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THE PILLARS OF ST. STEPHEN

Ron and Mandy Alberts never fail to lend a helping hand

BY MAX REID

For too many collision repair shops, “we care” is just another statement on the sign—something that extends only as far as the money being paid for it goes. But every once in a while, a small Canadian town is graced with a shop that truly strives to take care of its community.

This is absolutely true in the case of CARSTAR St. Stephen; a forward-thinking collision repair shop in New Brunswick, nestled deep in the Bay of Fundy and a stone’s throw from Calais, Maine. St. Stephen’s town slogan is, “The Middle of Everywhere.” The little town in the heart of the province’s tourism industry, is part of the greater Charlotte County Community, which includes St Andrews by-the-sea, St George, as well as the islands, Deer Island, Grand Manan, and Campobello Island.

But as CARSTAR St. Stephen’s owner, Ron Alberts, pointed out in his interview with Collision Repair, “For us, it did not start in New Brunswick. It began in Ontario.”

“I started in the collision repair industry in 1975, working at a shop that was founded in 1935 [in Guelph, Ontario], so it was already well established by then. In my last year of high school, I started to work part-time,” Ron recalled. Ron had the unique opportunity to learn his trade alongside a mentor who had been in the industry for about as long as there was an industry to be in.

“I worked alongside the original owner who had owned the company since 1935. He had seen a lot by then. It was an opportunity to learn from a gentleman who had been doing it from nearly the beginning of the century. His techniques and his quality, relative to 1975, were top shelf. It was a quality first shop.”

One tenet of the collision repair trade that was taken very seriously from the onset of Ron’s career was work ethic. He started out as the low man on the totem pole and had to sweep the shop often. Forever an optimist, he continued working away to build himself up in this trade, taking every opportunity that would come his way.

“Once I was able to demonstrate that I could sweep and clean, I was promoted to sanding, prepping, learning the steps of the industry from the ground up, literally. It was a great foundation for me,” said Ron.

“Eventually I moved from there to a specialty shop where we worked, for the most part, on high-end cars: Porsche, Rolls Royce— top-end vehicles. I was able, again, to learn another aspect of the trade, hone skills, and stay on top of quality.

“I moved through those stages and learned from the ground up and eventually found myself back in Guelph. I worked at a large shop as a painter where I headed up the paint and prep department learning the aspects of collision, versus restoration or specialty work, in a high-volume shop which was another great experience for me,” said Ron.

“We would take groups of shop owners to Holland and Germany and France and Belgium and go into state-of-the-art shops and show them technologies and equipment and procedures and processes that did not really exist yet in North America.”

– Ron Alberts, co-owner of CARSTAR St. Stephen

Again, opportunity came knocking. Ron was primed to answer it’s call.

“I was approached by AkzoNobel for a position and started in 1987. It was an amazing opportunity to learn this industry from the other side of the desk, not just from the floor. In our case it was in coatings.”

At this point in Ron’s career his entire perspec ¬tive on the auto industry would begin to refine as his new position allowed him access to the inner workings of other complex international markets outside of North America.

“My role in the early days in the late-80s was to gather forward-minded, progressive-thinking shop owners throughout Ontario and arrange European study missions. We would take groups of shop owners to Europe, go into state-of-the-art shops and show them technologies, equipment, and procedures that with some exceptions did not really exist yet in North America.”

Ron’s experiences travelling throughout Europe would come to inform much of his approach to running his own shop, evident in his on-going search for not only the most leading-edge products, but technology and processes as well.

Some years passed, yet Ron’s globetrotting days were by no means behind him as another opportunity arose for the painter from Guelph. The world was calling.

“It was at this point in time with AkzoNobel, I ran several different corporate branches when with the experi¬ence I had as a trainer in the field teaching our products and our processes, [in 2001] I was asked to accept a position in China,” said Ron.

He entered first as a student, travelling to Europe to learn, and now he would act as the teacher, aiming to bring more progressive business practices eastward.

“I lived in Shanghai and travelled throughout the Pacific Rim promoting next-generation men¬talities, equipment and procedures— bringing that European and North American thinking, to Asia. I was based in China but travelled all throughout the Pacific Rim.” Eventually, Ron’s path led him back to North America where he continued on his journey with AkzoNobel.

“In the mid-2000s I came back to join the commercial department, selling products and processes into the manufacturing industry. There was a steep learning curve, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“During this time, we had been taking our son to university here in St. Stephen from 2004 to 2008. So that’s how we discovered St. Stephen, New Brunswick. We would find ourselves here regularly,” said Ron.

“We became friends with people from the town and found ourselves drawn to this place— the community, the geography and the lifestyle. It was a different pace than I was used to in Shanghai or Toronto. For us, as a married couple, it was important for us to write a new chapter in our lives and live here.” However, Ron, like many of the best trades¬people, could not sit still and soon found himself back in the industry. Mandy, never far from Ron’s side, was more than willing to get involved.

“Many lengthy discussions later Mandy and I decided, ‘let’s do this for real’, and we bought the franchise to bring CARSTAR to St. Stephen.” Mandy Alberts brings an entire skillset to the mix all her own. That is arguably what has cemented the family’s shop as a landmark in town.

“My background is in the service industry; customer service, retail, working in medical office environments, taking care of people,” said Mandy.

“For me, entering into this new venture, it was very important that we took care of our customers.”

Even this seemingly simple step early in the process of opening a business presented its own set of unique challenges.

“At the end of 2015 we bought what was, at the time, a bowling alley. It’s an 11,000 sq.-ft. facility. We bought it as a functioning alley in December and had our first and only company Christmas bowling party,” remarked Ron with a laugh.

“We dismantled the bowling lanes and started installing the paint booth, offices, our board¬room and bringing in equipment. Now, we’ve turned that 11,000 sq.-ft. into what we focus on; a progressive collision repair business.”

Soon after opening their shop in the rural New Brunswick town, the transplanted Ontario couple quickly found the particular challenges of their environment right outside their door. “Being in a rural community, we found there was an issue with uninterrupted accessibility to car rentals, so we reached out to Enterprise Rent-A-Car working to resolve our situation,” said Mandy.

“Prior to Enterprise setting up, we sometimes had customers coming in with a non-driveable vehicle needing a rental. On occasion, I would drive them an hour away to Saint John, plan with Enterprise to have them set up in a rental. Sometimes, when they had to drop the rent¬al off, they needed a ride to return to St Stephen. So, I’d make arrangements and follow them to bring them back to their vehicle.”

It was through this going the extra mile philosophy that the Alberts were able to ingratiate them¬selves to St. Stephen and the surrounding community and make concrete progress along the way.

From the very beginning, it was important to us to have everything under one roof in order to help facilitate an experience that was as seamless as possible,” said Mandy. Ron added, “It spoke to our early success in town. Providing that level of service in the community and taking that emotional burden out of collision repair dovetailed with our mission here in town to take the frustration out of the experience as best we were able to.” This harkens back to Mandy’s background in the medical field and her acute ability to identify and address the needs of others, especially in the stressful event of a collision.

“It’s very traumatic for them to be in an acci¬dent,” said Mandy. “Sometimes you get people coming in who are shaken up. They can’t think, and don’t know what to do after having been in a car accident; especially if it was a deer that ran out in front of them. Customers pay their insurance fees, but don’t necessarily understand how to navigate the system when they’ve been in an accident.”

Ron elaborated, “After a fender bender while parallel parking, you’re angry with yourself, but when you strike a deer, it really brings about that adrenaline trauma. It’s more of an event than simple parking lot damage.”

Easing their clients through these incidents, Ron and Mandy are able to build trust with the people of their communi¬ty—a trust that extends far beyond the scope of “just business.” “There were times (pre-COVID-19), where I’d go into the grocery store and it would be an hour and a half before I’d get out—I would see customers and be having conversations with them in the store,” Mandy said.

“Our mission is to establish rapport, trust and credibility in the community,” added Ron. “There’s no better compliment than to have someone call up and say, ‘I have this problem, with a totally unrelated issue,’ just to pick our brain. That speaks to an established and growing relationship with the community.”

“Our mission was to establish a report, trust and credibility in the community. There is no better compliment than to have someone call up and say, ‘I have this unrelated problem, with a totally unrelated issue,’ just to pick our brain. That speaks to an established and growing relationship with the community.”

– Ron Alberts, co-owner of CARSTAR St. Stephen

Always looking to promote the community which has helped their business thrive, Mandy has also been on a personal mission over the last few years to raise awareness of skilled trades work among youth and students.

“I look at the industry and the influential people that are out there, especially in some of the shops we know in other cities and what they have to offer and what they can impart. There’s a legacy to be passed down and it’s being missed out on,” said Mandy, referring to the increasing demand for skilled tradespeople slowly bearing down on the Canadian automotive industry.

“I reached out to the head of guidance counsellors at the high school here and put a presentation together for their team from around Charlotte County. In 2019 we sponsored a bus to take students to Skills Canada, when it was in Halifax, to help expose them to the skilled trades available out there, because not everybody is geared to go to university.”

“Our shop has produced two Skills Canada winners. Two of our painters have gone through and won gold for New Brunswick and one won gold for Canada. That kind of training and involvement is part of our success, and we’re proud of it,” noted Ron.

Ron, in search of leading-edge solutions within the collision industry, sees today as a particularly exciting time for young people thinking about entering the industry. Primarily due to the rapid evolution of this trade. “Today in 2021, to see where automotive technology is, even compared to three or four years ago, there has been such an explosion of change, and that spells opportunity for our youth.”

Totalling an even eight staff members, CARSTAR St. Stephen remains as busy as ever, but is always looking to grow, while still understanding the reality of their rural community. “The other side of the coin of being in a small community, is really needing to bring in staff. This is why Mandy has been so motivated with recruiting students and youth into our organization,” said Ron.

He continued, “At the same time, we are looking for people who are serious about the industry, serious about their career, but also serious about engaging with the lifestyle available here in rural New Brunswick and finding the balance between enjoying Maritime life and thriving in this trade.”

Coming to St. Stephen saw the beginning of a new chapter for Ron and Mandy; a new chapter marked by the forging of new relationships in a new community made all the better by the hard work of a pair of newcomers from Ontario. “We really try to be intentional about dealing with far more than bent metal, and figuratively put our arms around that client and walk through that experience with them. There’s more to this, from a human stand¬point, than just fixing cars.” said Ron.

The couple need only look toward their own staff to see the quality of work they’re doing. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to have the team we have. They are committed to the tasks in front of them, focused on where this industry currently is, as well as where it’s heading. As owners of CARSTAR St Stephen, it’s important to us that our team represents the future and is able to embrace every aspect of it. That’s where our focus now lies.”

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