The Craft of Automotive Mechanics
In an industrial park a few blocks away from an arterial road stands a nondescript cinder block building, a painted plastic sign advertising Robinson Automotive over the front door. In the back are three big overhead doors and a row of well-kept cars, parked and ready for servicing. Inside, at the service counter, a sign advertises shop rates of $85 per hour (higher than most dealer rates) and a "no cheques or credit" payment policy. There's no dealer sign, no franchisee, no glass and chrome glitz . . . nothing visible to confirm why I'm here to write about auto mechanic excellence.
My glance around the waiting room after announcing my arrival offers some better clues. Here on display for the waiting public are some wall plaques certifying the shop mechanics' credentials and a certificate stating that owner Kirk Robinson has earned the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) designation from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. A couple of recent articles from Toronto daily newspapers talk about the ASE designation and detail positive experiences in this shop. I can imagine a first-time customer glancing around this room, studying the paper qualifications and endorsements. It's clear that I have come to the right place.
Kirk Robinson surprised me when he scheduled my interview for mid-morning and mid-week—surely prime business hours for a busy craftsman! I understood better as our conversation progressed over the next few hours, with regular interruptions from the shop mechanics. The conversations I overheard sounded more like colleagues seeking a second opinion than employees asking their boss for direction. Yet I could tell that the team at Robinson Automotive had a plan for the day, that Kirk was aware of each problem car waiting their attention, and that his advice or approval would be part of the service performed on every vehicle.
Kirk grew into the craft of automotive mechanics during his teenage years when he bought his very first car, a 1966 Plymouth Fury. "It was a very good car," he remembers fondly, "but at that age, I couldn't afford car repairs, and I had to figure out a way to keep that vehicle going. We lived out in the Kansas countryside and had a large shed where my buddy and I set up our own 'garage'. I enjoyed working on machines, but we probably screwed up more cars there than we fixed!"
This first garage, where Kirk learned how much he didn't know, soon convinced him to study to learn more about cars. He spent the next few years earning an automotive technician certificate at the Selina Area Vocational Technical School. That certificate opened the door to his first real job in the trade, at an independent shop in McPherson, Kansas. John, the shop owner, was an ex-missionary whose shop motto was the bible verse found at Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men."
During years of working in remote areas where new parts were hard to get, John learned to rebuild and repair old parts, and those habits came back with him to his Kansas business. "This was the early 1980s, and we were rebuilding car engines right in our own shop," Kirk recalls. John became a mentor for the young technician, and the shop policy of rebuilding instead of replacing provided excellent experience. However, Kirk did not take that practise with him: "It's no longer cost effective to rebuild parts in your own shop."
The job he loved with a man he respected ended suddenly when Kirk broke his back in a tobogganing accident. Recovery was painful and slow, and the shop was forced to hire a new technician to take over his workload. When he had recovered enough to resume work, Kirk found a spot at Wooster Volkswagen in Salina, Kansas.
"Gary Wooster was a talented technician and a welder. From him I learned a lot about how to run an automotive business. He said,'Work hard and don't get too big. You don't need a big fancy shop; you don't want to pay for the bells and whistles. Spend your money on your people and your equipment. Put out excellent work you can be proud of; give personal service, and the customers will come.'"
During his years at Wooster, Kirk registered to write the eight exams required to earn the master ASE designation. He wrote them all within a single week, passed them all, and found himself suddenly catapulted to the top of the trade. "When you have the ASE status behind your name, any shop will hire you."
The ASE designation provided Kirk's ticket into Canada when he decided to migrate north to the birthplace of his Canadian wife. Even though the ASE examinations were not offered in Canada until 1993, the standard was well-known and respected in car racing circles.
In 1987, Apple Wood Chev-Olds in Mississauga, Ontario was looking for a master mechanic to help prepare cars for the Firehawk racing series. Kirk's resume and ASE credentials convinced them to hire him, and pay for his family's move to Ontario from Kansas.
"Car racing rewards talent," Kirk asserts. "When you put in your time and your sweat, your car wins. When you work on a race car, and it runs flawlessly for the whole race with no problems, that's the most you can expect in this business."
From 1987 to 1992, Kirk prepared race cars for Applewood Chev-Olds to compete in the Players GM Motor sport. Within a year, he had set up his own shop to prepare race cars for professional drivers.
He decided to compete in the Firehawk series, a five-hour high-octane race requiring stamina and endurance. He began to race his own cars and won trophies in 1990 and 1991. In the fast-paced world of car racing, he got to know many of the top people in the industry and to make contacts with the car racing reporters.
It was an exciting but short-lived world which crashed and died during the recession of 1992. As businesses looked for ways to cut costs, sponsorships dried up, and the Firehawk series was cancelled. That left Robinson Automotive scrambling to find new customers.
Could the rewards of fixing Mrs. Smith's car ever compare with the thrill of driving your car first across the finish line?
"Repairing Mrs. Smith's car is rewarding if you get a satisfied customer," Kirk remarks. It's a real challenge, because auto repair is a grudge purchase business; nobody wants to come into a repair shop. Like my wife says, when you buy a dress you see the $100 you spent on it. But when you spend $200 on your car, you drive it away; maybe it feels different, but you don't see what you spent the money on."
Kirk decided early on that his shop would not use many of the customer enticements that have become common industry practices. "The bargain price promotions bring in customers who are difficult to deal with. The person changing your oil for $19.95 at Mr. Lube is making wages comparable to a McDonalds employee and has no hope of ever becoming an apprentice in the trade. It may be convenient for you, but is this really the person you want to have working on your car? In auto mechanics you learn real fast that, no matter what the price is, you are responsible for the job. You might as well have the best people doing the best job using the best parts right away. I quote all my jobs that way, and if the car owner doesn't like the price, he can try somewhere else."
Kirk also disagrees with the pay system used by many car dealers and franchise shops, putting mechanics on a flat rate for tasks completed. "That system forces the mechanic to be not only a technician but also a salesman. Our shop pays mechanics a guaranteed salary—about $70,000 right now. We have quality people, and they deserve to be paid decently."
"A lot of people get excited about Saturday and Sunday car repairs or after hours service. They might get it somewhere, but they might pay for it in terms of job quality. You just won't find the best technicians willing to work those hours."
Unwilling to offer the common inducements to build his business, Kirk played the good hand he had: an excellent reputation on the racing circuit and the ability to explain car repairs in non-technical language. With the ASE designation behind his name, he quickly became the resident car repair expert on a Lemon Aid show for Rogers Cable, a Pulse 24 segment produced by Car Hub Canada, and other similar programs. On televised talk shows he discussed car problems with people who called in to complain about shoddy repairs and mechanics who throw parts at problems they haven't fully diagnosed.
More high profile work came with the media exposure—preparing a "ghost" car for the Automobile Protection Association and serving as an expert witness for Ontario's Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations prosecutions. Media attention and customer referrals helped Robinson Automotive grow a reputation for competence and professionalism.
It's a reputation Kirk works hard to preserve. "In this shop, we have a repair manual on DVD for every car, and they are updated every three months. Mitchell Information Systems gives us the factory manuals. Right now we're investing in a satellite feed from the CARS network, which offers a one-hour course on the latest systems every day. The guys and I will take a long lunch hour and learn while we eat right in our own lunchroom."
Mechanics who understand how a machine works can diagnose problems quickly—and diagnostics are a key part of the repair business. Kirk teams up with his mechanics to work through this part of the process, an approach that involves him in every repair. This enables him to explain to customers exactly what his mechanic found wrong with their vehicle and how the problem was repaired. "When we bring in a car, we need to have a plan, a logical approach to fixing it. We can't jump to conclusions. We have to test it, make a diagnosis, and, without wasting time, fix whatever is not working properly."
Some customers may be surprised to find their repairs costing less at Robinson Automotive than at dealerships that advertise a lower hourly shop rate. "I have a true example which I have mentioned to a few customers," Kirk claims. "One of our customers bought a power steering rack from us, and the rack failed. He went to a dealer to have it replaced, and the dealer charged him six hours at $76 per hour. Our shop rate is $85 per hour, but we charged three hours labour. Guess whose bill he would rather pay?"
Talking with customers is Kirk Robinson's job, and it's something he does very well. "It's a tough part of this job, dealing with customers," he claims. "People change when they part with their funds—you see a different side to them. What happens at the counter is very important when you want to have happy customers. My shop gives each customer personal attention. I explain our findings in clear and easy-to-understand language, allow the customer to see the parts and talk with the technician, to get a clear sense of what was wrong with their car, how we found it, and how we fixed it. Compare that with what happens when you take your car to a dealership where you might deal with three or four people and never talk to the person who actually worked on your car, in a way getting lost in the shuffle."
As this ASE master mechanic compares his shop with the car manufacturer dealerships, I can see the racing competitor side of him surfacing. "Sometimes we get a problem that has a special challenge to it," Kirk enthuses. "Susan brought her older, high-end car to our shop with a stalling problem. She had taken it to several dealerships, and she actually had a letter from one of them explaining that her car was getting old and there was nothing that could be done about the stalling. I did the normal diagnostics on that car, looked at the repair history, and saw that the dealerships had been in and out of the distributor several times. I could see that this was not a normal defect, so I started looking for a mechanic-induced problem. My diagnostic equipment showed that a component in the distributor that indexes the right fuel injector was inconsistent. We went back to the distributor and found that the ring inside the cap was a floater. Probably when it was installed it was forced, and the rivet snapped. We replaced it. I gave Susan a letter explaining what we had found and fixed and suggested she should go back to the dealerships and ask for a refund. I was surprised to hear that my letter helped get her the refunds, no problem."
I enjoyed hearing Kirk tell his story about Susan's car partly because I had heard the story before—from Susan. One of my co-workers at the time, her car's stalling problem was an office legend. When she finally called the Automobile Protection Association, was referred to Robinson Automotive, and got both her car fixed and her money refunded by the dealers who couldn't fix it, Kirk Robinson gained not just one but several loyal customers.
"We're at the point where we don't want to take a customer who comes through the door without a referral, Kirk claims. "If the customer can't see the value of good mechanics, up-to-date equipment and information, if they're just looking for a bargain-basement price, they don't fit with what we're all about."
At my request, Kirk takes me into the shop where I notice three mechanics working on cars parked inside the three bay doors accessible from the back of the building. Each workstation includes a computer monitor opened to a service manual for the ailing car parked in front of it. I notice another service bay door accessible from the front of the building, leading directly to a dynamometer (a kind of treadmill for cars, used for vehicle emissions tests). Further inside the building is another mechanical hoist, which Kirk explains is used for vehicles whose problems require a longer stay in the shop. Everything is clean, functional, organized, but not fancy. I'm reminded of what one of Kirk's mentors told him, that a shop doesn't need bells and whistles.
Workstations are lined with tall red tool chests, all displaying the Snap-On logo. "We use Snap-On tools here. I buy them for the shop; the mechanics each buy their own as well. They're excellent tools, and the company stands behind them and provides training. Besides that, the Snap-On people fight for garages like ours—the independents—to get the information out to us when the manufacturers try to keep it inside their dealerships only. They have done a good job of keeping us in the business. I'm just about to lay out another $1,800 for one of their cartridges of information for import and domestic vehicles."
Altogether, new tools and equipment use up from $10-15,000 on the annual shop budget. Kirk doesn't begrudge the expense but rather takes pride in the fact that the staff is constantly updating on new equipment. Still, he states that many of the new systems introduced by manufacturers do not improve on the previous one and represent little more than an effort to force car buyers to have their vehicles serviced by the dealer.
How does a master mechanic manage the change from auto repairman to business owner and employer? "I'm hands on with all the diagnostic work, and I take all the courses and learn all the systems. For the rest, I have to rely on my mechanics—and I'm proud to be working with them. I have had problems with staff, for example, a mechanic who liked to drink, and I had to let him go.
"It takes awhile to train staff to work here. Some mechanics have been so abused by a manager that it takes awhile before they trust someone in a manager position. For myself, I use the same skills—logic, know-how, planning—that I used as a mechanic fixing cars, but now I'm using them to run a business."
"If you like fixing cars and solving problems, this is a good trade to get into. Most mechanics in Canada get into the trade through an apprenticeship, a combination of work experience and short technical courses. Personally, I think my own path, two years of technical training before I went to work in a shop, is better training. Still, give me someone with good dexterity and memory, and I can train the problem-solving skills into them. Diagnostics is like working through a maze. You have to ask questions, quiz the customer. 'Were you ever in an accident? What repairs have you had done before?' Knowing more about the car before you get started on it means a more logical approach to fixing it, and less wasted time."
The one-hour interview I had asked for had gone into an hour and a half of overtime before my survey of this tradesman was done. As I converted my scattered notes into writing, I worked my way through the Robinson Automotive website ( www.robinsonautomotive.com ) and enjoyed the presentation of workmanship, people, and philosophy that comprise Robinson Automotive.
Can a race car mechanic find joy fixing Mrs. Smith's car? "I feel good when I drive home at night. I know I did my best for everybody. I enjoy happy customers, and we have very few unhappy customers. That's the most important thing for me. If we put on parts that didn't fix the problem, we will 'eat' (not charge for) them. That way you always feel good."