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Making the Family Collision Repair Business Work

Communication is the key factor in making your family-run shop work.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Accurate alignment isn’t just about getting the customers’ tires pointed down the road correctly. In the huge percentage of collision repair businesses in the U.S. that are family-owned, alignment of the various generations’ goals and abilities is critical to future success. Statistics suggest that two-thirds of small businesses don’t make it to a second-generation owner, and only about 15 percent make it to the third generation.

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The burning entrepreneurship that caused Dad to leave his job working for someone else and open his own business may be missing entirely in Sonny or Sis. Sonny and Sis may have business education or work experience that would enable them to successfully attack existing shop problems in new and effective ways, but Dad won’t let go. Dad won’t let go because Sonny and Sis don’t understand. Sonny and Sis can’t make needed changes because Dad doesn’t understand. I contend that the exact same thing that causes marriages to fail is the leading cause of business failure: poor communication.

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Communication Is Key
I can address the family-run business issue firsthand. I was the SOB (son-of-boss) when my dad and I started our PBE jobbing business in 1970. In addition, many of my past body shop customers and a great many of my jobber friends are lucky enough to have children who currently want into the family business. Some are navigating the transition much better than others. I can remember coming home really frustrated that my dad couldn’t see how some problem or opportunity I had the perfect solution to would actually work out and refused to go forward. Rather than sit back resentfully and fume about it, I discovered we were able to move forward best when we could have a frank discussion about the issue.

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This was much easier said than done because our work lives, by definition, overlapped our personal lives. Family dynamics are unlike any other human interaction. It’s no wonder the universal dad doesn’t think the kids have the necessary determination, skills or work ethic to carry on. He remembers when they couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time! And all grown up, Sonny and Sis can’t seem to get the message across that they’re not only fully potty trained, they actually know something about business, too. I got through it all because my dad was a nice guy, and the moment he thought I could sail the ship alone, he sold it to me and moved away with my mother. Once I was at the helm of the business and he was gone, I discovered he had known a bunch of stuff I didn’t.

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Those proud collision repair industry fathers and mothers who are lucky enough to have their children want to join them in business don’t always recognize the long odds against their succession plan. However, I’ve seen some business generation transitions work well. Here are some tips from the most successful ones.

Start At the Bottom
Coming into the firm directly to the big chair in the front office often causes resentment within the employee ranks and leaves the new “boss” without a clear understanding of many departmental issues.

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This example is about two local car dealer principals: one guy started his son in the parts room, then gave him a stint on the service lanes, then the business office, then F&I, then finally the sales floor. By the time Dad was ready to back off working so much, his successor had hands-on experience all over the dealership.
 
The second dealer set his son up as general manager on day one, in charge of employees with decades of dealership experience. Not only could he not pick out the core problems from the minor ones, he had a building full of resentful staff.

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SOB (or DOB) is a tough job title; working alongside the existing employees first makes for an informed owner and supportive employees.

Train Each Task Specifically
I know two independent body shops, one with a son and one with a daughter, both who hope to carry on their dads’ businesses. One dad figured that Sis would learn simply by watching him as he flew by during the day doing the thousand things a shop owner must do to succeed. To her credit, she did learn most of it over time, but seldom understood why things worked as they did.

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In the other shop, Sonny was assigned specific tasks that became his sole responsibility. He was expected to ask questions and do the work alongside Dad until he understood both the how and the why. Once they were his jobs, he received the credit when they went well and the blame when they didn’t. A big part of any business ownership is letting your successor make mistakes. Dad made mistakes when he was learning, I promise.
 
One helpful tip is to have the boss write down, in order, all the various steps to complete any work operation. It’s a great first step in training others. Once it’s on paper, missing steps (that are still in Dad’s head) are easier to identify, and it’s simple to ask questions about the process.

Answer All Questions
As a small business owner for 28 years, I was positive no employee could load the trucks, mix the paint or answer the telephones as well as I could. But if my name was in every box on the organization chart, I couldn’t get it all done in time.

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Many years ago, I heard a speaker at a seminar say that one way to ensure your message is received by employees is to ask them to repeat it to you. To successfully train others (family or employees) to do work you’re currently doing, set aside sufficient time. Trying to teach someone in between phone calls, writing estimates and solving daily problems is a recipe for disaster. Block out some training time, one task per session, and make Sonny or Sis repeat the goal and the complete process back to you.

Explain Final Objective

One of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits” that always rings my bell is, “Begin with the end in mind.” The best suggestion I can make toward training others to do your job is to explain what a win looks like. Don’t start with the individual steps to completion; start with the goal of the task first. Then, explain the steps to get there, and have them repeat the steps back to you. Then, get out of the way and let them make enough mistakes to get better the next time.

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If you’re fortunate enough to have children who want to join you in business, you’re lucky indeed.
Listen to their input, be patient and, once they’re trained, get out of their way!


Mark R. Clark is the owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa; he is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He is celebrating his 25th year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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