If 2021 had been anything close to a normal year, the aftermarket industry would’ve been examining its learnings from the SEMA Show that took place in warmer Las Vegas last month, most likely reassured that the industry has a secure future. This is a critical annual event where many look forward to for the very important business interactions and the bonhomie of catching up with old colleagues from the industry.
Instead, this year has been far from normal, and increased health restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many Canadian body shop owners had no choice but to attend SEMA virtually. Nevertheless, the four-day event did manage to provide a platform for the industry to take stock of how the pandemic has affected us and examine how we can survive the “new normal” in the months to come.
As a regular attendee, SEMA has always been an important opportunity for me to learn some of the new trends that could impact our business as well as share the new and exciting developments taking place at Fix Network Canada with a larger, more global, audience. As an organization, we have grown tremendously over the past four years and entered markets that we never imagine we could go before.
While the aftermarket industry demonstrated tremendous resilience and adaptability, I must admit that the unpredictability surrounding the pandemic did affect many of our best-laid plans, but it didn’t crush our spirit. During this critical time when the aftermarket business was deemed as an essential service, we learned to be more agile, think smartly and collaborate closely, to ensure that our franchise partners and customers are never impacted negatively.
There are many defining moments from 2021. Since the pandemic struck two years back, our franchisees have invested their time and effort to enrich the learnings of their technicians. Our training centres in Canada witnessed a higher demand for training from our franchise partners to teach their technicians how to repair the most modern vehicles. Through a mix of virtual and in-person training, we have successfully ensured that our technicians are on top of their game.
At the same time, we have been working even more closely with the Automotive Industries Association (AIA) and I-CAR to ensure that our franchise partners are accredited, while maintaining and growing our relationship with OEMs to better understand and better position ourselves with OEM training and certification.
Looking back on 2021 in retrospect, I believe that the aftermarket industry, in general, did a tremendous job of keeping up with the rapid technological innovations taking place in the automotive sector. We adapted quickly as newer technologies such as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and electric vehicles became more popular with consumers around Canada. Scanning and calibration were some of our focus areas in 2021. On top of educating ourselves on the newest technologies and techniques, we shared our knowledge and provided training with owners-operators as well as for the majority of the Canadian assurance partners.
Though electric vehicles may take some time to be on par with internal combustion engines in terms of sales and adoption, they will continue to present interesting opportunities and questions for the industry. The challenge for the aftermarket industry would be if it is really prepared to repair these sophisticated machines. In case of a collision, electric vehicles demand a completely different approach than just tending to dent repair.
As with non-electric vehicles, we keep in mind the safety of our customers and their passengers while repairing electric vehicles. This is one of the issues that we took an early lead on and identified quickly how and why our franchise partners need to be trained without delay. Collision repair and maintenance of electric vehicles therefore was one of the most popular elements of our training curricula.
One of the challenges facing the Canadian aftermarket industry – and it will continue to remain a challenge, regardless of the pandemic – is the shortage of talented people to take the industry forward. Many younger people are not convinced about a rewarding future in the body shop business. That is not true – the aftermarket industry can offer many opportunities for individuals looking for a career – as manufacturers, technicians, insurers and suppliers.
I would like to reassure them by citing my own beginnings in the aftermarket industry – I started off as a paint shop technician in a Quebec-based body shop when still in my teens and was determined to learn the business inside out. I was then recruited by a paint manufacturer where I spent 15 years learning all aspects of the business from sales, procurement/demand planning, distribution, leadership and management. Now, I am heading the Canada operations of one of the fastest growing aftermarket leaders in the world and I believe that with determination, you too can build a solid career in the industry.
Confident in our Efforts
This past year, as a personal objective, I have interacted with business leaders, government bodies, vocational schools and community organizations to explore ways of encouraging the next generations to pursue careers in the aftermarket industry. We work closely with several initiatives of organizations such as Skills Ontario and others that are involved in addressing the labour shortages in the country. I am confident that our efforts will slowly bear fruit.
As the country slowly returns to normal and more vehicles return to the roads, I am optimistic that the aftermarket industry will continue to innovate in the new year, adopting the lessons learned from the pandemic and remaining agile to new developments. The key is to keep doing what we do best.
Sylvain Seguin is the Executive Vice President for Fix Network Canada