Auto Parts Asia Feature Story on the AAAA – with Stuart Charity
In a wide-ranging interview, AAAA CEO Stuart Charity talks to Auto Parts Asia Magazine about the impacts of COVID-19 on the industry, how automotive retail is fairing, EV vehicles, how the AAAA builds member skills, the growth outlook for the Australian aftermarket industry and much more.
Did your members face any challenges during COVID-19? Elaborate.
As the pandemic started to impact Australia in February, our members initially faced the uncertainties of the virus itself and how that would affect their businesses, customers, employees, and the economy. State and Territory governments then started imposing various levels of restrictions on people movement and trade. This affected (to varying degrees) large portions of manufacturing, distribution, retail, and automotive service and repair across the country.
Our members then faced the challenge of interpreting hastily constructed and not always coherent new regulations and sought answers to whether they could remain open, and if so to what degree.
Businesses also had to navigate the various government assistance options available, make difficult decisions around staff, faced loss of revenue and customers, and worried about the short-term survival of their businesses.
Following a national lockdown from March through to May, Australia regained control of infection numbers and once restrictions started easing businesses exhibited strong recoveries. However the state of Victoria (the second largest in Australia) was hit with a second, much larger COVID-19 wave in June. The Victorian Government responded by imposing a hard lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne which ran from July until the end of October. It is only now, that restrictions are slowly being wound back, that Melbourne based businesses can start their process of recovery.
What are the learnings for AAAA from the pandemic and how the association supported its members during this time?
We were proactive in our approach to the pandemic, but of course no one was fully prepared for how events would turn out and the scale of the impact on our economy.
As the first wave hit, we received an unprecedented influx of members and the broader industry who turned to the AAAA seeking information and assistance. Our primary role was to influence and interpret government regulations and support offerings, and provide clear and timely information to our members. Regular, accurate updates assisted our members to make the best decisions and receive the Government support they needed.
Due to the high level of demand for this information, we had to quickly adapt and further strengthen our communication methods. We added online webinars to our repertoire of communication channels to provide information to as many people as possible. Webinars provided the additional benefit of allowing direct, live member Q&A sessions.
Members had direct access to our advocacy team during the crisis, and the team were inundated with individual requests and queries asking for advice in relation to the pandemic, the government response and their particular situation.
We were successful in lobbying Government to classify automotive repair as an essential service and as a result the majority of our industry stayed open throughout the year and we have lost very few staff from the industry which is a remarkable achievement. The innovation that was displayed right across the sector was inspiring- mechanical workshops implemented contactless drop off and pick up systems, adopted SMS and digital communications to inform their customers that they were still open and implemented a range of process changes to ensure the safety of their staff and customers.
Our parts supply chains had to deal with working from home arrangements, scaled back staffing in distribution centres and a whole range of logistical challenges to ensure the trade had the right part, at the right time for the right price.
Automotive retailing also held up remarkably well right throughout the year as people with disposable income and extra time worked on their cars.
We also learned how resilient our industry is. Despite the challenges, we saw incredible resolve, determination and support across the industry and ‘being in this together’ unified everyone toward common goals, putting aside competitive rivalries for the greater good.
How are online sales in the automotive parts retail segment evolving in Australia?
While online sales of automotive parts and accessories have grown over the past five years due to the strong consumer uptake of online shopping in general, they still make up less than 5% of the overall market. The diversity of the Australian car parc and the need to ensure parts meet exact specifications means that many consumers and trade customers still buy from traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers and resellers. Having said that, outside of the online marketplaces such as e-Bay, the majority of online sales are through the large traditional retail groups such as Supercheap Auto, Bapcor (Autobarn/AutoPro) and GPC (Repco/Sparesbox). While Amazon attempted a major push into online retailing of automotive parts and accessories a number of years back they have not been able to gain significant market share from the established online retailers.
What is the role played by AAAA whenever issues crop between nations on tariff etc., that affect the business of your members? Is there any impact on imports of aftermarket products from China?
We take a proactive approach to address any tariff issues that arise from time to time that have the potential to impact on our membership. An example of this was in 2019 when the Trump Administration was considering imposing a Tariff of 25% on automotive products exported into the USA based on national security grounds (section 232). The USA is our largest export market.
We were able to lobby for our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to engage with their US State Department counterparts to advocate for Australia’s interests with the US Administration. This involved direct representations by Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister as well as our Ambassador to the USA to put the position that the products that the Australian industry supply into the USA compliment rather than compete with US manufacturers. Ultimately the Trump administration did not proceed with the Tariff.
We have not experienced any issues with the import of aftermarket products from China other than some isolated supply issues earlier in the year as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 on China’s manufacturing sector.
The connected vehicle is a boon for the users; how is it for the aftermarket industry?
Similar to other new technologies, connected vehicles present new opportunities for the aftermarket, however, at the same time, challenges have presented themselves. Over the years as vehicles include more and more electronics, both hardware and software, it has made it more difficult for independent service and repair workshops to access software updates and repair and service information from car manufacturers. This has a flow on effect on their ability to compete with dealerships on fair and reasonable terms in servicing and repair of vehicles. We have campaigned for over 10 years to have a law implemented that compels the manufacturers to share this data. In great news, a mandatory data sharing law will be introduced in Australia in 2021 which will force all car companies to share all repair and service information with all repairers on fair and reasonable commercial terms.
Despite the advances in the connected car, the fundamentals of vehicles have not changed. Components need service and repair, and vehicles remain open to all manner of modifications and customisation. In Australia, changing government regulations can impose challenges in regard to the modification of vehicles, however we have a constructive dialogue with regulators to ensure our members can continue to offer safe accessories and modifications for vehicle owners.
What percentage of sales in Australia account for electric vehicles? What is the current EV parc? How does AAAA support its members in catering to the requirements of these new breed of vehicles?
Electric vehicles continue to gain some popularity with sales volumes increasing year on year, however they remain a very small part of the Australian car parc. Electric vehicles account for only about 0.6 per cent of the Australian market currently.Sentiment wise,consumers are more receptive towards owning an EV vehicle than 5 years ago. The main challenges we face are the lack of EV charging infrastructure and the vast distances involved in Australian road networks, as well as the price of EV’s compared to the equivalent internal combustion engine model. We don’t foresee any sizeable shift in change to the car parc in relation to EV’s for at least another 10 years.
At a AAAA member support level, we are beginning to host information and training evenings that focus on EV safety and specific servicing requirements and monitor any changes in the car parc or government regulations around EV’s that may have an impact on the industry.
Can you briefly tell us about your initiatives in building professional skills to your members?
One of the core principles of the AAAA is to ensure member sustainability and foster member growth, with skills development an important component of this.
At government level we support and advocate for issues around skills and training. In Australia there is a shortage of skilled labour and our industry needs more apprentices to choose automotive as a career. Along with Government advocacy on these issues, we are increasing our work on strategies at an industry level to drive new apprenticeship levels and interest in what is a fantastic and diverse industry.
AAAA members are exposed to regular AAAA training and networking evenings, designed to educate and build skills of those in our industry. Our member webinars are often themed toward skills development with topics including local area marketing, cash flow and business efficiency.
We also provide business development tools and services to members. This includes access to our advocacy team, market research including our Car Parc Data tool and Workshop Health Check, and hotlines for human resource and legal matters.
Can you update on the “Automotive Innovation Labs” that AAAA established in Victoria and South Australia a couple of years ago?
The Auto Innovation Centre (AIC) is just about to celebrate its first Birthday in Victoria, while the facility in South Australia is close to being opened. The Melbourne facility contains cutting-edge testing and scanning equipment, workshop facilities and other manufacturing and development capabilities for our industry to utilise, plus a fleet of new vehicles for product development.
The AIC is already the go to facility for many Australian businesses seeking assistance with product development thanks to its unique capabilities. The AIC conducts regular Electronic Stability Control and Brake Testing to ensure products such as suspension and braking systems meet Australian Design Rules. 3D Scanning is another popular service offering, with a soon to be launched database of vehicle scan data available to subscribers. The AIC also hosts businesses that run training, networking and information evenings and the fully equipped workshop is used by companies for product fitting sessions using the AIC vehicle fleet.
What is your outlook for the growth of the aftermarket in the next five years?
We are very positive about the growth outlook in the aftermarket over the next 5 year as all the key drivers that we look at to assess future demand in our industry are positive. These include:
- The fact that Australians are still very reluctant to use public transport like they did in the past which has driven up the price of second-hand cars as families buy a second or even third car to ensure they can get to where they need to be without relying on transport.
- New car sales that had already experienced 2 consecutive years of month on month declines have been decimated this year. This will drive up the average age of vehicles meaning that a greater proportion of vehicles will and are being serviced in the independent aftermarket.
- With many interstate boarders still closed and international borders closed for the foreseeable future we are seeing the return of the family road trip which has seen a massive boom in the sales of 4WD accessories and vehicle modification services.
- To further support these market dynamics, the imminent introduction of a national mandatory data sharing law will lay the foundation for further strengthening of the independent service and repair sector moving forward.
So while 2020 is a year that we’d all rather forget, we are experiencing strong demand for our products and services across all segments of the aftermarket and we are projecting this to be sustained over the next five years.
A brief note on the current status of AAAA.
The AAAA remains Australia’s only independent, member based national association supporting the automotive aftermarket industry. The AAAA now represents over 2,500 member companies, producing a combined value of $8 billion worth of products and services. Our member retention levels and revenue remained solid despite the pandemic, and our member services and industry support capability remain stronger than ever.
COVID-19 has impacted some elements of our association. Due to the continued uncertainties around the pandemic, we made the difficult decisions to cancel our Autocare 2020 Convention and postpone our premier event, the 2021 Australian Auto Aftermarket and Collison Repair Expo, both huge events for the industry. We look forward to welcoming the industry back for the rescheduled Expo from 7 – 9 April, 2022.
Our membership strength provides us with the ability to influence the future direction of our industry through a proactive and united approach to Government. Given this, our association was very proud to hear just a few weeks ago that the Australian Federal Government will introduce a mandatory data sharing law into the Federal Parliament early next year. This was a huge moment for the automotive service and repair industry, and the AAAA who has championed for right to repair legislation on behalf of the industry for more than 10 years.