Being raised in a small town of less than 1000 population myself, I was immediately intrigued by the story of Darcy and Donna Barilla, owners of DC Auto Care and Transmission Specialist. Their automotive repair shop is in Morinville, Alberta, with a population of just over 10,000 people. Darcy and Donna have not only overcome the challenges associated with creating a successful auto repair business in a small community, but they’ve done so while generously giving their time and resources to help the community.
For several years, ATRA has promoted the idea that customer-centric shops outperform shops with less customer focus. Darcy and Donna have taken that idea outside the walls of the shop with their community-centric focus. This focus on community service is how DC stands out from the “big city” shop competitors located just 20 miles down the road in Edmonton. I’ll tell you more about that a little later.
Both Donna and Darcy come from families of automotive specialists. Darcy grew up in the transmission industry, and his family had owned an automotive shop since the 1950s. Darcy began sweeping the shop floors in his uncle’s shop when he was around eight years old. When he was 20, he started working in his family’s shop and ultimately managed a shop in Edmonton.
Donna has always loved cars. Her father was a mechanic, and she once wanted to be the first female mechanic at her father’s job site. While she didn’t become a mechanic, Donna joined the military, and later met Darcy when she was stationed in Morinville. Donna says, “It was love at first sight. We bonded over our mutual love of the outdoors, camping, quadding, and cars.” Twenty years later, their passion for the outdoors and cars still shines.
While Donna was in the military, she learned the importance of community service and became involved in volunteer work. After leaving the military, she experienced, first-hand, the needs of the community. Donna became involved in social work, volunteering in the local community with the Boy Scouts, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and United Way. This experience led to her becoming a social worker, focusing on the Aboriginal Reservations close to her home.
Donna quickly transformed her social awareness into helping DC become a successful business that existed not just for their own benefit but also for the community. As Donna puts it, “Thanks to Darcy and DC, I get to work with cars and help people – the best of both worlds.”
DC had humble beginnings, starting in their home garage. Darcy built transmissions in the kitchen to combat the frigid Canadian winters. After five years of operating from their home, their need for an actual shop was met in 2013 when they found a small shop in Morinville. Not long after, they proceeded to take a leap of faith and move into their current 6-bay location. That turned out to be a good move, as the company continues to grow steadily.
When asked what difficulties they experienced while growing their business, Darcy and Donna quickly answered that the shop was hit hard during the COVID pandemic. Financial assistance was almost nonexistent for Alberta businesses, and DC had some difficult decisions to make. Donna and Darcy concurred, “We had to choose whether to close our doors or to lay off some of our staff and push forward. We had to trim down to two employees to make it work.” Donna added, “There was no other option.” They’ve managed to push through and are seeing improvement daily. She continued, “There were times when we didn’t know if we were going to be able to pay rent. Then we’d get a call from one of the people from our church. They’d tell us that they had heard our business was slow, and they needed an oil change or some other repair. They really stepped up for us.” Meanwhile, Donna and Darcy took advantage of the situation and diversified DC’s automotive service menu to serve their small community better.
During the interview, Darcy and Donna spoke of their faith and getting through the hard times with the help of their church family. Donna stated, “Arguing with God about His timing is like starting your own business so you can set your own hours.” I chuckled at the accuracy of that statement because my husband and I had the same experience with our shop.
The DC team loves cars, and they love their customers too. The shop is capable of servicing a variety of makes and models. They’re members of the Morinville Redliners Classic Car Club – a perfect fit for DC, which specializes in classic car rebuilding, from tires and wheels to transmissions.
Darcy and Donna share a passion for old Chevies. Darcy stated, “We’ve built an 81 Chevy Fleetside (plum crazy purple) and a teal 81 short box (short bed to you folks in the US). The Chevy trucks are actually Donna’s passion because she learned to drive in her dad’s stick shift work truck!” Darcy also has a Firebird and a 67 Trans Am waiting for new life and makeovers in the future.
DC’s downsized team currently consists of three technicians, plus Darcy and Donna. Donna described the team members as having the “smalltown flair” that DC is known for.
- Kevin Pierce is Darcy’s first cousin, and he grew up with Darcy in the family shop. Kevin is the transmission specialist with 30 years of experience. He’s the proud father of 3 hockey boys! When Kevin heard that DC was being featured in GEARS Magazine, he exclaimed, “I’ve been reading GEARS since I was a kid, and now we’re going to be in it!”
- The team also includes Noel Lavoie, Darcy’s childhood best friend. Noel is Red Seal Tech and an engine specialist. His personal passion is restoring Dodges, but Donna describes him as a loving father of two children. With a chuckle, she added, “He’s been teaching his 12-year-old son how to do burnouts, and they also rebuild motorcycles together.”
- Rounding out the team is Arron Laroque. He’s a dedicated single dad and a long-standing reputable member of the community. He comes highly recommended from another automotive repair shop that was unfortunately shut down during the COVID pandemic. Donna stated, “He has small-town values, and that’s important.”
As I previously stated, Darcy and Donna have developed a thriving business founded on excellent customer service and generous community involvement. DC is a staple of the community, as Darcy and Donna use their business and personal resources to help others. They’re involved in many charities, including the local food bank, soup kitchen, Christmas Daddies, and local women’s centers. They also support the Soul Sisters Foundation, which focuses on mental health – including domestic violence and suicide. This couple is truly a blessing to their customers and their community.
When asked who they look up to as role models and mentors, without hesitation, Donna said, “John and Esther Boucher, an elderly couple in the community who own HIS trucking. You know, HIS, all capitals – the Lord. They’ve always given back to the community.” She went on to describe how the Bouchers use their business to contribute to the community. “Mrs. Boucher even donated her red ’67 Mustang to an auction to support a local church. This was so precious, and they’re car lovers like us. We want to be generous like them when we grow up.”
Frankly, I teared up as I talked with Darcy and Donna because I know their hearts are in the right place. They don’t succumb to the greed of wealth like so many business owners do. Donna says they stand by the motto, “Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered.” She says, “This quote illustrates a fundamental principle. Simply put, businesses that are satisfied with enough have loyal customers that keep coming back. On the contrary, those who are greedy and take advantage of customers eventually go out of business because the customers go elsewhere.” Evidencing the power of this principle is the fact that DC does very little promotional advertising, relying on word-of-mouth referrals and social media reviews from happy customers.
Darcy and Donna Barilla are a down-to-earth couple who run a thriving business while contributing significantly to their community. If you ever find yourself around Morinville, stop by and say, Hi. I’m sure you’ll be greeted with smiling faces and open arms at this small-town shop which is owned and operated by a devoted couple and a team with big hearts. I foresee big things happening for them as they continue to grow in faith and business. It was a privilege getting to know this inspiring couple.
Have you ever wondered how shops are chosen for this column? We know there are many deserving ATRA shops out there – you might be one of them. Sometimes, we hear about shops and their unique stories through the grapevine. However, most of the time, we end up being detectives. We ask our industry contacts for recommendations, and then we contact the shops they’ve suggested.
You’re invited to tell us about an ATRA shop that you think has an interesting story to tell – maybe your own shop. There’s no cost. It just takes about an hour for a telephone interview and a visit by our photographer. We’ll do all the heavy lifting. To get the ball rolling, send an email to Ruben at email@example.com.