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Stacking the Odds In His Favor

Leonard Lassak’s pancake philosophy.

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Leonard Lassak thinks cycle time even when he’s making breakfast.

Leonard Lassak attributes his collision repair shops’ streamlined production methods to astute business management skills — and to pancakes. "Pancakes on Sunday — it’s a manufacturing philosophy," he says of his Sunday morning ritual of making breakfast for his wife and two kids. "I use the ‘pancakes on Sunday’ analogy in some of the things we do [at the shop] — [like] ‘clean as you go’ and ‘how organized are you?’ — because there’s a lot about cooking that relates to what we do. It’s all about keeping organized. It’s all about grabbing all these resources — the water, the batter, the cup, the spoon, the pan, the heat. And the end result is — the output is — a pancake."

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This is no laughing batter. I mean matter. Lassak’s pancake philosophy obviously works. In the past two years, Lassak has slashed shop cycle times and added four Thoroughbred Collision Center locations in Washington state for a grand total of six.

Despite all this success, Lassak hasn’t yet accomplished his ultimate goal: finding the "absolute replicable" collision repair shop model.

But Lassak isn’t the type to end up with batter on his face. When he wants something, he goes after it. And he doesn’t stop until he gets it.

BSB: Before you moved your first location from an 8,500-square-foot building to a 30,000-square-foot facility, you toured several other bodyshops. What did you learn on these visits in terms of production?

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Lassak: "In my travels to go find individual stores and to see production layouts and design concepts, I accidentally happened across Paul Tatman. I called Mr. Tatman — he was using a specific spraybooth that I was interested in — and since I was going to be in the Chicago area anyway, he was gracious enough to invite me — a five-hour drive across the corn fields — to come down to his little oasis in the middle of Illinois. I had just wanted to see one facility, so I got this huge surprise. In 1993, here’s Mr. Tatman with five stores. The by-product was I’d never heard of anybody with more than one store — ever in my life — and it was unimaginable that you could have five monster stores. And these weren’t small. They were 19,000-, 12,000-square-foot body shops.

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"Hanging out with Mr. Tatman, I learned something significant: That one man with the same type background as mine — a technician background, a simple guy, a great technician — could control, almost leisurely control, five body shops.

"We showed up at each store, and he’d pat people on the back. People looked like they loved him to death. He had no more stress than I had running one shop, and he had five. He gave me this little crystal ball version of the future, and explained to me about market dominance. He figured, why would you be in a market and not dominate it? He really turned the bright lights on for me about marketing. And one thing I had never played around with too much was marketing."

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BSB: What did you think about Tatman’s predictions?

Lassak: "The guy scared the crap out of me. At the time, I was going to build a 15,000-square-foot store and be happy in my little market. All of sudden I realized there may be these monsters in the lagoon either coming or around me, and I might not be a aware of it. I asked Paul before I left, ‘Have you ever considered coming out to the West Coast? Do me a favor, call me so I can do one of two things: Start marketing like crazy, or just roll over and sell my business to you’ because this guy had such a deep, deep understanding of market conditions. He had data on demographics, and he understood his market so well and off the top of his head.

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"What I saw was what might happen to Thoroughbred — that the music may stop someday and that there might be people without chairs. And I wanted to make sure that Thoroughbred had a chair.

"Since 1993, the objective was to get to five stores by the year 2000. I only got to two. Now we’re over at six."

BSB: Were your six facilities built from the ground up?

Lassak: "We’ve got greenfields, we have retro buildings where we’ve taken boxes and converted them, and acquisition. Depending on what’s in the market."

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BSB: You’ve decreased cycle times in your shops from 13 to nine days. What factors have contributed to that improvement?

Lassak: "Converting a culture from body shop to a remanufacturing facility and measuring everything. We’ve narrowed it down to [some] key things we measure daily and post them.

"We measure in the paint shop: panels painted per day; how many ROs went through the booth; and hours produced. We set minimum levels … based on gross profit percentage and dollars. And also in the paint shop, we base it on utilization, and we do stall calculations.

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"We have no stand-alone technicians in our body shops; they’re all teams. We measure the team’s production efficiency daily and hours per stall per day.

"So then we come back around to the front end [where] the indicators per day are deposit dollars, estimates, vehicles delivered, sales, vehicles arrived, my work in process daily and my open repair orders.

"We manage that through a work-in process prescribed by the executive team. We take each store, we do their stall calculations, we [consider] their utilization factor — where they should be — and we hold their threshold to their store at about 85 percent utilization. We always leave 15 percent for statistical fluctuation — people calling in sick, all of a sudden it snows, rains, sleets, hails. We never want to run them at 100 percent capacity."

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BSB: Explain "segmentation of repairs," the process by which your technicians categorize cars based on the amount of damage.

Lassak: "There are five. Basically the way we segment them is by utilization of resources necessary to repair the vehicle in both technical staff and equipment. It has nothing to do with hours or dollars. And no, you can’t have those."

BSB: Back to the pancakes … Tell us a little more about how they relate to collision repair.

Lassak: "I hate to say this, but I play around with even how quickly I can go from having nothing out, to having pancakes on the plate and cleaned up and then improving that regularly. So I learned this trick: Clean as I go. I can only ever fix as many cars as I can clean in a day. I practiced it with pancakes. If I clean as I go, how quickly can I go from nothing to being completely cleaned up and having everybody served? It was a big discovery. It was huge!

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"So why not have the bodymen vacuum the cars while they’re assembling them? Why do I wait until the very end to have this massive mess, and there’s pancake batter everywhere and pots and pans and everything. [Why] wait until the end to have the detail department … clean up this mess as the maestro washes his hands of this disastrous thing he did? So we actually applied that in the body shop, and it’s actually pretty functional.

"I still make the best pancakes around. I do it quickly, but I do a damn nice job."

BSB: Where do you go from here?

Lassak: "The development of the absolute, replicable model by architecture and systems. That’s what I’m after. I’m after building the absolute perfect fricking body shop that just runs like a top — with systems that are right on the money that I don’t ever have to touch again in my life. I’m getting there."

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BSB: Why’d you name your business "Thoroughbred"?

Lassak: "This is the definition of ‘thoroughbred’ right out of the dictionary: Thoroughly educated or trained. That’s us. We follow the theory of learning organization. The only competitive, sustainable advantage I’ll ever have is my ability to learn faster than my competition. And I add one to that: the ability to learn and implement faster."

BSB: How competitive is the Auburn, Wash., area?

Lassak: "We’ve got Boyd out of Canada, and other replicators in my area. And I never want to assume there isn’t somebody else having the same meetings I’m having and who has Thoroughbred in their crosshairs. Therefore, I run and stay in front. I like a little bit of paranoia. I think it’s good for you. Don’t let off the gas."

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BSB: What are you interests outside of work?

Lassak: "Whatever I stumble across and turn over a rock and find basically. What I do is I find things along the trail, and I get real interested in them and then I move on to something else. So I’m not really adept at anything, but I adapt well, like a chameleon.

"Right now I’m just working on being a good dad. I’m trying to keep that balancing act: business, personal and family."

BSB: How many kids do you have?

Lassak: "Two — a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Natasha and Daesha. Princess and Precious. And a wife of Tamara, married 10 years."

BSB: With your business growing, does it give you more or less time with your family?

Lassak: "You know what? Nothing’s changed. I think whether it was one or six, I think I probably worked the same hours. I think I’ve found and developed a gravitational pull of great people to surround myself with. I also think my wife gives way to my personality, and she just understands. And the kids do, too. But the one thing I’ve learned is it’s not the quantity of time I spend with my family. It’s the quality. You can ask anybody who knows me very well, when I’m with my family, they have 100 percent of my undivided attention and they feel it. It doesn’t take a lot. I don’t need to take them to Disneyland. I can take them for a walk 10 feet in the woods, and they find [it just as entertaining]. You don’t have to spend a dime to entertain kids."

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BSB: What do you like best about your job?

Lassak: "Gosh darn it! I’ll give you one. This is a great one. It’s like a roulette wheel in the morning. This is the only thing I can find [to explain] the freedom I have and what the value of being a business owner is. I personally get to roll a roulette wheel in my head every morning, and if the ball falls on Green-14, that’s what I work on that day. I have that ability and freedom to work on whatever my mind spins to that day. To me, that’s the most God-blessed gift I have. I’m not contained or controlled. I don’t subordinate well. It’s not my [temperament] to be subordinate."

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BSB: What’s your favorite movie?

Lassak: "So far, there are two of them. [I] was a damn patriot well before it was popular to be patriotic. So I have two. I really, really loved ‘The Patriot.’ I think that movie was just unbelievably awesome. Mel Gibson did a great job of portraying what this country’s really based on.

"But there’s another one that was really, really important to me, and I saw it on a fishing trip: ‘The Gladiator.’ There’s one line in there — I remember this line clearly. It was when they were going into battle, and it appeared that they were going to lose … because the opposing side had nasty things. They had balls with spikes and spears and flaming arrows. Here’s this guy — Russell Crowe’s character — who’s on his horse and yelling at his men. He’s got to motivate them to go fight these rascals. And he says to them: "I see myself in six weeks with my family on my farm. Imagine where you will be and you will get there." He created a vision in their mind to get them motivated.

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"That’s really great, Leonard, but what about all the guys who were laying around dead after the scene? No vision."

(Laughter from Lassak.)

"You motivate people with a vision. … People work for money, but they’ll give their life for a crusade or cause.

"There’s not enough kingly men in our society today. There’s been a dilution here somewhere, and you can’t find one. You can barely find one to become a president. And I think those movies really stir and inspire something deep inside of a male that’s innate. We’re born with it. There’s a chromosome in there that makes us want to be kings. Somewhere that got suppressed. I’m not sure when, but I think it started with Dagwood and Blondie. Blondie always had Dagwood under the thumb, poor guy. So since then, we’ve been diluted as kings."

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Writer Debbie Briggs is managing editor of BodyShop Business.

The Lassak Questionnaire
We gave Lassak the first part of a sentence, and he completed it for us.

If I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do is: invest in my company.
Immediately, absolutely.

My first job was working as a/at: a lot boy at a dealership.

The best piece of advice I ever received was: Don’t let off the gas. That’s a racing term. I used to race watercraft. Don’t let off the gas — duct tape the throttle down and hang on.

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If they made a movie about my life, the actor who plays me should be: Russell Crowe, since I enjoyed "Gladiator" so much.

My favorite Sesame Street character is: Elmo. He’s a hyper little sucker.

I won’t let my daughters date until: they can logically differentiate the difference between dating and a friendly engagement. And I think I’ll be the judge of that.

My first car was: a ’70 Chevelle Malibu. I was 16 years old.

If I were president, one thing I’d change is: the ability to convey a clear purpose — a real cause for America.

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My favorite ball cap is: the Cadillac one. I just like the emblem on that one. I think it’s kind of cool looking. I wear my black Cadillac hat quite a bit.

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