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ABRA Auto Body & Glass: Busy Techs Are Happy Techs

Poaching technicians from other body shops is the No. 1 source of hiring in the industry, according to 2016 data from the Collision Repair Education Foundation. So what can shops do to keep their techs from jumping ship?

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Josh Cable has 17 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers, B2B publications and marketing organizations. His areas of expertise include U.S. manufacturing, lean/Six Sigma and workplace safety and health.

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Editor’s note: This is Part 2 in a series focusing on the challenges of finding and keeping skilled help in the collision repair industry.

Poaching technicians from other body shops is the No. 1 source of hiring in the industry, according to 2016 data from the Collision Repair Education Foundation. So what can shops do to keep their techs from jumping ship?

Brooklyn Park, Minn.-based ABRA Auto Body & Glass has found that a busy tech is a happy tech.

When Ann Fandozzi took the helm of ABRA in October 2016, she created a new management team that now includes Chief Operating Officer Jim Kessler and Chief People Officer Carmen Thiede. One of their first objectives, Kessler says, was to ensure that “we have an environment where our body techs and our paint techs really want to stay.”

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Since then, much of the focus has been on providing “consistent work” and minimizing “stand-around time” for ABRA’s technicians.

“Anytime we have someone who isn’t being productive, they’re just losing their chance to earn money,” says Kessler, who joined ABRA in January 2017.

To provide a consistent workflow for ABRA’s technicians, the company has been making a concerted effort to streamline its estimating and parts-procurement processes. Simply put, ABRA wants to make sure that techs are working with accurate upfront estimates, and that the necessary parts are “delivered in a very timely fashion,” according to Kessler.

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“When a doctor is ready to operate on a patient, he doesn’t go looking for scalpels,” Kessler explains. “We want our techs to be in the same situation, where they have all the materials to do the job so they can be as efficient as possible and work as many hours as they want.”

ABRA COO Jim Kessler: “Anytime we have someone who isn’t being productive, they’re just losing their chance to earn money.”

The emphasis on perfecting the upfront process – from creating accurate estimates to providing the right tools for each job – is all about making “the experience as productive as we can for our body techs, especially our most experienced technicians with the skillsets they have,” Kessler adds.

“We don’t want our ‘A’ techs disassembling and reassembling vehicles,” he says. “We want them welding and doing structural work. It’s just like you wouldn’t want a brain surgeon fixing a sprained ankle.”

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Coinciding with those initiatives, ABRA’s management team evaluated the equipment in its stores, identifying areas where the company needed to upgrade its technology to ensure that “our technicians have the tools to be successful,” according to Kessler.

The company also asked its general managers to have “honest conversations” with techs about how much they want to earn.

“We have techs that make six figures, and we have techs that make less than that, and that’s where they want to be on that scale,” Kessler explains. The goal of the conversations was to make sure that techs “are able to achieve [their financial goals] to make sure they’re satisfied with where they’re at.”

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Leadership Matters

ABRA’s job-retention initiatives fall under the company’s new development program called “ACES,” an acronym for “Accelerates, Connects, Executes, Second to None.” In addition to an apprenticeship program for next-generation body techs, “ACES” will include training programs for ABRA’s production personnel and customer-service representatives, according to Thiede.

“Hand in hand with the development of our body techs is making sure we have the right people in other key positions,” Thiede explains. “We need the right people to produce accurate upfront estimates as well as the right customer-service reps who provide a great experience for our customers when they first reach out to us and walk in the door.”

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The goal, Thiede adds, is ensuring that ABRA’s “expert body techs are working on the most critical and complicated repairs and not getting caught up in the upfront assessment, because we have trained individuals who are dedicated to that.”

ABRA also is building a training program for its field leaders – from general managers to market vice presidents – recognizing that if employees don’t like their managers, they’re more likely to look for a job somewhere else.

“Where we have our strongest leaders, we see a direct correlation to higher retention, and we aren’t having as many challenges bringing in the right technicians, because the ones we have are staying,” Thiede says.

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ABRA is designing its leadership track for its current leaders as well as employees who aspire to grow into leadership or mentorship positions. The focus is on building “foundational skills” and teaching leaders how to effectively communicate and coach, set expectations, provide feedback and empower employees.

“Building that strong bench of future talent,” as Thiede puts it, helps maintain continuity at ABRA stores, supporting the notion that a busy tech is a happy tech.

“Wherever we can create that seamless feeling of … not having to fill gaps at those centers, that’s where production will continue to flow smoothly,” Thiede adds.

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