Looking back over the 31 years since I opened my own shop, it’s not hard to see that a positive and productive jobber/shop relationship is the primary ingredient for the success of any jobber or any shop operating in the independent market. On the one hand, many shop operators look at their local jobbers as “just another place to buy parts.” On the other hand, too many parts outlets continue to regard their wholesale customer as “just another person wanting to buy parts.” Such thoughts are a huge mistake on the part of either because they ignore the symbiotic relationship that exists between parts supplier and wholesale purchaser.
Thirty-one years ago, I opened a shop with only a small toolbox, an old big-box engine analyzer, a set of jack stands and a small bequest of $1,500 left to me by a great uncle. My great uncle provided inspiration because he started a battery repair shop during the 1920s and grew that modest business venture into a Chrysler dealership before he retired during the 1950s.
Starting a shop in 1977 wasn’t an easy task, but it was far simpler then than now because the newest technology on the market was the new electronic ignition systems introduced by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Previous dealership and teaching experience helped with the new technology and, with the fortunate acquisition of a very small shop in which to get started, I began my career as an automotive repair shop owner.
Lines of Credit
I didn’t know if I was going to succeed or fail, so I began with my local jobber by paying my account in full at the end of each week. If my business effort failed, I wouldn’t leave owing huge parts bills as I had seen many failed shops do. Paying my account in full each week paid dividends because it generated my jobber’s confidence in my operation. My jobber eventually increased my credit line to cover whatever I needed at the time to finish a job.
The difference between a jobber store and a parts store is, of course, is the jobber’s vested interest in the success of his dealer base. Sometimes I’d need an expensive piece of equipment and my jobber would extend a 30/60/90 line of credit. Not that I needed that amount of credit, but at that time I found it was better to keep an operating reserve in the checking account rather than dumping my available cash into buying a single piece of expensive equipment. So, by helping me keep my cash reserves up, my jobber automatically became a financial partner in my business.
From the Bottom Up
Small towns are especially notorious for not accepting “outsiders.” I opened in June and started my first month polishing tools and reading adventure novels. Slowly, but surely, the customer referrals given to me by my local jobber began maturing into on-going customer relationships. Coming from teaching a college auto mechanics program and working in a new-car dealership gave me the kind of advanced technical knowledge needed in those days to give me an advantage over my less-educated competitors.
But establishing return on investment is tough for any start-up shop because each new job that comes through the door demands a new set of tools. During the first five years, most of the profits went directly into buying tools. Every new shop goes through this phase and the process is becoming more demanding each year as more new vehicle technology comes on line.
I found that jobbers can offer much support in keeping their customers “tooled up” by delivering sales flyers on new tools and new sale prices. I found that, in many cases, jobber stores offered high-quality tools and name-brand equipment at lower prices than most tool truck suppliers. Not that I didn’t use tool truck suppliers for the more exotic hand tools and specialized equipment. That is almost a prerequisite for any well-equipped shop. But I found that air compressors, lifts and many other larger pieces of equipment sold on attractive leasing programs had become available through the auspices of my local jobber.
Of course, there is the business side of any shop operation. During the past 10 years, many jobbers have offered business management training. All too often, however, such training is ignored by those who need it most. During the 30 years of my shop operation, I found that each jobber was a valuable source of business expertise. I learned how businesses were run on percentages of profit. I also learned how many shops had failed simply because the operators hadn’t learned the basics of business management.
Also during those early years, I learned much about the management of jobber stores through friends who owned jobber stores. I learned enough about how jobber stores operate to begin writing the Mechanic Connection column in June1984 and, throughout 24 years of writing the Mechanic Connection, I’ve always stressed this important aspect of the jobber/dealer relationship. After all, understanding how another’s business operates inevitably provides a better understanding of how our own businesses should operate.
Today, various program groups create an umbrella under which the jobber/dealer relationship can flourish. Although these programs are more formalized in the conditions for membership and how they operate, the principles that have served the independent shop so well are still present.
But with the amount of technology now confronting the independent service market, times have become more challenging. It’s not hard to provide illustrations of how technology is changing the way we do business. As simple as they might first appear, modern hybrid vehicles are extremely complex designs that call for a technician having vehicle-specific training before he attempts a diagnosis or repair on these vehicles.
Similarly, the ancient art of wheel alignment has suddenly been transformed by the incorporation of vehicle stability controls (VSC) and active cruise controls (ACC) into steering systems. VSC is designed to automatically help a driver steer out of a dangerous situation by an on-board computer automatically taking control of the throttle and brakes. ACC is the addition of short-range radar to measure the distance between the driver’s vehicle and a vehicle ahead and cancel the cruise control and take control if the vehicle is headed into a collision. In short, wheel alignment technicians must now take into account not only how the wheels are aligned, but how they align with the various sensors used in these on-board vehicle control systems.
Many other issues, such as the release of OE training, tooling and service information are critical to the survival of the independent jobber and independent shop. To remain competitive in a technology- and information-driven market, various aftermarket equipment and replacement part manufacturers must expand efforts to disseminate the information needed to keep their independent dealers competitive with new-car dealership shops.
The aftermarket must also become more involved in upgrading independent shops, both at the management level and at the level of public perception. To the contrary of popular belief, auto repair is no longer a safe haven for high school dropouts and after-hours would-be mechanics. Keeping up with advances in modern technology, management and marketing demands a quick learning curve and is rapidly becoming the sole domain of the better-educated and more highly motivated shop owner/technician.
At the jobber end of the jobber/dealer relationship, many jobbers may find that providing basic technical and marketing training for their own counter staff is the only way they can meet the demands of their increasingly sophisticated customers. Unfortunately, the full implications of selling, a “plug-and play” versus a “non-plug-and-play” control module or PCM to a wholesale customer is often beyond the technical capabilities of the typical catalog reader. In direct contrast, understanding those implications is a daily requirement for surviving in an extremely complex aftermarket environment.
Although the technology and business climate has changed, the basic principles of the jobber/dealer relationship have not. The fact of the matter is that neither can survive without the other. And neither can prosper unless the other prospers. That is perhaps the only constant in this ever-changing world of modern automotive technology.