Michael Eatson has spent the majority of his career looking at the road ahead, planning for the future, anticipating trends.
Last October, he permitted himself a rare opportunity to look into the past as his dealership celebrated its 50th Anniversary. “My parents opened Peterborough Volkswagen in September, 1969, and the journey from then until now has been extraordinary,” says Eatson, Dealer Principal at Peterborough Volkswagen.
“To have my parents on hand to participate in that milestone was a proud moment for our family and staff.”
Peterborough Volkswagen’s 50th Anniversary event included an Oktoberfest theme, in keeping with the dealership’s ‘VolkFest in the Kawarthas’ event that it has hosted in recent years, which celebrates the heritage of the Volkswagen brand.
Eatson reflects fondly on that 50th Anniversary celebration and his career at Peterborough Volkswagen. His experience in the car business began a generation earlier, in 1951, when his parents immigrated to Canada from Europe. Eatson’s father, Peter Eatson, worked through the ranks, from floor sweeper to technician to service manager and salesperson to store owner.
“When I began working at Peterborough Volkswagen, after graduating from the University of Guelph in 1987, I’d spent years around the dealership,” said Eatson, in an interview. “My father insisted that I work in all departments. His belief that fixed operations were the heartbeat of the dealership helped me to appreciate how much more there is to this business than selling cars.”
Throughout his career, Eatson has maintained a strong focus on customer satisfaction and professional development. He provides his staff with a supportive working environment and the tools to succeed.
In 2009, after 40 years in downtown Peterborough, Peterborough Volkswagen moved into a new facility in the north end of the city. “The economy was in a tailspin and there was anxiety attached to this move,” said Eatson. “But with a great team, we were able to transition and prosper. We have many new faces, as we have grown, but our core team remained with us throughout this period.”
With its move to a larger facility, Peterborough Volkswagen has maintained its community focus. Eatson says that his parents instilled in him a philosophy of giving back. “We are proud to contribute to many important causes locally, including Community Care, Hospice Peterborough and the YWCA,” he said.
Peterborough Volkswagen has also developed relationships with high schools and their co-op programs. Over the years, the company has hired students to stay on, in part-time and full-time placements.
“We encourage these relationships and hope that the school system continues to promote our industry in a positive light. The TADA’s education initiatives have provided dealers with tools to help promote the opportunities that exist in our businesses. This is not the car business of yesterday; dealers are hiring marketing and digital experts, along with business development teams, product specialists, accounting and business managers.”
Eatson’s TADA involvement has come naturally to him. His father was past president of the former Ontario Automobile Dealers Association.
“After my initial involvement with the OADA, I was fortunate to be involved with the merger of the Toronto Automobile Association and the OADA,” said Eatson. “These were interesting times for a small dealer from Peterborough, and it was especially rewarding to be involved with such respected dealers from the big city.”
In April, Eatson will become the new President of the TADA, a one-year term. He is excited about this opportunity to provide leadership and expertise for the association, which represents 1,100 members across Ontario.
“One of my mandates as President will be to promote careers and education,” said Eatson. “Our association has deployed many resources in creating awareness about the career opportunities that exist in our industry.”
Working in the retail automobile environment has not been without its challenges. “From manufacturer demands to customer expectations, our industry is experiencing a period of rapid change and transformation,” Eatson said. “Many new technologies are available to assist in our daily operations, and to communicate with clients. Finding the right pieces that work for our dealership, customers and, most importantly, our staff, is an ongoing challenge.”
Eatson admits that digital marketing has altered how customers research and buy cars. “The average car shopper experiences more than 900 digital interactions when buying a car, and so it’s vital that we understand that process and be where our customers are,” he said.
As he looks to the future, Eatson is encouraged by the direction of his dealership, and with the Volkswagen brand. “VW has a unique offering for the driving public,” Eatson said. “Our customers expect something out of the ordinary, and as we move forward through this digital world, VW will be at the forefront of ‘vehicle-to-customer-to-dealer’ communication.
“It’s going to be exciting times in the car business, especially VW as we launch the refreshed Atlas SUV and Tiguan, which include full digital customizable instrument clusters, as well as car to customer to dealer communications.”
Just as Eatson followed in the footsteps of his father at Peterborough Volkswagen, his sons are doing the same. After graduation from Georgian College, Eric joined the team full-time in 2017 and is now the Pre-Owned Manager while furthering his education in the AUDM (Automotive Business Management) program at Georgian, a one-year intensive program designed for working automotive professionals. Graeme, after completing the Automotive Business Program, is now extending his education to complete the Automotive Business degree program, which includes co-op experience.
"I'm proud to see my sons carrying on the automotive traditions of our family," said Eatson. "My advice to them is the same advice that my father gave to me all those years ago: you get out what you put in."