The First 30 Years

 

"If you are very good at what you do, success will follow." These are not the words of a business sage of Bay or Wall Street, but a Lethbridge man who started a chain of 110 franchises spread across Canada.  

Now number three in Canada and moving up to number two, Minute Muffler is a national muffler shop franchise wholly Canadian owned and based in Lethbridge.

Surprised? Dorsy Asplund, owner of Minute Muffler, is amazed at people's reaction when he tells them it is based in Lethbridge, Alberta. "This is one of the best places there is. It's nice to be able to look out 50 or 60 miles into the distance, or see the mountains in the west, and the people here are great. I started Minute Muffler here because it was my home. I saw there was a need for a fast, efficient service-oriented muffler shop in Southern Alberta."

Dorsy thinks back 30 years to Minute Muffler's start in 1969 - the days of Woodstock and Moon shots. "Minute Muffler really got its start in 1965. Just out of high school, I had a hot rod shop in a neighborhood garage where I built many things from the ground up. To make the custom exhaust systems, I had to weld shorter pieces of pipe together to make the bends. Then one day, I saw an advertisement for a tubing bender, a hydraulic pipe bender for exhaust systems." It was then that Dorsy Asplund knew his future was in mufflers.

For Dorsy the 1960's were a focused time. From age 13, he chose automobiles as his vocation. But having the creativity to do custom work building hot rods and seeing that pipe bender sparked the idea for a shop that specialized in mufflers and exhaust systems. In 1967 Dorsy went to Edmonton. "The idea of the muffler shop was still in my head. I went to work in one of those muffler shops to save money for university. I decided against university and put all my efforts into learning the muffler business." After learning all that he could, Dorsy returned to his home a year later with the goal of starting his own shop specializing in mufflers.

In the late 1960's, Lethbridge was a much smaller city with a population of less than 40,000. Across the whole province there were only four muffler shops, and they were centered in Calgary and Edmonton. Bankers and potential investors advised that Lethbridge was too small to support a shop devoted solely to muffler and exhaust systems. Even the large muffler companies thought Lethbridge was not large enough to open here. It was Dorsy's determination and "bull-dogged stubbornness" that made his dream a reality.

"One thing all these people seemed to forget was the area around Lethbridge. Farms and smaller communities see Lethbridge as a major service center." It was these customers that Dorsy saw as a major part of the Minute Muffler story. So in 1969, Dorsy and Darryl Hafso, an employee from the Edmonton shop where Dorsy worked, started the first Minute Muffler on the corner of 5th Street and 6th Avenue South in Lethbridge. "About 50 percent of our customers are from rural areas. We also provide our customers with the things they want - good service, completed fast and efficiently. Until we opened, most people went to local garages to have muffler or exhaust work done. First they had to make an appointment a week in advance. The mechanic had to order parts. If the parts didn't come in, the customer had to wait another week.

When they did, the customer had to wait all day until the mechanic got to it. At Minute Muffler, we could replace a muffler in under ten minutes, while the customer waited, for about half the cost of local garages." Dorsy and Minute Muffler was the talk of the town when they opened. And word spread. "Within two years of opening that first shop, we were doing more volume than our competitors in Calgary and Edmonton."

How did they do it? Dorsy's answer: innovation. Every Minute Muffler has the welding lines running overhead and a complete set of tools is located between each bay. Most other shops or garages have one welding cart. Minute Muffler technicians are within easy reach of tools and stock which also cuts the amount of time to work on each muffler. "We can have an old muffler on the floor and smoking before you can pour a cup of coffee."

And Minute Muffler competed so well that Darryl Hafso opened his own Minute Muffler in Medicine Hat in 1971 in partnership with Dorsy. The Minute Muffler chain was started. Other partnerships started with people in Cranbrook, B.C., in 1972 and Penticton, B.C., in 1973. Eventually, the decision was make to sell franchises. In 1978, Minute Muffler became a franchise business. Now 125 outlets later, Dorsy sees the benefits of that decision. "Franchises are really a loose partnership. In the service industry, local ownership is better because they have a link with the community and provide better service. As the franchisor, we can provide better purchasing power and necessary services to help them get up and running. The franchisee runs the business with a local flavor. Businesses in the Maritimes, Quebec, or Northwest Territories are different than Lethbridge. We provide the basics and they apply them to the local market with the vigor of any small business." Dorsy links the success of Minute Muffler to the people and to the founding philosophy: providing good service, fast and inexpensively. This remains key to opening franchises and training employees.

"There are two aspects to the muffler business. First, there is the technical, the actual installation of mufflers and exhaust systems. Our technicians are really the best mechanics in the world because they are creative. They do custom work to solve unique problems. They install the mufflers so they stay on. Mufflers and exhaust systems take a lot of punishment under a vehicle so we spend an extra few minutes making sure the job is done right and the muffler is guaranteed for life. The second aspect is public relations - not just selling but communicating with the customer, explaining the technical side of things. Serving their needs."

According to Dorsy, service is the key to success in franchising and has always been important to Minute Muffler. "Minute Muffler has always been a small company. We help the franchisee start up their business and we are not afraid to get dirty and work with them to become a success." To help the franchisees and customers, Dorsy is always willing to get his hands dirty. "Providing good service to our franchisees is all part of our philosophy and they, in turn, pass it on to their customers."

This philosophy is also shown in Minute Muffler's adaption to the needs of their customers. Besides mufflers and exhaust systems, Minute Muffler also replaces shocks and struts, and recently, they have begun to replace brakes and front-end parts. "The competition is diversifying away from mufflers with oil changes, tune-ups, and general mechanical work. I think that is the wrong direction. There is an old expression: ‘Jack of all trades, master of none'. With everything, so technical, you can't know everything, so it's best to concentrate on one thing and do it well." Minute Muffler moved to replace struts and shocks because it was a natural use of the same hoist and equipment for mufflers. Brakes and front-end work was added because of customer demand for the service But Dorsy says that will be as far as Minute Muffler will move away from their main focus.

"Stretching reduces the specialization so you can't get discounts on stock and can't afford the equipment. Then you lag behind. All that costs the customer in terms of higher prices, longer delays or reduced quality."

"What also sets us apart from our competitors is creativity. To meet the demands of the consumer and industry, we had to do business beyond the other shops, to go farther." Today, Minute Muffler has a complete research and development department located in the Lethbridge shop. They design specialty mufflers and exhaust systems. A small manufacturer in Eastern Canada, Motivair, builds the components to the customer specifications all in the name of service.

It is certain that future success will follow because Dorsy Asplund has brought Minute Muffler to this point by being good at what he does - muffler, shocks, struts, brakes, and especially service.