WHOLESALE: Knowledge is expected
When Mike Akens, owner of Bookcliff Auto Parts in Grand Junction, Colo., won the 2006 NAPA/ASE Parts Specialist of the Year award, he knew it was something special. He is the seventh winner of this national award, sponsored by NAPA Auto Parts and the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
"The parts test has the highest failure rate of all ASE tests," points out Akens, who is certified in the P-1, P-2, P-3 and P-9 ASE parts specialist categories and holds technical certifications in manual drive train and axles and brakes. "It's different from the technician tests, because while those are difficult, too, each test just covers one category, like brakes or engines. A counterman has to know all the subjects."
Akens stresses, however, that acing the test isn't a free pass to professionalism: "It doesn't mean you're a great parts person, just that you have the drive to be one."Richard Beirne, president of La Crosse, Wis.-based United Auto Supply, notes that his 14 stores hire employees with the intention of getting them ASE certified.
"We hire delivery drivers with the potential," Beirne explains. "We try to quickly train on the counter. They work extra overtime; about 70 percent of our drivers work the counter."
Watching the drivers prove themselves at the counter allows his management to measure and evaluate in a "non-intensive environment," Beirne says, adding that the process also helps build morale.
"They see our business and make the commitment. Young people need the skills and opportunity," he continues. "We invite them to come in and learn the business so they can move up the ladder."
Akens say he believes the ASE certification sets his store apart from the competition. "It gives us a more professional image," he says, adding that to him, just taking the test shows character. "I think it's just great to try. It shows you had the courage to test yourself against your peers and to justify to yourself that you're capable at what you do."
As the NAPA winner, Akens was invited by ASE to participate in test-writing in February 2006. He was impressed by the detail that went into the process.
"You know, a lot of times you're sitting there taking the test, thinking 'Who wrote this?' Well, about 12 or 14 of us did!" he says with a laugh. "I found it very interesting how much thought and criteria went into every question."
Beirne explains that his training manager, Dave Henderson, works with employees around certification time to prepare for the test. United pays for the testing and offers a $100 bonus for certification or five-year recertification.
"We feel it's important to recognize certification, because this is a complicated business," Beirne says. "We're committed to full-time, skilled, long-term customers, and the certification supports that. It doesn't come cheap, but it's what our customers look for."
Bookcliff provides its employees with NAPA's online training course and study materials for the test. Of Akens' 72 employees, all 15 counter staff members are certified.
Upon passing the test, for which Bookcliff pays, employees get an increase in salary and the money to pay for their certificates. Bookcliff also pays for the recertification tests.
Akens jokes that he was doing the program "back when it was NSIA." When the parts specialist module was made available about 20 years ago, his wife, co-owner Donna Akens, took the test first. He admits that her certification "sort of shamed me into doing it — and then I really got into it."
Beirne says the first time his company took the ASE parts specialist test, 24 out of 26 people passed.
"It built a good foundation, and because we don't have a lot of turnover, we see it as an investment," he notes. "Our goal is 100 percent certification, and we're on our way there."
RETAIL: A competitive advantage
There's always a risk storeowners run of "training them to leave" when they get their employees involved in a program such as ASE certification. After all, getting employees certified is a time-consuming process, and it's not free. Add to that the indignation some certified technicians feel that the ASE parts specialist designation downgrades the prestige of their own ASE honors, and you might wonder whether it's worth it.
Many store owners do believe it's worth it, and in fact require it of their counter staff. Take Bill Ponkowski, for example. The owner of Glendale Auto Supply takes pride in the fact that 100 percent of his counter staff at all four metro Detroit locations is ASE certified.
"I think everyone should have it," he says. "It is a competitive advantage to a certain point. I think with retail customers in particular, it holds more weight. Of course, with professionals, they know who they talk to and know whether that person knows what they're talking about."
Glendale employees pay for their own testing and recertification, but are reimbursed if they pass. The company's Web site, www.glendaleautosupply.com, showcases the fact that the staff is certified.
Ponkowski says while he doesn't offer any formal corporate preparation for the testing, his hires either are very experienced or given ample time to become experienced.
"Our young hires start out in stock, then become a driver, then do the counter, so they have the real-life training by the time they take the test," he explains. "Older hires with 10, 15 years' experience can take the test from the knowledge they already have."
An asset to business
Ernesto Cerrillo, of Allen's Auto Parts in Tonasket, Wash., is the 2007 NAPA/ASE Parts Specialist of the Year. Georgine Epley, owner of Allen's Auto Parts, was happy to nominate Cerrillo because she believes he embodies the ASE ideal. "He has the whole package; he's knowledgeable, very into helping people and he's community-oriented," she says.
Epley adds about half of her staff is certified, and her store showcases the fact in its signage. With about 70 percent retail business, she also believes it's a competitive advantage.
"I think it particularly helps in diagnosing," she says. "People are looking for that expertise."
Still, having certified counter parts specialists is more the exception than the rule in many markets. Phil Loyd, assistant manager of Action Autoparts & Machine, Shoreline, Wash., notes that it seems to be connected to a lower turnover rate. With the majority of Action's counter staff certified at all four stores, it gives an edge on expertise, he says.
"Jobbers want ASE, they want to know they're dealing with professionals," he says. "Consumers do, too. But we're the exception to the rule, I think, because a lot of our guys have been here such a long time.
"With technology changing, this has really become a competitive industry," Loyd concludes. "Customer service and top-notch technical help is what builds loyalty."