Gustafson’s Auto Clinic Inc./Tirecraft in Athabasca Alta. has become the first Canadian shop to win the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association’s prestigious “Head of the Class” Award.
The award, introduced last year at Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week in Las Vegas, recognizes automotive companies that invest in continuing employee education and training.
“This is a real honour,” said Stacey Gustafson, owner of the five-bay shop with her husband Kevin. “We just learned about it about a week and a half ago, and we are thrilled.”
She attributes the company’s recent successes to training by the Automotive Aftermarket E-Learning Centre (AAEC) and its Business Evaluation Support & Training (BEST) program.
The training and coaching and guidance has made a tremendous difference for us,” she says. “We’ve been involved with BEST for three and a half years and in that time we’ve seen huge strides in our net profit.”
In fact, Gustafson’s has won the BEST Award – open to all BEST shops in Canada – two years in a row.
The AAIA’s Head of the Class program, however, is open to shops across North America, and is presented at a special ceremony during the Automotive Aftermarket Parts Exposition in Las Vegas. The nomination form for the award is some 18 pages long, covering many aspects of the business, and asking a lot of questions about management strategy, training, and the return-on-investment in these areas.
Stacey says all staff members – including the four technicians and two service advisors – are fully onboard with the education and management strategy they’re learning through the BEST program.
“The whole process of improving our shop was very scary because it goes out of the norm of the way independent shops typically work,” she says. “One of the first things we tell new clients now is, ‘We do things a little differently around here.’ We had to retrain our clientele that they couldn’t just drop in any time. We book appointments the way golf courses book tee times.”
* Staff wear matching uniforms (the service advisors even wear a shirt-and-tie)
* Full vehicle inspections are conducted on every vehicle, all work that is found is presented to clients in an office environment that is no less professional than a typical lawyer’s office.
* The business’s performance is closely tracked and all the numbers analyzed to establish accurate benchmarks.
* A minimum of $10,000 is spent each year, per employee, on training.
* Legally binding “training bonds” outline the kind and amount of training each employee will receive. Costs are borne by the employer but if the employee quits before the end of the term of the bond, the employee must pay it back.
* For every three technical courses, technicians must also take a management or customer-service course.
* Technicians each have a laptop and access to online training and webinars.
* There is a dedicated computer lab with training DVDs and manuals that can be borrowed.
* Staff have the opportunity to take part in a profit-sharing program.
Stacey says AAEC’s staff, like Bob Greenwood, Rui Martins, and Rob Ward, work with them every step of the way.
“Having them come in three or four times a year for an onsite evaluation is really valuable because you can talk all you want in a classroom situation, but when you put new processes to work in your own business, that’s where things gets a little tricky,” she explains. “Having them work with us made it very clear to us how things should run.”
Part of the transformation of the shop involved the loss of a lead technician who had been with the company for 18 years. He was replaced with a highly-trained Ford technician who had done his apprentice at the shop but who had left after a fire devastated the business in 2003.
“It’s very important that your staff believe the philosophy, understand the processes, and be completely engaged,” says Stacey. “The guys are now fully on board and we’ve got a great staff in place. There’s a real family atmosphere.”
Despite the company’s many successes, Stacey says they’re not done with all the changes.
“It’s still a work in progress for us. We’re still learning stuff. We’re still plugging along and hoping to realize all of our goals,” she says. “I don’t think there will ever be a time where we say, ‘Well, we’ve done everything we can. Now we’re going to sit back and coast.’”
The Gustafson’s team includes Kevin and Stacey Gustafson, Garry Lewis, Christopher Davis, Justin Nicholson, Steven Farrell, Jeff Creaser, Jayson Roberge, and also Kendra and Colton Gustafson. Company founder Aldor Gustafson (Kevin’s father) still comes in daily to ferry clients to and from the shop, even though he’s been retired for the last 11 years. He started the company in 1984. Kevin and Stacey took over daily operations in 1997 and bought him out in 2001.
The Head of the Class award is administered by the AAIA’s Education Committee. Winners are selected based on their education and training practices, including what prompted the investment, the type of training taken, the company’s goals, the results of the training, and the company’s plans for the future.
A winning company is named in each of five categories: manufacturer, warehouse-distributor, jobber store, manufacturer’s representative, and repair shop.
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