How you think and what you think often determines how successful you become.
It’s often been said that mindset is everything. In Emily Chung’s case, she was able to channel her thinking and become an inspiration to others.
She not only trained as an automotive service technician while raising her two sons but also established her own highly successful repair shop (AutoNiche in Markham, Ont.).
Besides, she’s an accomplished automotive journalist and professor for the aftermarket program at the Automotive Business School of Canada as well as a member of the board at the Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario (AARO).
In an exclusive interview with Autosphere.ca, Emily discusses her own fascinating story as well as some views regarding the aftermarket and advice for young people considering a career in the industry.
Autosphere: Can you give us a little bit about your background? How did you first get involved with the industry?
Emily Chung: I grew up in an automotive aftermarket family and my father is an automotive wholesaler who owns his own brakes business. He also supplies products to the people I buy brakes from and has owned the business since 1992.
I remember the very early days when he was just drawing his logo on our kitchen table and back then [I am dating myself here] we still had typewriters and I remember him creating documents on the typewriter.
When I was younger, he brought me in to put labels on the boxes for the brake part numbers—I didn’t know how to make the brake rotors, nor the technical aspects of it, I just knew the labelling was a part of it. He could have been selling coffee mugs for all I knew but I understood how to package and ship the product, even if I did not know the technical aspect of it back then.
What made you decide to become an automotive technician and open up your shop?
EC: I never really thought I would own my own business, I had no interest in being an entrepreneur, I saw what my dad went through, saw the long hours and the stress and all that—and knew I did not want that for me, so after high school, I went to the University of Waterloo and eventually got my degree in psychology and business.
I became a psychometrist for a few years and then I missed the business side of things, so I moved into human resources, thinking it was a good mix of psychology and the business side of things. After that, I went to work for my father again as a project manager.
Around that time I went on maternity leave with my second child [I have two boys] and I just thought at the time, there was an opportunity for me to go into a pre-apprenticeship program at Centennial College and I thought it would be helpful for me in terms of if I was going to stay in the industry with my dad.
Shop and milk
My son Lee was just three months old at the time so I would wake up at 5:00 a.m., I would nurse him, I would go to trade school at 7:00 a.m. and in between shop classes at Centennial, I would pump milk, store the milk there and go back to shop class.
I did this for a few months and then, eventually, I completed my Level 1 apprenticeship and at the end of that, I had to decide if I was going to return to my father’s business or continue as an apprentice.
Part of my journey was that I became a Christian around that time too and I felt that God was calling me to open a repair shop and so in one conversation with my Dad, I said I’m not coming back, I’m going to learn how to fix cars, open up my repair shop. My cousin was working with us at the time and I said, by the way, I am taking her with me and she is going to be my service advisor! So that was in one conversation.
What was it like, being an automotive service technician?
EC: It was very interesting. To me, it was similar in a sense to when I was a psychometrist because I was doing testing and you are asking similar questions, for example, ‘when did you have these symptoms? When did it start doing these things?’
Then you are essentially doing diagnostics, you are analyzing data and from that, you can give a recommendation. I think my experience with that portion of my role set me up for my time as a technician.
What is it like running your own business like that?
EC: It has its highs and its lows. It is interesting. I had to do a lot of learning and a lot of growth because early on, I didn’t understand the numbers. I had the data, I just didn’t understand the relevance of the data and so I had a huge learning curve there— it was tough for the first few years and we didn’t turn a profit for many, many years.
At the end of the day, if it wasn’t for my strong belief, conviction and my faith, which was the reason I was there, I am not sure I would have stuck it through.
Are there things you’ve done to set your business apart from the competition?
EC: For me, I thought through why I decided to open up ‘another’ repair shop. What is the unique value proposition that I am bringing to this space? What is the problem statement I am solving in the marketplace? I was very clear on why we were different and how we could best serve the market.
At the time, and to me still, the biggest factor, is having a good communication element. What is interesting is that when we first started, I went with the female-friendly marketing approach, then after year one, I took a look at my database and saw that 85% of my clientele were men.
The men felt they needed to know something about a car to come to the shop. So that was very interesting for us and it was at that time, that I decided to change from female-friendly marketing to focus on being a family-friendly repair shop.
Clean waiting area
We have been running with family-friendly for a while now, and so one big thing for me, being a family-friendly repair shop, I knew that my waiting area needed to be very clean, so that was one thing that physically set us apart from other shops—a very clean workspace and a welcoming area to come into, for an independent repair shop.
Specifically, about the business though, how we set ourselves up differently from the competition is that we were into digital vehicle inspections right from the get-go. When the program was first launched, we signed on.
It has been quite some time now, since 2017 and for me, it has provided an opportunity to communicate with the client much better, because you can now visually see things that we try to explain to them and from a business owner standpoint, if I tell somebody the brakes are gone, I now have video and picture evidence and I also have an indication that the customer saw the work that needs to be done and if they choose not to fix it, that decision is on them.
What has been the impact of COVID-19 on your business?
EC: Obviously our business has slowed but that is the reality of the situation. In my mind I think, it has been a year now and if I have not made changes to my business and have not pivoted then I do not deserve to be in business anymore!
So, my mindset is yes, the pandemic happened and the only thing I can control is how I respond to it and how we respond collectively to it as a shop. We have made differences in terms of cleaning vehicles, prepping vehicles, picking up and dropping off, utilizing shields of course and masks. For us, it is about understanding and recognizing that yes, the pandemic is there and not being a victim to a situation like this.
What do you think about the term ‘disruption,’ as it relates to our industry?
EC: I always say this, people have been talking for years now about electrification and autonomous cars and how they are going to be big disruptors but I think the COVID-19 pandemic is probably the biggest disruptor we did not plan for and if and when we come out of it, things like electrification and autonomous vehicles are going to be a little easier to handle because we’ve had so much warning about them. I do see the trends toward electrification but once you separate the hype and noise from all of it, I look at it as, ok, what are the opportunities? And for me, I see a big opportunity to ensure our technicians are trained.
You’re also an accomplished journalist and automotive professor, tell us about that?
EC: It was a case of one thing leading to another. When I speak to students entering the skilled trades, it is important to let them know that just because I am a service technician doesn’t mean I just spend all day fixing cars. There are other career paths open if they choose them.
As far as my writing is concerned, one thing led to another and I started writing and ended up being a contributor to several different publications. As for teaching at the college, I just thought to myself that one day I may not have AutoNiche anymore and I knew a professor at the college and a position happened to open up, so I put in my resume and I was blessed that the dean at the time took a chance on me and decided to hire me on. That was in 2017, so it is has been quite a bit of time now.
What do you think is important to teach young people today about the aftermarket?
EC: The professors and I who teach the aftermarket college courses, talk about this all the time because when students come to us, they are coming out of high school and coming into college. When they come to us, a lot of them—I would say like 99 % of them have such a different view of the aftermarket.
They think in their minds that the OEMs are huge in the industry and the aftermarket is a tiny afterthought of the market and in reality, that is just not the case. It has been a challenge to change the perspective of these students, since from day one, from the time they are babies, they have been bombarded with OEM brands. So, when you try and talk to them about that and say that this industry is not just about the OEMs and that there are lots of great aftermarket and independent businesses within this industry, it can often be a work in progress.
Are there any particular milestones that stand out in your career so far?
EC: Honestly there were moments early on in my journey where I just couldn’t see outside of that fishbowl I was in. I just did not have the right mindset to move the business to a bigger place. I started my shop in a three-bay, five-parking spot unit that was about 2,200 square feet. In 2017, we moved to where we are now and doubled our size, to about 4,000 square feet and were able to add parking which was great for a repair shop, so that was a big milestone. Moving to a new location also brought lots of opportunities, because when you double the size of your business, you have to be able to sustain that growth as well. In a way, it was almost like starting up the business again, getting more customers and then having them be more aware of it.
What advice would you offer to young women about careers in the aftermarket?
EC: It is 100% about mindset, and sometimes it is our thinking that limits what we can do. For me, life is about how can I do certain things and not about trading one thing for another. There is a time and a place for things like that but often I think the language is about what are you going to give up to do this etc. and I just do not subscribe to that mindset.
I have an automotive business coach and I said to him at one point that my plate is full, I can’t do anymore. And he said, very caringly, get a bigger plate and also, how do you know you haven’t been lining up at the buffet line with a dessert size plate? How do you know that maybe you have too small a plate for yourself? That got me thinking about what my potential was.
And I am not saying that every time we come across an obstacle, we need to get a bigger plate, what I am saying that often we default to what can I take off this plate?
So that changed my mindset. For me, if you are a woman and you want to be in the automotive aftermarket, a lot of it has to do with even just your mindset, do you believe you have a place here and it starts with that. I think we tend to focus on gender so much so that we lose the fact that it is about the skills, about merit, it is about earning your way through. Ultimately, when customers come to our shop, they want the car fixed, that’s it.
As women, we are a minority in terms of our numbers in the aftermarket and historically, we have always been in the minority. I recently talked with another female who is in her first year as an automotive service technician apprentice and she said, oh yes you can apply for a position and they will hire you.
When you think about it on another level, the problem with statements like that is the person doesn’t have the assurance of knowing she was hired because of her skill, it is almost sending a subliminal message that you got the job because you are female.
For the guys, it can be just as challenging. I see young men go for interviews and they are not selected and they go, oh, she got hired because she is a woman, so there is this double hit on both men and women and a sense of am I here because I have earned it? And this is really what I see in terms of just speaking with students and learning what are they confident about and what they are not.
I will say this too, I grew up in a home where gender was never even in our vocabulary. I am an only child and my parents emigrated to Canada before I was born. From day one, they just expected me to do well. There was never a conversation of, you can do this, or you can’t do this, or you can do this but there are not a lot of girls doing it—the gender conversation was never in our vocabulary.
Even now, raising my two sons I am very conscious about not having gender in my language.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
EC: When I look at the aftermarket, it has proven to be such a robust industry over the years. In almost every generation there has been a significant milestone or challenge that was met and overcome, so when I look at that, it gives me hope that you know what, we figured it out before and we got through it and we will do the same again. Then it becomes just a question of which side do you want to be on?
Ultimately, we work in such a strong industry and whether we are in a recession or a boom the aftermarket is always going to be there.