An eye out for opportunities
From rebuilding a classic car to engineering a commercial kitchen – it’s all in a day's work for Douglas Automotive & Engineering.
The Rotorua business has built a reputation for being able to take on most projects – from fixing a broken wheelchair or sawmill furnace, through to selling custom and collector cars imported from the USA.
Vince Douglas and his late wife Coralie set up the business in 2003. It was built on Vince’s passion for cars and his eye for opportunities.
He’s recently been appointed as the local Honda Service agency, after being talent spotted by the New Zealand head of Honda, Nobuya Sonoda. The Rotorua Honda dealership was closing so the company was scouting for a workshop to take on its servicing and repairs. “He just dropped by to check out the premises – I think he called in out of the blue, after looking at other options around the town, and wanted to see the operation without us knowing he was coming.”
Vince seized the opportunity. “It’s given us a good foot in the door for getting into electric and hybrid vehicles and keeping up to date with new technology.” Douglas Automotive has taken on the two Honda-trained technicians who were employed with the dealership. He’s also made room for half-a-dozen demonstrator cars that are managed by a regional sales representative employed by Honda.
He sees further opportunities with the new Honda customers, who all get a chance to see the other sides of his business when they drop off their cars.
The main mechanical workshop is divided into the classic car mechanical restoration area, motorbike bay (which accommodates custom builds as well as service and repair), the Honda bay, and then an area for general mechanical repairs.
Part of the design of the interior of the large building that Vince bought five years ago includes a mezzanine floor, which is used for office and storage. A forklift is used to lift parts and supplies up and out of the working area.
The other half of the building houses the engineering workshop. Here the team makes commercial kitchens, truck bodies, playground equipment, gates, and anything else that comes in. “We built our own pirate ship to hire out. There’s not much we don’t do, including mobility cranes and small trailers for mobility scooters.”
Some of the work includes meeting the needs of a lot of local factories – manufacturing safety guards, fencing, sawmill boilers and furnaces and other equipment.
But their delivery won’t be helped by part of Auckland’s wharf space now being clogged by empty containers while the port is dogged by difficulties with a new automated container system. Meanwhile, in the South Island, Lyttelton has reduced capacity while its wharf is extended.
The panel shop is 100 metres down the street. “We set this up to complement the restoration side of the business. Our panel work is booked out until about February next year.” There were four classics in for bodywork when Radiator visited, including a Commodore going through a full body strip. Two more cars were queued up for restoration and waiting their turn.
One area of the panel shop contains the company’s largest hoist and is reserved for heavy diesel work.
Douglas Automotive & Engineering employs 16 staff but they are seeking another panelbeater, an engineer and a diesel mechanic. “We are having to turn away work, which we hate to do, but I don’t want to take on a project we can’t complete in a reasonable time,” says Vince.
He recognises that hiring and keeping quality staff means providing a great workplace. Vince also makes a point to offer plenty of variety - with staff able to move around between mechanical work, engineering and the body shop. The chance to take part in restoration work is an area that proves particularly tempting for new staff.
Vince is full of enthusiasm when talking about his business. But he fires up when explaining his passion for American cars and the US.
“For the four years up until Covid, I was going to America twice a year to select classic vehicles for restoration and sale. We also ended up with the ongoing maintenance of a lot of them. I buy only from the desert states: Arizona, Nevada and LA.”
Vince and a few mates, including staff from the workshop, headed off for a month and turned each trip into a bit of a ‘roadie’ with stops for NASCAR and drag racing events. “We have a house we can stay at. I have a car and my gear stored there.”
So far he’s brought back 16 cars and half a dozen motorbikes – their original number plates are displayed on the walls of the main workshop.
“In the long term, I’d like to have the business and all its different parts performing well, great managers in place, and me heading off to time in the US twice a year.”
Vince’s sister Lisa joined the company four and a half years ago as office manager. She’s quickly become Vince’s right-hand woman. Her daughter Tracee De Rooy has also become part of the team taking over reception and promoting health and wellness in the workshop.
Lisa says, “My experience is in customer service and office management. I was living in the South Island when Vince decided he wanted to go the US for the first time and needed someone to run things while he was away.” Vince's wife had passed away eight months earlier and Lisa wanted to help.
“We’ve always been close and this has brought us closer. It was just going to be for a few months, but it was fantastic. My daughters moved too – Tracee ended up working here. I love being here with Vince. We always got on as kids and now helping him grow the business and being here for him is great.”
Lisa is a Ford woman and has done some of her own mechanical work over the years. “I remember changing a starter motor on my old Falcon on the side of the road when eight months pregnant. These days, it’s a bit more complicated so I book in at the garage.” Her current love is her 1997 black F150 V8, left-hand drive. “Starting it up in the morning gives me a buzz.” The engine rumble is also a signal to her Clydesdale and Shire horses that she’s on her way to them.
Vince and Lisa do the business planning together, sharing in decisions and scheduling projects.
“We are about to switch to the Australian Workshop software which we got through Capricorn. It is particularly suited to larger workshops like ours and will allow us to track and analyse the individual segments of panel, resto, auto, engineering and Honda.
“It will let us keep a closer eye on pricing, performance, stock control, and see exactly which areas might need more attention. It can also help show how much time staff are spending on different jobs. It’s a specific package for workshops and will intergrate with Xero.” Both can see how handy it will be to use a tablet to take photos of the work being done, particularly in restoration, and load it directly into the system and send it on to customers.
By end of the year, Vince and Lisa expect to be in position to take a strategic look at the business and carry out some long-term planning.
“Honda will be well bedded in, engineering and motorbikes have room for growth, and maybe we’ll be able to think about heading back to the US,” says Vince.