Victorian Automotive Chamber of Commerce (VACC) CEO, Geoff Gwilym and VACC Executive Training Manager, Nigel Muller left the Chamber’s new North Melbourne hub and headed to regional Victoria to talk shop with member-businesses and political figures.
First stop, Shepparton in northern Victoria. VACC Executive Board member, Paul Bertoli of Bertolis Agricultural & Industrial, welcomed the pair and – along with local pre-selected Nationals candidate, Sam Birrell – the party discussed the industry’s policy priorities in the lead up to the federal election. Topics included action to combat the automotive skills shortage – such as facilitating Australia’s older workforce, promoting opportunities in regional areas, and removing unnecessary red tape in business.
“I am ready for the challenge of Canberra and look forward to an opportunity to build a bigger and better Australia,” said Mr Birrell.
Maskell’s Customs and Classics in Shepparton was next on the agenda – the team’s expertise in quality custom cars and classic restorations.
Business owner, Greg Maskell toured the VACC representatives around his magnificent workshop. Mr Gwilym also took the opportunity to outline a new marketing campaign being developed by the Chamber, designed to promote automotive as an exciting career path for the next generation. As part of the campaign, VACC and Tasmanian Automotive Chamber of Commerce (TACC) member workshops will participate in a television show starring Dermott Brereton and Elise Elliot. The duo will tour workshops, highlighting the variety of work, specialised skills and opportunities available to eager apprentices.
Time for a quick pit stop at Mr Bertoli’s Benalla site to catch up with Branch Manager, Darren Connell. Once again, skills was the hot topic. While Mr Connell agreed that apprentices were hard to find, he maintained that “you can’t beat a good country lad off the farm. They just seem to be able to have a go at most problems and can solve them with time. I have a couple of good learners here and, of course, our star at the front, Tegan”.
The final tour destination was Wodonga, to celebrate 50 years of Chamber membership with the Barlow Bros team. Owner, Michael Barlow spent some time reflecting on his automotive roots and the industry’s changing landscape.
Hailing from England, the Barlow family emigrated from Kent to Perth in 1962. The family hit the ground running, managing the Kings Park Service Station from 1964 to 1970.
"We outgrew that and had to do something else. In 1970, a place came up here in Wodonga. It was called Joe's Service Station and it was the first 24-hour service station in Victoria," said Mr Barlow.
The Barlow family took the opportunity and made the move to Victoria and, with a prime location on the highway, it proved to be a winning one.
"We had a staff of 55. We ran the service station, the workshop and the restaurant," said Mr Barlow. "Every truck had to stop there because it was the only one."
In 1985, the council resumed the land, and it was time for the next chapter. So, the Barlow brothers – Michael, Tony and Peter – set up a repair workshop at 13 Trafalgar Street in West Wodonga, and Barlow Bros was born.
A lot of service station regulars made the move with them, and to this day remain loyal customers.
"I still have customers that were with us at the service station. We are old fashioned."
A year in, Peter – the only mechanic of the three – decided it was not the industry for him, and soon Michael and Tony ran the show.
The brothers learnt and thrived on the job, with Michael taking his hat off to Shell for giving him a strong foundation. "Shell was a good company, put everyone through training courses."
Tony Barlow – a former VACC Executive Board member – retired 10 years ago, and Michael has been at the helm ever since.
Echoing many business owners in the automotive industry, “like hens’ teeth” is Michael’s answer when asked about securing new labour. Now, four mechanics work alongside him and he counts his blessings. “They are like family.”
"I have one chap, Matthew ... he did his apprenticeship with us 30 years ago, worked with us for 15 years, went away ... came back to us 10 years ago."
Neither of Michael’s children was automotive inclined and so, while the business will not be passed down to the next Barlow generation, he is putting his feelers out and thinking about the next move – one that is best for the business, himself and his staff. Retirement is not in the too distant future, Michael admits. "I don't do weekends anymore; I have given that away."
And what of the future of automotive generally?
Preparing for the future has always been what kept Michael interested.
“We will be fixing all vehicles, including electric vehicles, for a long time yet. Just because you have an electric vehicle doesn’t mean a whole range of service and repair jobs won’t need to be done. Things like wheels, tyres, brakes and diagnostics will still need to be carried out … for many years to come.
“I've got a hybrid car and another one on order. We were here when they said LPGs (liquefied petroleum gas vehicles) were going to take over the world and they never did. It's technology, it's all about how you approach it."