Tom Simpson had three cars that he bought and sold even before earning his driver’s licence. It was his passion. Since then, in a span of about 30 years, he has gone from a student apprentice, to journeyman mechanic, to business owner and now he’s back in the classroom – this time as a teacher.
It’s quite the resume for the CNC alumnus, who completed all four years of his automotive technician training in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“I’d not be as challenged if I was still on the floor of an automotive shop,” he said. “As an employer (he co-owns Benchmark Automotive) I’m having so much fun mentoring and being involved with Community Futures.”
It wasn’t always that way for Simpson, who began his career as an apprentice working at Hoskin’s Garage in Smithers, where he learned the trade for seven years. After an 18-month stint at Northland Dodge and Chrysler, Simpson spent the next 13 years at Fred Wall’s Garage on Walls Avenue before it closed shop.
He was hand-picked as a junior manager for PG Motors and served as a shop foreman. Then fate had an interesting way of intervening. He suffered a concussion after a fall, couldn’t work and two days later was laid off. “That was my fourth binge and purge and it was enough,” Simpson recalled. “I spent my career working for the big guys from dawn to dusk and I wasn’t interested in going back to another trade.”
So, he went into business for himself.
He received help from Community Futures, a non-profit organization that provides expertise in entrepreneurship skills and valuable networking opportunities. He also met Buddy Bruintjes, a licensed automotive journeyman working as a tool salesman. They both realized it was time to go into business together. Benchmark Automotive was founded.
“We found the building on Massey Drive, it was in disrepair but it was exactly what we wanted,” said Simpson. “It had eight functional bays and we started with just the two of us. We answered the phone and worked from dawn to midnight and would be back by 6 a.m. the next day.”
Within the first six months they hired their first apprentice. Eventually they hired two more from CNC.
“The first two years, our biggest challenge was growth,” said Simpson. “We had to be careful and we didn’t want to implode. We had to buy more jacks, another hoist and a computer which eventually required a server.
“By year five, we had 12 people on the payroll. However a decision was made where quality was our thing and nine people seems to work very well for us.”
While 2010/11 was a tough year for everyone, Simpson remained optimistic and experienced a successful year in 2011/12. Quality control was solidified from the time a customer brings a vehicle into the shop and returns to pick it up once it’s fixed.
“We train the staff so they’re empowered,” he said. “My apprentices have been ahead of their peers because I ask them questions throughout the day and how something works. We’re making them better apprentices.”
Simpson also returned to CNC, the place where he learned the trade in the first place. He’s filled in as an instructor for Dave Tuck and Dave Anseth and met some new people. It was a different challenge and a different change of pace.
“I thought I really knew the industry until I got into teaching. Sometimes I didn’t know the answer,” he said. “I had to explain the concepts in a different way so the students would understand. Now I push their comfort level, ask a lot of questions and challenge them.”
More recently, he’s created a new tool to challenge CNC automotive students in all four of their years. With the help of his automotive team at Benchmark, he’s created car bugs, unique training aids designed to help students find a variety of problems in an engine or an alternator.
The four cars and one truck each have 25 bugs in them and train all four years of automotive apprentices.
“My crew took pride in developing the car bugs and now they know the cars inside and out and how it won’t work,” said Simpson. “It’s a huge learning curve for them. Before the bugs, the students would take apart an engine and would never see a problem. But now they’re trained and know how to to find a problem.”
While he’s still involved with Community Futures and a CNC instructor, he’s also a director for the Canadian Independent Automobile Association. He’s also an advocate for consumers who buy cars.
What does Simpson tell undecided students who don’t know what they want to do?
Well, academics, especially math and English are important, he said. Admission requirements have increased. In 1995, a student only needed Grade 10 reading comprehension; in 2010 it was Grade 12 reading comprehension and today students must have university level reading comprehension.
“Our industry isn’t as sexy and we don’t earn the big money like other trades,” he said. “We’re on the eve of a big shift. I still think we can have parity with the other trades and the bar is going to move up.”
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