Lecours Motor Sales
If you ever decided to take a long drive north on Yonge Street from the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto one could go pretty far, really far, over the Algonquin Highlands, past the historical mining regions of Northeastern Ontario and into the flats of the Hudson Bay’s Clay Belt. Yonge Street turns into Highway 11 which forms the northern loop of the Trans-Canada Highway arcing northwest across Ontario; a route preferred by truckers, where highway, natural gas pipelines, hydro electric wires and rail all run parallel with each other threading a path in the middle of this vast boreal forest. The east-west section of the highway is less populated, forested with few houses here and there crossing many large rivers that most people don’t realize supply a good chunk of the province’s electrical needs.
It is also where the Ontario Northland Railway ends in Hearst; by this time you would have driven a day, yet you would still only be halfway to the next province, something a Maritimer would have trouble comprehending. It’s a region where eastern and western ‘Northern Ontario’ meet, and it’s a place where everyone speaks French.
It’s also where you will find a family Ford dealership that has been at the same location for almost 60 years. Jean Paul and Lucille Lecours raised five children in the apartment on the second floor of their dealership and today their son and grandson run the business from their desks in that same second floor apartment where the living room used to be. “We’ve filled the place to capacity, can’t wait to be in the new building we’re planning,” says co-owner Jean Lecours Jr. “It’ll be tough leaving the old place after having lived and worked all my life in this building; work vs. home was only a flight of stairs for my parents.”
Through its history the dealership has gone through several expansions, but the new owners found themselves landlocked without room for growth. In 2006, land was purchased in the centre of town in the hopes of building new facilities soon after, but these plans were put on hold in 2007 with the opportunity to acquire a neighbouring branch dealership 100 kilometres east in Kapuskasing.
“The logging economy had been slowly shrinking over the years and the opportunity came at a great time; the Ford brand had been neglected in Kapuskasing and it was a chance for us to diversify over a larger population and economic base,” says Lecours. It also meant longer days for him and his partner and nephew Patrick Lecours. “Sure it’s an hour drive to work at the branch store, but at least I’m actually getting somewhere in an hour and not stuck in traffic,” he says chuckling.
Most towns located along the east-west section of the highway rely on logging and in the last decade, one by one here and there mills were closing down, leaving towns devastated from losing their main or sometimes only employer. Hearst is one of the very few towns with all of its sawmills still operating, though it was greatly affected nonetheless with many temporary closures. Census data shows almost 10 per cent of its population leaving since 2006; Hearst made it on the Top 10 list in 2011 of the worst towns in the country hit with population decrease.
“We’re fortunate to be on the right team,” says Patrick Lecours, grandson of the founders. “It could have been very different without the success of the Ford trucks.” The dealer has seen its new vehicle sales increase threefold with the branch store and the Ford brand has gone from third place in the region’s market share to now where it is a serious challenger to the No. 1 spot.
Now with two locations, the dealer has had more success in attracting more customers from the surrounding region, where its combined inventories are more comparable to a larger urban dealer, a significant advantage against other neighbouring dealerships.
As Lecours detailed, “We are the only Ford dealer you are going to see for a 700 kilometre stretch of highway in the middle of the forest.”
Customer buying habits have changed and distances travelled are less important with digital technologies and the Internet. Lecours continues to market to its surrounding regions in an effort to further boost its market share across Northern Ontario but is concerned about being able to properly serve the demand.
“Both locations are filled to capacity, that’s a good problem to have these days I guess.”
According to its customer surveys, about 45 per cent of new vehicle buyers are first-time customers, proof they are certainly taking advantage of new market potential in both Hearst and Kapuskasing.
Despite this growth, the dealership has maintained its focus on providing a small town customer experience, competing with four rival dealerships in Hearst and Kapuskasing. Lecours Motor Sales lives by its mission of ‘big enough to serve you, small enough to care’. “Dealerships in larger centres compete against 10 other dealerships in a large pool of customers, whereas in a small town and a limited population, repeat customers and word of mouth are everything,” Lecours described. “Your reputation is one of your biggest assets besides the team of people you’ve assembled. Our business is about building relationships. We can serve customers in a vast area and we can serve them with our expertise.”
That much is evident from the skilled team of technicians at Lecours, where you would have to combine a few of its competitors to match the number of factory certified technicians it has. “My father is a technician and he built his business with service, it’s the backbone of our business, the rest is built around it.”
Vehicles sales is usually the most important department in a dealership, but Lecours mentions that in Hearst all the sawmills in town would have their collective bargaining contracts renewing all in roughly the same time. “It was feast or famine, every few years everyone would wait to change vehicles, so we focused on fixing their aging vehicles, we learned to make our parts and service departments a priority and it has helped us pull us through these tough times when sales were flat.
“Another way we did it was to specialize in the some of the equipment attached to some of our fleet customer’s vehicles, we also started offering pick up and drop off services to fill the empty service bays. We’ve had excellent results, we focused on minimizing the customer’s downtime by increasing our inventory of some crucial parts and adding Saturday repair service. Mainly though we are the Ford brand specialists, we offer value and peace of mind, including our warranty that our competition cannot match. Our competitors also do not provide mobile repair service, where we have a crane-equipped service truck that provides specialized repairs to our customers in remote areas. Now that logging is slowly returning, we have to make sure we can meet this demand.”
In response to this potential, Lecours’ plans to start construction of new facilities in Hearst in 2014, which will add much needed office space, parts storage and vehicle service capacity allowing the company to service medium-duty grade trucks.
Given its location, Lecours has within its Ford approved territory two of the best accesses to Ontario’s far north; Highway 11 serves as a dividing line and last point of access to the vast north. The James Bay Lowlands north of it is a region more recently noted for its future mining potential since the arrival of new ground penetrating technologies and discoveries like the “Ring of Fire”, located 300 kilometres directly north of Hearst.
As Lecours summarized, “Our revenues, especially from our fixed operations, are the envy of many dealerships in Canada where we’ve managed to rank ourselves in the Top 20 dealerships in Eastern Canada in vehicle repair volume, and that’s from a population base of only 20,000 people!”