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Waterloo auto shop thrives amid changing technology

Tuesday, May 26, 2015 @ 09:05 AM
posted by Sarah Voigt

As seen in the K-W Record and TheRecord.com: 

By Rose Simone

WATERLOO — At Columbia Auto Service — nestled between the University of Waterloo campus, the David Johnston Research and Technology Park and high-tech companies — Jim Voigt can claim a “front-row seat” in the evolution of Waterloo Region’s technology hub.

“I like to say that I worked on the billionaires’ cars when they were poor,” says Voigt, whose business has been located at 160 Columbia St. W. since 1988. Jim laurie sarah

He represents the third generation of his family to be involved in running auto service stations. His parents, Gary and Pat Voigt, opened a service station near the university, next to the Westmount Plaza, in 1968. They later moved it to a couple of different locations on Columbia Street, including the present spot.

Jim Voigt and his wife, Laurie, the firm’s business manager, bought Columbia Auto Servicefrom Jim’s dad in 1992.

But it was his grandfather who got the family started in service stations. Oscar Voigt ran the White Rose service station at King Street and Sheldon Avenue in Kitchener back in the 1950s. Oscar eventually left the auto service business to pursue other opportunities, but later helped Jim’s dad start the service station that became Columbia Auto Service.

Today, there is a fourth generation in the business. Jim’s younger daughter Sarah is learning the ropes and is interested in one day taking over the shop.

The business, which employs about 18 people, provides a full range of services, from car sales to car repair and maintenance, including oil changes, rust proofing, and car cleaning and detailing. “If our clients need something that we don’t do here, like a windshield replacement, we subcontract that, but otherwise, we’ll do everything your car needs,” Voigt says.

The various locations, within a five-minute drive of UW since 1968, have been great for business. When the business moved to its current location, it had three service bays and about 2,000 square feet of space. Now, it has nine bays and occupies about 10,000 square feet.

“We’ve always been very busy, with staff and faculty and students from the university coming here,” Voigt says.

He remembers BlackBerry, which was then Research In Motion, growing from a tiny startup with about 10 people to thousands of people in multiple buildings. He also saw it contract with layoffs in recent years. But even as it downsized, other technology businesses moved in. “We are still surrounded by people who drive in every day to go to work,” he says.

Meanwhile, the service station itself has adapted to the computerization that is now an integral part of all new cars.

Even an oil change or tire change now requires computerized equipment, says Voigt. Independent shops that don’t invest in equipment and staff training don’t survive, he adds.

Good car technicians are in hot demand. Because of computerization, they also need their math and computer skills, Voigt says. “It is not a job for somebody who has done poorly in school. Maybe 25 to 35 years ago, there was a place for somebody who was just good with their hands and could just do the brakes and tires and oil change. Now you have to be able to do all those things, but you also need that whole other set of skills.”

Voigt credits the success of Columbia Auto to the combination of an old-fashioned approach to customer service and expert knowledge of car technology.

The business was recently named Garage of the Year by Service Station and Garage Management Magazine. The award recognizes technical excellence, customer service and community involvement.

Voigt says Columbia Auto has a large roster of regular customers who recommend the station to colleagues and friends, so a lot of business comes by word of mouth.

Customer service and customer trust are the most important factors in the survival of an auto shop business, he says. “We are in the people business. We look after people and lower their stress and save them money by looking after their vehicle, which is a big part of their lives.”

When the Voigts had two daughters, many people assumed they wouldn’t be interested in an auto service business. “Some people said, ‘Well, maybe one of your daughters will marry someone who wants to take over the business.’ But that was just a bunch of sexist hogwash,” he says.

He says his girls loved going into the shop and getting their hands dirty by helping out with things like checking tire pressure. Voigt’s eldest daughter, Alysha, 25, ended up becoming a software engineer who now lives in San Francisco. Sarah, 22, took media studies in school but eventually came back into the shop where she uses her media skills to help market the business.

Voigt looks forward to seeing the shop’s tradition of customer service thrive into a fourth generation.

“My grandfather taught us how to treat people,” he says. “My father took lessons from him and his experiences were passed on to me and now I often hear that in my daughter.”