The Silver Fox: The wit and wisdom of Tom Bissonnette

By Chelsea Stebner

Much of my career has been spent working for the Silver Fox, who is currently leading the collision industry in Saskatchewan, Canada. However, our leading team wouldn’t be here without a strong, assertive, and engaged Executive Director for SAAR, the Saskatchewan Association of Automotive Repairers, Tom Bissonnette!

Tom’s been in the industry for many years, starting out as a salesperson to bodyshops before being thrown into the fire as a parts person at his first bodyshop job. Gaining experience and knowledge through the years, he would eventually purchase his own shop Parr Auto Body, in 2000.

Tom always kept us on our toes. If you wanted to be challenged, have fun, laugh a lot and work your butt off, Tom’s shop was certainly the place to be.

Every day, you were bound to hear a “Tomism” to go along with a situation, a customer or a value he wanted to instil—which I would like to share with you.

“Stick your head above the crowd and get hit by tomatoes!”

As a fresh-faced kid starting my first real job, I had landed in an interesting spot. At that time, Tom had the opportunity to work alongside a heavy-duty truck dealership and plan, design and build a collision centre that catered to the big rigs.

The challenge? The rules of the game with the insurance company were very grey in the heavy-duty area, and Tom was not afraid to play hardball with the insurance company and road appraiser that came by every day to go to battle.

There were some loud, challenging conversations. There were studies and there were arguments. There was Tom, measuring, taking photographs and adding the line items onto the estimate for the work we had completed, even if we weren’t getting paid. There were the times that the appraiser snuck in the back door to avoid confrontation and conversation.

Did I mention that Tom’s hair was not grey at that time? Fast forward to several years later, and you could spot a few more grey hairs. But, Tom was not afraid to stand up for what he knew was true and right. Soon enough, all the heavy-duty shops started to get paid for what they did to properly repair the trucks.

I’m proud of our team. Every day they stand up for what they know to be safe and quality repairs. We do what is right instead of what is easy every time.

“Show up, most people don’t even do that!”

Tom has always said, if you show up, if you volunteer, and if you’re willing and able–do something.

Volunteering time for a committee, a charity, or an industry event is always encouraged and supported.

“Give back. Without strings attached and don’t make a big deal about it.”

A vivid memory I have was a time when an acquaintance of Tom’s came in and asked for some money. I wrote the cheque for the generous amount that Tom asked me to, and then asked, “where do you want me to put this, on Accounts Receivable?”

He responded saying, “Donations. That man obviously needs that money a lot more than I do.”

Today, community is one of our core values.

“In case I get hit by a truckload of pigs…”

You better have someone else that knows how to do this job. Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you!

“Oh…you don’t like to do this? Well guess what you’re doing!”

Tom took over Parr when it was in a less than lucrative state. The shop itself had seen better days; money was tight, and he was dealing with staff that weren’t super excited to be at the shop.

So, he did what he knew best. He got into their faces, he challenged them, and for some, it worked. For others, they turned and ran the other way.

When I was invited onboard at Parr, he started sending me to workshops our paint company put on. Then he invited me to roundtable groups, and then suddenly, he signed me up to speak at his breakfast club.

I remember that like it was yesterday, and I drew a hard line. I wasn’t doing that, so I whined. But eventually, I put on my game face and did my first public speaking gig.

“Surprise their broca.”

Tom always talked about customers and ensuring that we under promise and over deliver–or, surprise their broca!

Broca is an area in the brain that anticipates the predictability of things. When you surprise it, you gain the brain’s attention; but keep doing/saying the same old stuff and the brain glosses over it. We’ve always been reminded to surprise people’s broca by doing unexpected extras and wowing them with service or a surprise.

You can do this with your customers, but you can also do this with your team!

“What have you been doing while I’ve been gone? Painting your nails and eating chocolate?”

Whenever Tom left the office, that’s often when processes got changed, his office got organized and he came back to something new to adapt to. As a leader, he was open to others making changes, and he allowed others to take the reins, so to speak.

His famous customer lines are also quite renowned—colloquialisms like, “How do you know we’re not axe murderers?” or “Do you want some whiskey? Oh wait, the girls drank it all.”

Really, what I want to tell you is this—we have the opportunity to learn and grow from many people around us and it’s up to us to figure out the lessons along the way. I know the journey can be tough slugging, no matter the industry you’re in.

Surround yourself with good, solid people and build a culture of having each other’s backs and having a lot of fun along the way. You’re valuable and influential as a leader so ensure that what you say and do are really the things you want to be remembered for.

As for the whisky, we sure wish we could have had a shot of it some days!

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