How Bruce and Scott Eccles of Eccles Auto Service in Dundas, Ontario, succeeded at succession.
Every business owner at least occasionally thinks of how and when they are going to exit their business, and, hopefully, hand it off to another owner. For many among the automotive service provider community, the ideal is to have a family member ready, willing and able to take over the reins when the time comes.
But what if the need to hand over those reins comes unexpectedly early, years before the expected hand-off? That’s exactly what happened at Eccles Auto in Dundas, Ontario, 10 years ago. The continued success of the business is a testament to preparation, dedication, and a commitment to learning, on the part of both founder Bruce Eccles and his son and now owner Scott Eccles.
“Some things fell into place naturally, to tell you the truth. There’s obviously planning, but then there’s also things that just luckily fall into place. But many years ago I didn’t want to be one of those father-type business owners that sort of tried to hang around too long, and maybe was handcuffing the business with some old methods and and old school ideas.
“I had actually seen a couple of shops not far from us where they never really had a plan. And unfortunately, to a certain degree, the business wound down, because maybe they didn’t move forward quick enough. And I didn’t want that to happen.”
Bruce and the team at Eccles Auto had gained quite a reputation, both locally in the community but also nationally as a forward-looking business that was regularly held up as an example of how to do it right. The business attracted customers of late model vehicles and some of the best technicians in Canada.
“We had an opportunity to buy a shop in 2007,” says Scott Eccles. “I had just got licensed and I asked Bruce, my dad, ‘Hey, we should buy this place, and I’ll run it.’ And for some reason, he said, ‘Sure.’ And he did do a very good job, I have to say in being ‘the old guard,’ hanging around.
“When we took over that shop, he just kind of let me do what I thought was right, and let me make my mistakes without really getting all that involved in it. And so I could learn from what I did, and I didn’t feel like someone was hovering over me.”
For three years, a plan for a gradual, orderly handover was in place. Then Bruce Eccles had a motorcycle accident. He glosses over the details, but those around him knew it was bad.
“I’m sure he has his own memories of it versus ours,” says Scott. “But yeah, it was a tough situation for a bit.”
That “tough situation” took Bruce Eccles out of the business completely for six months, and months longer as he gradually recovered; the experience hastened his retirement. (Such as it was – being retired, he says, is probably the only thing Bruce Eccles has failed at.)
“Scott had already been running one of our shops for about three years. So he was sort of at that point getting groomed – whether it was fully planned or not – to take over the whole operation. Well, then he kind of got thrown to the wolves because I was in the hospital. So you can say there was planning, but perhaps a bit of an accidental planning,” says Bruce with his trademark wry humour.
But, adds Bruce, the roots for a successful transition were planted early – by Scott.
“Scott wasn’t like some garage owner’s sons, who hang around the garage since age two and you know, wash the floors and clean cars. Scott actually worked at other shops. He worked at Canadian Tire and he worked at another garage.
“And so we weren’t necessarily grooming him to come into our operation, but then as he got older and more mature, you could see that he definitely had an interest. And so he did a couple things that were really clever. He went to Niagara College and got a business diploma. And from there, he went to Mohawk College and got his technician’s license.”
Bruce said he excelled at both colleges, being named to the Dean’s list at both. So even as the early transition set in, he was confident of Scott’s abilities.
For his part, Scott says that he enjoyed the office work as much as the cars, and that helped him to take on the responsibilities of running the shop. But there were still gaps – for example, he had to deepen his understanding of back of shop operations and managing the interplay of revenue and profit. But rather than struggling to figure it out solo, they sought professional advice.
And as the transition took hold, the Eccles did what they tell their customers to do: find experts you trust, and follow their advice.
“Put a plan in place. It’s gonna take five years,” Bruce Eccles advises. “We have two daughters also, so we have three children. We had to get the business appraised. We had to get our equipment appraised. We put a proper value on the business. I would suggest for anyone doing it, this is a good start.
“And obviously there’s lots of dialogue and discussion. Everybody might do it differently, but we hired a tax consultant lawyer, and our accountant worked with him – because the ironic thing of it all is not only are we trying to do good for Scott, but we’re trying to do as best as possible for ourselves with regards to taxes. So there’s more to planning than just to take over the business.
“There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that you need to address and put into place – to coin a phrase, you gotta line your ducks all up.”
What this means is that even though Bruce Eccles had to step back from the business in most ways in 2010, and put a real plan to exit once he was well enough to do so, the actual transfer of ownership didn’t occur until 2019.
“Scott bought our corporation, Eccles Auto Service Inc. You can talk all you want as two guys that fix cars and run a garage, but until you talk to the people that actually know about selling a business, well, that’s a learning curve in itself. So we followed the advice from the people we hired and everything went smoothly.”
There is of course, more to it than balance sheets. Continued strong communication and respect between Scott and Bruce is key.
“Working with your family can be difficult,” offers Scott. “But I do think my dad made it easier on me even as I started running more of the business. That freedom to make my own decisions. So officially I’d say Bruce is retired but if he’s home, he shows up every day for his coffee and there’s lots of times where I just hang out in the parking lot with him and we’ll just talk for 15 or 20 minutes.
“There’s very little friction between us when it comes to running the business. And I think that’s key. If you don’t get along and there’s no communication, I don’t know how you’re supposed to hand anything off. It just won’t work.”
For his part, Bruce loves to drop by the shop, and says that the environment feels the same as it always did, which is important to him. He admits to needling Scott about pet peeves – he thinks cars should be parked “in the back”—but it’s not about serious critique. And he’s quick to add that he’s proud of how Scott is running the business, and continuing the tradition of the business in serving the community.
That service was recently recognized when Scott was named as one of the “Alumni of Distinction” for his continued service to the community and local businesses.
“Everything’s changing, but I feel that Scott’s really led the way in the last couple years,” says Bruce. “I think we’re moving the way our business and the aftermarket has to go. And I’m very proud of that, because the only thing that’s really constant, and I’ve been doing this since 1975, is change. If you try to fight change, you’re in a lot of trouble.
“Now we’re talking EVs and all kinds of things, so we’ve managed to move our business along with the industry. Scott has obviously made an impression on Mohawk College, to see where Eccles Auto Service is today. So, yeah, I’m very proud.”
Son Scott responds with a pleasant laugh at his father’s words. “That’s how he always talks about me,” he says. “Obviously it’s awesome, but I would say that anytime, especially work-wise, I know he’s proud of me. He lets me know.”
Hear the whole conversation, and more, on The Great Canadian Aftermarket Podcast.