This Month's Ailing Shop - BodyShop Business

This Month’s Ailing Shop

Shop size: 12,500 total square feet
Equipment: two drive-on frame racks, two booths (one downdraft) and a lift for tear-down estimates.
Employees: 12
Annual Sales: $1.5 million
Quality of work: Good

Problem overview: Husband and wife shop owners want to grow their business, but they don’t know how – they’re close to burnout as it is but don’t like delegating. Also, each has criticisms of their spouse’s business practices – and these criticisms are straining their marriage.

Body Shop Burnout
Since this overworked husband and wife team better defined each other’s job responsibilities and began delegating more responsibility to their employees, shop sales have nearly doubled. by Tony Passwater

Most often, the problems facing shop owners with annual sales of under $3 million (but not limited to) are caused by … the owner himself. The owner is usually 90 percent of the problem – and he controls the other 10 percent. Sound harsh? Unfortunately, it’s true, though it’s not necessarily done consciously.

Most of today’s shop owners have a technical background and used to (and may still) work on vehicles. They also haven’t spent much time upgrading their management skills to improve their business. They’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars to purchase technical equipment, yet they’ll refuse to spend hundreds to upgrade their management skills – even though they’re both an investment in the business’ future (one just seems more tangible than the other because it takes up floor space). I’ve seen this scenario … time and time again.

What’s my point? The problems you face as a shop owner – and the solutions to those problems – probably aren’t as unique as you may think.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been in the business of helping the collision industry worldwide with management training and support, technical training and support, and system development. And during this time, I’ve found that the problems around the globe faced by shop owners, managers and technical staff are so similar that it’s scary. Very often as a consultant or a trainer, I’m providing the same solutions to a large number of clients.

Why? Because we’re all basically doing the same thing, regardless of whether we’re in the Northeast, Midwest, South or West Coast; or whether we’re in Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, China, South Korea, Trinidad or even the UK. Someone has to “turn a wrench” to fix the vehicle; someone has to manage the employees; someone has to sell the job; someone has to work with the customer; someone has to work with the insurer; someone has to manage the finances around the business, etc. (You get the point.)

Yes, there is some uniqueness, but not nearly as much as our clients think there is. Everyone wants to believe that his situation is different. Most often, it isn’t – but this is very difficult for the client to see. This also is why consulting isn’t always about putting a revolutionary idea or system into place. Rather, it’s often more about shedding light onto what’s already in place and bringing clarity to the client.

Since the uniqueness of your operation isn’t as unique as you may believe, the solutions aren’t either. For these reasons, we’re launching this new department, Shop Doc, which will regularly provide solutions – along with some counseling – regarding common challenges facing today’s shop owners, managers and technicians. Each article will focus on actual problems our clients have encountered and the solutions my company has provided. The shops will range in annual revenue from $300,000 to $7 million and will be located in various regions and countries. Names always will be changed to protect my clients’ identities.

With that said, let’s get started.

Medium Shop – Small Vision
Dave’s shop was 12,500 total square feet and was a medium-sized shop for the area. The shop had two drive-on frame racks, two booths (one downdraft) and a lift for tear-down estimates. The shop had 12 total employees, was doing approximately $1.5 million in sales and was growing fast in a market that also was growing. Dave and his wife worked together, and quality of workmanship was good.

Our first meeting was very difficult. Dave didn’t have an office and was the lead estimator, the production manager and the best technician. Even though he didn’t do the actual work often, at times he had to show his staff that he “still had it in him.”

We went through our standard information gathering tool (35 pages), which asks questions about the operation, staffing responsibilities, financials and business strategies. This took more than five hours even though it was completed by Dave and returned to us weeks prior to this visit. Still, answers we receive always require us to ask more questions in person and to get clarification. Plus, due to the daily interruptions of Dave not having an office, it was very time consuming.

When There’s a Spouse in the House …
Dave wanted to continue to grow but just couldn’t see how he could do much more. He was on the edge of burnout, and he also felt his wife was hindering progress by undermining his authority and leadership. Their relationship was strained as a result. Of course, when interviewing Dave’s wife, Linda, it was Dave’s inability to communicate clearly that was causing the mixed messages to the staff, not some desire to undermine her husband’s authority.

This was certainly a major challenge on our part, since we didn’t have any interest in also becoming a marriage counselor. Unfortunately, this often can’t be avoided since in many small businesses, husbands and wives work together.

It’s certainly difficult not to take the office home at night and on the weekends. And, of course, what can be said and done in this relationship differs greatly from the typical employee/employer relationship. Our advice will – and always will be – to have definitive roles for each other, along with the confidence and commitment to allow each other to perform his or her duties.

Now, if one of you isn’t performing your duties to the level necessary for the company to be successful, both of you must be committed to either correcting your errors through training and receiving support or to recognizing that you must delegate the duty to someone else. The company’s future must be a top priority over personal controls.

In a few of our other client relationships, this has been an issue. One of the owners wasn’t capable of performing his duties properly even after training and support was provided, yet he still wouldn’t make the necessary changes to benefit the company’s future. And this certainly hindered the success of this client’s future – even to the point of financial ruin.

In Dave’s case, both he and Linda were very good at what they provided to the company, but neither one could see what the other’s value really was. So the first thing we implemented was a job-responsibility matrix – where the responsibility lines are drawn. This also began to provide a picture of what duties could be shifted to other staff (or needed new staff), so growth could be sustained and made possible.

My goal was to get Dave to see that growth can’t continue if he had to do it all himself. He had to get more help (and an office). And both he and Linda had to learn that no matter who they hired, the new person would never be able to do the job as “well” as they could for two main reasons: The new person doesn’t own the business, and the new person hasn’t done the job as long as they have. It takes patience and a willingness to coach (manage) staff for it to work. This may be as hard for you as was it for Dave and Linda. But this is part of growing as a manager.

Relinquishing Some Control
From our first three-day visit, we established the job descriptions and incentive package for a new estimator and front desk person we were going to hire, along with an understanding of both Dave’s and Linda’s daily responsibilities. We also determined the training requirements for these new positions and for Dave and Linda.

What you’ll often find, as Dave and Linda did, is that others won’t do it exactly how you would have, but the result is the same – or even, at times, better. This is very hard for many to see, and Dave was no different. He believed it had to be done his way. And this took several months to overcome.

The change was a benefit for the company. Since Dave historically wasn’t the most patient person with some insurers and customers, the new estimator we hired as a result of our first visit often got along and negotiated better with insurers who, in the past, were difficult for Dave to work with. This in itself brought significant additional revenue to the company.

Linda also had to learn to trust – in particular, their new front desk person. This took many more attempts (i.e. many more new hires) than we initially expected. Finally, once Linda accepted that we weren’t going to find a clone of her – and also that we weren’t going to replace her – the responsibilities and expectations she placed on the front desk person became more realistic. Dave and Linda also learned that to get the proper person with the proper skills in place requires a skilled person – and not a minimum wage employee.

Though it took some work and a lot of adjustments, Dave and Linda have continued to grow their shop since our visits, continued to hire additional staff and continued to increase annual sales – going from $1.5 to more than $2.5 million this past year. Not bad for one year’s worth of work!

Contributing Editor Tony Passwater is president of AEII, a consulting, training and system-development company. He’s been in the industry for more than 27 years; has been a collision repair facility owner, vocational educator and I-CAR international Instructor; and has taught seminars across North America, Korea and China. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611, ext. 101, or at [email protected] Visit his Web site at for more information.

Most of the mentioned documents are available at in the Knowledge Base Module under Human Resource Department and Job Descriptions. A Discussion Forum is also set up for additional comments or questions regarding this article or future requests.

For more information on how to break out of the technician mindset and to help your shop grow, log on to and search past issues using key word, “entrepreneur.” You’ll locate “The Tech, the Manager and the Entrepreneur,” which originally ran in the August 2000 issue of BSB.

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