The Race is On

In 1998, Manon Duplantie was working in “just a job” when she came across a classified ad that would change her life. “Fix Auto was looking for someone to implement its customer-service structure, and I took the job,” says Duplantie, who later bought the company with colleague Guy Bessette. In 2012, Duplantie sold the company, and is currently serving as a strategic advisor to the president, under a five-year succession plan. “I’ve been very lucky,” she says. Below, she talks to Advantage about the industry, franchising, and what’s next.

A classified ad changed Manon Duplantie from a job searcher to an eventual purchaser of Fix Auto. She sold the company in 2012.

You’ve said the industry is at a turning point. How so?
We are entering a consolidation mode. Most companies don’t provide full nationwide coverage; they have one or two shops in one province and 15 in another. That’s changing. There’s a race among companies to be the true Canadian national network. At the same time, insurance companies are consolidating, which means we have fewer customers, and insurance companies have more leverage. As a result, they’re mandating even more—which supplier to use, how to fix the car—and the business owner is losing the ability to be creative in managing his or her own business.

How are you responding to these changes?
We need to be the most cost-efficient network, which means we need to repair the car at the right price. When we do a repair, the parts element of the price is fixed by the manufacturer, but the labour element is not, and we need to be as efficient as accurate when estimating time, and stick to that when we do the repairs by using the proper processes and repair methods.

How do you become more cost-efficient?
One way is consistency. When you go to McDonald’s, being consistent is easy: a Big Mac is a Big Mac. But when you go for a car repair, the franchisee never knows what’s happening. What kind of accident was it? What parts were broken? Will it cost $2,000 or $10,000? We want to increase the repair-process uniformity among our shops, in order to remove inefficiency.

What changes did you make to accomplish that?
First, we integrated technology. In the past, each shop could use its own management system. We’ve removed all of those and introduced the same management systems into all of our shops. I can tell you right now how many cars are being worked on right now throughout our network. Second, we centralized the product we’ve used. We used to have three paint companies—now we have one.

How are your shops reacting to the changes?
For shop owners, the new management system was big, because when you change a technology, you also change the way the people who use that technology work. So was the paint: every shop owner has an emotional attachment to his company—more so than to his wife, I often say. For us to make this change has shown a lot of leadership, but it has also required us to communicate why we’re making the change.

Manon Duplantie’s tips for new franchises

•    Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
•    Put your energy into managing the business by applying the franchise formula.
•    Love your customers.

What about your customers, many of whom are insurance companies? Are they embracing the change?
Insurance companies love it. We used to send them reports, but in the near future they will be able to access the systems, so they can log on and see exactly what is happening with their customers.

How is the franchise model working for you?
We were the first auto-repair company in Canada to use a franchising model, and I’m proud of it. Today, you see fewer and fewer entrepreneurs in every industry. A franchise model provides structure that people need to own a business. You can still be your own boss, but you have processes to help. Plus, you get a brand, and in today’s world, people buy names.

I understand you’re leaving the firm. What do you want your legacy to be?
I’d like to leave behind my passion for the industry. Collision repairers are fantastic people who are very artistic. But I worry that they’re losing their passion for what they do, because today the industry is more about managing numbers and software than repairing cars. I want to put my energy into making sure those people keep their passion.