The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
BRAVING THE COLD TO GET EVERYTHING RIGHT
Most vehicle engineers work comfortably in a warm lab. At General Motors’ cold-weather testing facility in Kapuskasing, Ont., 850 kilometres north of Toronto, Connor Sutton is more likely to be earning his pay in negative double-digit temperatures.
Sutton, 27, heads up a team for durability engineering as the centre’s cold-weather-exposure test lead. The engineers test vehicles at various stages of development in extreme conditions.
“A lot of testing has already been done on the individual components, and now we’re looking at the vehicle as a whole. What we tend to find are issues that stayed under the radar in early testing.”
Having grown up in Kirkland Lake, 300 kilometres east of Kapuskasing, Sutton is used to the cold. “My big passion was dirt biking. I would blow up my engine and rebuild it. Midway through high school, I thought I would go into mechanical engineering.”
During his studies at Western University in London, Ont., he did a co-op session with GM in Oshawa, Ont. Once he finished school, his former GM manager contacted him in 2015 to join the company. His position included trips to the Kapuskasing facility, and two years ago, he stayed for his current role.
As many as 70 vehicles arrive for evaluation each winter, when the facility runs 24/7.
“You need to squeeze every ounce of testing out of the winter seasons. We don’t want to miss any potential issues, and some of our coldest temperatures are overnight.”
The centre closes for maintenance in summer and Sutton trains on the new technologies he’ll be testing the next season.
When a problem is found, Sutton’s team connects globally with the engineers responsible for that component.
“We help them get to why it’s happening, or solutions that could fix it. It’s fulfilling when you find an issue, and you’re glad the guys found it and it never reached our dealers.”
A NOSE FOR NUMBERS ACROSS SIX STORES
To boost productivity, many dealership groups centralize some of their functions. At Kot Auto Group in Kelowna, B.C., Sandra Newton handles the numbers in her role as director of accounting.
“I manage the accounting departments for our six dealerships. I compile data for all our stores and organize our financial statements and payroll review. We have a controller at every store. They report tome,andIstepinifthey need anything.”
The company is rebuilding two stores, and Newton, 30, is overseeing much of that, too. “It’s not just the accounting side. I’m taking documents to the city, writing up forms and organizing how everything moves over. We have an architect who’s helping with most things, but I’ve been doing a lot of research and figuring it out as I go along.”
Newton says she has always been good with numbers and earned a bachelor of arts in management. She also managed a restaurant while in university. After graduating, she became a receptionist at Kelowna Hyundai, owned by Kot Auto Group.
“After three months, I pushed to get into accounting at that store, and [worked in that department] for about nine months.”
She moved to Vancouver and got her CPA and when visiting family in Kelowna, she dropped by the dealership.
“I asked [Kot Auto Group President John Kot] to contact me if anything comes up, and a couple of months later, I got a call and was offered this position.”
Her biggest challenge is managing the documentation generated by six stores. “So much of selling a vehicle is paper and the industry doesn’t seem to be moving away from it. You write it out and then have to put it in the computer.
“But I’m very organized and have high attention to detail. I like solving problems and finishing tasks. Accounting is my passion, I like to help people, and I’ve fallen naturally into leadership roles.”
TODAY’S PRODUCTS AVERT TOMORROW’S ISSUES
As vehicles grow increasingly smarter, the software to build and run them needs to be as well. At Acerta, in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., which supplies software-asa-service, account executive Luke Richard works with clients, including major automakers and Tier 1 suppliers.
“Acerta started in 2017, and I joined in 2018. We’re a Canadian company with sales teams in Europe and Japan.” The company, 110 kilometres west of Toronto, uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve in-vehicle and fleet operations, and upgrade auto manufacturing and identify quality issues, including using existing data to predict and prevent future problems.
Richard, 31, earned an engineering degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “My dad was director of the camera department at IMAX, and that’s probably why I was attracted to a technical field.” One of his first jobs was at Canadian engineering company Multimatic in Toronto, where “I did everything from bench-testing dampers to sitting shotgun for [testing] tires on a Ferrari 458.”
He then joined Ontario parts supplier Stackpole International, creating production tests for its oil-pump assembly line, and then moved to Acerta.
“I wanted to work for a startup, because you wear a lot of hats, learn quickly and you’re part of developing something that’s innovative. I wanted exposure to the sales side and the customer interaction.”
Much of his time is spent researching what potential automotive clients are developing and then reaching out to the right people.
“When I started at Acerta, I had no sales experience. I knew how the product worked and to make it appealing to our customers but I had to build out the back end of a salesperson to pitch the ideas, and that was the biggest learning curve.
“I still do complex problem-solving, working with the data and software teams and I also get to sell something I truly believe is the next frontier of the auto industry.”