help our clients better understand their vehicles and the importance of keeping them maintained,” Vaughan said.
While the current economic landscape makes it hard to predict exactly what the future holds, Vaughan says that for now, her biggest goal is to build a stronger brand reputation for Kinetic Auto Service and invest in more staff.