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Raising the Roof on Their Own Terms

(This article was written for Heffner Motors, a Toyota and Lexus dealership in Ontario, for the local Chamber of Commerce magazine. Published December 2014.)

In 1973, John Heffner had two options: raise the 32’ x 37’ roof and build a second floor up to it, or take down the roof, build the second floor, and then rebuild the roof. The first option was dangerous, and no general contractor would do it. The second option was more expensive.

So he chose the first option and raised each side of the 24” thick beam in the middle himself, a few inches at a time, using 10-ton jacks.

When John Heffner Sr. first opened up shop in 1960, though, he likely didn’t imagine himself lifting a roof, or expanding the business more often than he went fishing, or managing over 180 employees with his sons. (He’s retired now, but he still has an office and visits daily when he can.) It was through excellent customer service that his business grew so quickly and so much.

In the early days, that meant opening at 7:00 a.m. to accommodate morning shift workers, and repairing big engines until midnight. After he hired his father-in-law to do oil and tire changes, they could service customers in five languages. He even offered 24-hour towing service by parking the telephone next to his bed.

“I will never forget one bitterly cold February morning,” he writes in his memoir, “when there were fifty-four calls from customers whose cars did not start due to the temperature.”

Although his sons, John Jr. and Willy, now steer the company, the emphasis on customer service has not changed.

Lance Clyne, a current customer, explains that it’s precisely the customer service that has kept him going to Heffner Lexus Toyota Scion: “I felt like often they went above and beyond what dealers would do, even assisting me in pricing out one of my vehicles for private sale.”

Annamae Elliott has been a repeat customer for almost fifteen years.

“They treat you like a person, not a sale,” she says. Elliott prefers to deal with the same person in sales. “She was the go-to person when we bought the van. She was so patient with us as we looked at different options, and she was good about not pushing anything on us.”

However, providing excellent customer service is perhaps not as easy nowadays as it was when John Sr. first opened up shop: He didn’t have to navigate the rocky road of the Internet.

“One of the things that the Chamber does that I think is really good for small businesses,” says John Jr., “is that they provide many seminars where businesses can learn. For example, the Internet is an area where a lot of the smaller businesses don’t have the expertise nor do they have the funds to hire somebody to help them with that. So, the Chamber will provide seminars on building your Internet image, your social media profile.”

In addition to the Chamber’s education and support programs, the Heffners also like its focus on community and ensuring we are recognized outside of our boundaries. For example, they’ve supported the Chamber’s golf tournament for the last fifteen years.

Or was it twenty? Neither brother could remember; it’s been that long. The same actually goes for how long Heffner Lexus Toyota Scion has been a member of the Chamber:

“I don’t remember not being a member,” says John Jr. “I’m sure Dad wasn’t a member in the sixties when he first opened up.”

“I think early seventies,” says Willy.

The company’s slogan, “You’re part of the family,” applies to all aspects of the business, from its community support to its employee health and wellness programs.

“Heffner Lexus and the Heffner family have been important supporters of the KWS for many years,” commented Chris Sharpe, Interim Director of Development & Donor Relations. “With their sustained support as the title sponsor of the Pops Series, they help us to continue to create ambitious and innovative concert experiences that inspire and entertain audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds.”

Since the opening of the new dealership in 2007, the Ray of Hope’s Morning Glory Café in the Toyota building is home to an employment program for people ages 15 to 30 who, for various reasons, have difficulties securing full-time work.

The café has “probably been the area where we’ve seen the most direct results,” says Willy.

“We’ve seen young kids go through the program and come out of it at the other end of the program basically transformed and changed,” says John Jr. “All of a sudden, they’re just like new people and it’s really nice to see that.”

Heffner Lexus Toyota Scion also supports smaller projects, especially new ones where fundraising may be challenging.

“It’s nice to be able to see when the contribution you’ve made actually made a difference in people that live in your community who have got a desire and a hope and dream to make something happen,” says John Jr.

Not only is the welfare of their community important to the Heffners, but also the health and well-being of their employees. The Chamber recognized their achievements in this area, and Cowan Insurance asked to include Heffner Lexus Toyota Scion as a case study in its presentations to clients. The dealership’s health and wellness program includes an on-site fitness facility, an employee assistance program through Mosaic Counselling, an annual wellness fair, and events like a smoothie creation day, where staff worked together within their departments to make the best-tasting smoothie ever.

Everything the Heffners believe in is wrapped up in what they call The Heffner Covenant:

  • To be the leading provider of automotive services in their market.
  • To provide superior customer care through honesty, integrity and respect.
  • To provide their employees with a safe and positive workplace, encouraging personal growth within a team environment.
  • To be a responsible corporate member of their community.

Destroying the roof and constructing a new one would’ve been the easier way to solve John Sr.’s – my grandfather’s – original problem. But that’s not the way he works; he doesn’t destroy his dreams just so he can find an easier one to reach. He raises them high and then reaches them inch by inch. His sons, along with all the employees at Heffner Lexus Toyota Scion, are following suit.