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Auto-Wares: Learning To Grow

At Michigan-based Auto-Wares, when the opportunity to learn presents itself, the answer is always yes.

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As soon as the Auto-Wares Group of Companies closes the books on its incredibly popular TechExpo event, the group responsible for planning the training event and expo starts the process all over again in the hopes of making it even better the next year. This intensive, year-long production is managed by a committee of about 20 Auto-Wares employees who focus on different crucial areas, such as sales, marketing, training and customer service, and meet every two weeks leading up to the event.

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At the heart of planning this popular annual event are Steve Helwig, director of training; John Sanford, vice president of business development; and Brittani McClain, director of customer service. And right now, they are busy getting ready for the 2022 TechExpo, which will be held Feb. 11-12, 2022, at the DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As one of the largest members of the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, Auto-Wares boasts some 200 company-owned retail store locations and 13 distribution centers. The outfit was founded in 1976 by Fred Bunting, Dick Collins and Wally Kocar out of a small facility in Grand Rapids, and, in 1978, became an Auto Value member of the Alliance.

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With operations that extend from Michigan to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, Auto-Wares draws more than 3,000 attendees to its TechExpo event every year. Now in its 23rd year, the popular event is a well-oiled machine. The last in-person event saw its usual attendance numbers with 3,200 registered attendees, comprised of 70% service dealers and 6% parts stores. The remaining attendees were exhibitors, students, Auto-Wares employees and other guests.

To put it simply, this show is big, well-planned and fun. The crowd loves it. That’s why they keep coming back year after year.

Auto-Wares draws more than 3,000 attendees to its TechExpo event every year.

“This is the first big in-person event we’ve had since February 2020, just before the pandemic shut everything down,” said McClain. “What I’m hearing is that everybody just has this need or this want for an interaction between people, face-to-face. The auto parts industry is very unique in the sense that it’s heavily built upon relationship-building. And, I think that you can really feel it in this event – between the tradeshow floor, the networking that happens there, the relationships between our sales team and their customers, or the stores and our customers, and then the training classes. It’s empowering people from start to finish during the whole event to learn, and bring [that knowledge] back to their shops or to their stores and make network connections that will carry them through the next year until we do this again.”

While everyone is eager to meet again face-to-face, even a global pandemic couldn’t slow Auto-Wares down in 2020. Last year, like many in the industry that hosted major in-person events, Auto-Wares had to quickly change gears to host the TechExpo as a virtual event. The success of the virtual event in 2020, hosted on the Cvent platform, led Auto-Wares to decide to host this year’s TechExpo as a hybrid event. For the 2022 event, Auto-Wares is offering both an in-person and a virtual option, for those customers in the Great Lakes region who couldn’t make the drive but still wanted to participate in training.

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“Our market footprint is the Great Lakes area, and it’s very hard for some of our Wisconsin and UP customers to come across the pond and get to Grand Rapids. So, with the success of our virtual event last year, we’ve struck a balance where we are going to have a hybrid offering,” said Helwig. “The live event is going to be held at the DeVos Center, but for some of our folks who can’t make it – maybe only the shop owner can make it, yet he has three techs that he would certainly like to train up – we’re having a virtual option for that too.”

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The virtual option will feature training presentation videos available on-demand, with the ability to connect with the presenters via email for any follow-up questions.

“We’re kind of doing the best of both worlds and we’re looking forward to it,” said Helwig.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

According to the registration website for the 2022 TechExpo, www.avtechexpo.com, there will be 64 classes offered in a variety of disciplines, including light-duty, heavy-duty, diesel, electrical and auto body. In addition to technical training, repair shop owners and service writers will have the opportunity to improve skills in the areas of customer relations, shop management and personal growth.

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From presentations that cover topics ranging from the technical (think ADAS, drivability diagnostics, etc.) to the intangible, such as shop management and “winning over a difficult customer,” Helwig says the expo tries to be “all things to all people.” But it doesn’t stop there.

Beyond the extensive training opportunities available at the show on Friday afternoon, there’s also a chance to network, connect with suppliers and just have a little fun, too. From 5-9 p.m. the tradeshow opens, featuring 200 different manufacturers and a whole lot of good food, said Helwig.

“We’ve got one of the most impressive tradeshows anywhere,” Helwig said. “We’ve got 200 different manufacturers that are represented in our tradeshow. It gives us some time for our customers to make their way to the booths, to find out what’s new and exciting, talk directly with the manufacturer reps and get their perspective on different items that might help them. Whether they are a jobber, a technician or a service writer, we even have students from vo-tech schools and the high schools that have shop programs in attendance, as well. We have a very diverse audience that we cater to.”

According to Sanford, attendees are hungry for solid content on new technologies coming into the aftermarket to ensure they are prepared to meet customers’ future needs. This also is a key reason why Auto-Wares places such a high premium on training and education.

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“Anything that is new and emerging can be scary. They need access to that so that they can understand it and then bring those customers to their businesses. And, we need that too, because the vehicle technology is evolving. So, it serves both of us well to stay current and as trained as possible,” Sanford said.

“It’s just simply because a well-trained repair facility or parts store or counter person is going to be more capable and we want to help keep our customers relevant and give them all the tools they need to be as successful as possible. Because, if they’re successful, then we’re going to be,” he added.

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AWARD-WINNING WORK ETHIC

The emphasis that Auto-Wares places on training and education goes well-beyond the annual TechExpo. It is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the company’s culture and is supported both internally and externally. This fact was recognized this past October, when the Auto Care Association named Auto-Wares as one of the recipients of its 2021 ACE (Auto Care Career and Education) Awards. The ACE awards recognize auto care companies dedicated to education, including investing in the growth of knowledge and skills within their organization and/or throughout the industry. Auto-Wares was honored with the Auto Care ACE Award in the Large company category for not only its work on the Tech Expo, but also its own internal employee training programs.

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In announcing the honor, Auto Care described Auto-Wares’ dedication to training and education as follows:

Large company: Auto-Wares Group of Companies – Grand Rapids, Mich.

Throughout a nearly five-decade history of expansion and auto parts success, Auto-Wares Group of Companies has consistently relied on employee training and education to power its growth. A career path program with clear steps for employee advancement has enabled Auto-Wares team members to advance steadily and understand steps needed to grow in their careers. Training and education include both internal and external opportunities, such as weekly live webinars, weekly on-demand video training, tech clinics and vendor training. Auto-Wares also utilizes mentors to help employees improve and advance. Moreover, Auto-Wares hosts a large training event each year called the Auto-Wares Tech Expo. This event brings together technicians, parts store owners and other automotive aftermarket professionals for education and networking. In 2021, the company pivoted to a virtual event, enabling even more industry professionals to engage in the training sessions, as well as made the content available on-demand post-event to maximize the training and educational efforts.

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When asked why they felt training and education was such an important facet of Auto-Wares’ company culture, Helwig and McClain each had something similar to say that really shows why the company earned the Auto Care accolade.

“I think training and education has to become part of a business’s culture,” said Helwig. “You know, if you aren’t learning and growing, there’s only one direction for you to go, and it’s not pretty. At Auto-Wares, we’ve got internal and external customers and we try and elevate them or at least facilitate it so that everyone can grow to their own next level – whether that’s a tech, whether that’s a service writer, whether that’s a shop owner or whether it’s the delivery driver, whether it’s the counter person, or whether it’s the store manager or a sales professional. In the automotive aftermarket, there’s a zillion different paths you can go. You can go through the manufacturer path like I did, and then come through the distributor side. Or, if your interest is in HR or accounting or supply chain management, there’s opportunity galore for that. We actually think that having a career path can become a recruitment tool, and in this day and age that’s kind of important.

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“It was a wonderful award,” Helwig added. “And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my predecessor, Bob Joynt. Bob was instrumental for a few decades in laying the groundwork for our training and development processes and setting the culture in motion. It’s been easier for me to pick up the baton and run with it when you had a pro like Bob lay the groundwork. It has been a real team effort so the award needs to be spread out. It starts at the top with Fred and Todd and Murray, who insist that training and development can give us a competitive advantage and when we make that a part of our culture, it can create a better environment, a more fun place to work in, and when everybody’s growing, it’s a good deal.”

McClain said when looking for an opportunity to grow at Auto-Wares, she has never heard the word “no.”

“One of the things that I appreciate from our leadership is they look to the individuals and say, ‘What do you want to grow in?’ And I’ve never once been told ‘no’ to a training opportunity or going to an event in the industry. We’re all encouraged to find the things we’re passionate about and things that we want to learn and grow upon. I know that doesn’t happen everywhere, but it’s something that I’m very thankful for. If I can find a training [opportunity] it’s always met with a ‘yes,’” she said. “And then, afterward, we are asked, what did we learn, giving me the platform to then share what I learned with other people. So, we can all benefit from a training, especially for those who maybe didn’t have the time to attend.”

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“It’s very important that we not only are learning internally and growing internally, but that we encourage others to do the same. Steve’s really made an effort to bring training, whether it’s virtual or in-person, at everyone’s fingertips. And, we’re trying to do the same for our employees as well. The thing about TechExpo is it is very customer-focused, but we do bring in members from all of our stores, and our sales team, and encourage them to attend classes as well, because we not only want it to be about relationship-building for them, but we want them to have the opportunity to better themselves and make themselves a better asset to their customers.”

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