Forming a Customer-First Mentality
SHOP STATS: Charlie’s Auto Body Inc. Location: Lynden, Wash. Operator: Brent Maier Average Monthly Car Count: 100 Staff Size:14 Shop Size: 11,600 square feet; Annual Revenue; $2.5 million
Brent Maier, production and general manager, has increased Charlie’s Auto Body Inc’s sales by 2.5 times since taking over the third-generation family business. What’s his secret? He’s not comfortable sticking to the same routine that’s been around for years.
From the start, Maier spent his first years sweeping and cleaning cars at the family shop, but once he began his first year in college, he was moved to working the front office part time between class. A few years prior to Maier’s new front desk position, the shop relocated to a new facility, which enabled Maier to learn more about the shop’s adjusting period and general management.
“What I really first started enjoying [in the shop] was always trying to improve what systems we had in place,” Maier says. “I wanted to write down job descriptions, what kind of roles everyone had, see how everything functioned, and make standard operating procedures from there.”
He decided not to go back to college for his bachelor’s degree. Instead, Maier focused all of his time growing the shop and completing an associate degree. The results came quickly: an increase in backlog production, gross and net profits, and technicians stayed busy throughout the day.
Since Maier started full time around six years ago, the shop has welcomed a large building renovation, an increase in staff size by five employees and now hosts daily check-in meetings where employees are heard.
“I never wanted to come into the shop and act like I’m the boss’ son. You have to listen to me,” Maier says. “I’m really blessed to have such a great team. Although we have our moments, we get along well and do a great job of getting our customers back on the road.”
That dedication to customer service is pervasive and it was instilled by Maier’s father and the shop’s founder, Bill, who recently passed away.
"My father was adamant about always being honest with the customer and making sure they were taken care of. Being in a small town, we could never get away with doing sub-par work or telling our customers one thing and doing another,” Maier says. “He would want us to continue to do the right thing and always do what’s best for our customers, even when it means taking a loss on our end at times.”
I usually vacuum right away in the morning because customers are quick to notice when things are dirty. While I usually don’t have to, it’s really just in my nature to make sure the shop is put together nicely and in tip-top shape. Once everything looks nice and clean, I’ll sit down with a cup of coffee and look at the production schedule. Our production schedule is pretty detailed, so we know when parts are ordered, when they’re expected to arrive, customer requests, repairs and also reminders for the technicians.
Our shop has seen a lot of growth over the last year. In the first two years of working here full time, I noticed that our backlog would show anywhere from 4–9 weeks out for our customers, which didn’t seem right. I talked with my parents and brought up the idea of expansion in order to improve our time. It’s really defeating to have customers come in and say that we’re going to help, but they have to drive their car around for two months because we don’t have the means to assist. My ideal work environment is a shaped around efficiency, so it made sense to grow our shop in order to move it into the next direction.
A few years later, we decided to go forward with the expansion and the whole process finished up early this year. The expansion doubled the production area for our shop, and I measured everything—the stalls, the location, where equipment is going to be placed, where tools will be stored. I measured it all. There should be a place for everything, I believe. My goal with the expansion is for everything to have a place and make sure that our staff members are utilizing all of their time. Since our expansion, we’ve added express stalls, we’re able to get cars in and out of the shop faster and we have a center aisle that stays clear. Most of our guys believe the shop is easier to work in now, and according to calculations, we’re making overall progress.
After everything is sorted, I’ll print out the production schedule and hand those out during our daily release meeting at around 9 a.m. This has been really beneficial because we’re able to go through every vehicle at the shop. If anyone has questions that I’m not able to answer during the meeting, I’ll spend time figuring out the answer in the office afterwards and then get started on blueprinting the cars.
We have a fairly open office and I’m usually tending to multiple projects throughout the day. I’m at an in-between stage with my position and am working as the production manager as well as the general manager. Right now, I see each vehicle that comes into the shop, review all of the repairs, map the repairs to the vehicles with a washable pen, and all of the in-between work. If the head estimator is busy, I’ll work in the front and speak with customers to let them know I’m available to help. It’s difficult for me to not talk with customers who have been visiting our shop for years.
During my downtime, I’ll look at our shop numbers, specifically from cycle time to bottom-line net profit. I make monthly goals regarding where we stand on these numbers because it helps me figure out where we need to make improvements.
I don’t push for change—I just look for ways to improve. My grandfather started Charlie’s Auto Body and then later my father, Bill, took over. I credit my father for all of the hard work he did to create such a stable and strong environment at the shop.
My father knew his strengths and weaknesses, and he also knew those of who he worked with; he would place people and assign them responsibilities that were in line with what they did best. For example, he knew he was better working with his hands and managing people than dealing with numbers, so he stuck me up in the office and focused on the back of the shop. That continued until the last couple of years as he started to phase out almost completely from the shop.
He ran the shop through his head and was able to figure out things mentally, whereas I differ. When I started, I realized that I needed to put everything down on paper in order to visualize what we had at our shop. It made sense for me to create job descriptions for staff members and also write down all of the standard operating procedures for tools and functions in the beginning. It took a really long time to create, but it helped me figure out who at our shop is responsible for what department and how can we create better opportunities for growth.
Later in the day, I’ll review delivery vehicles; our techs complete QC sheets, but I like review and make sure everything is completed. When customers come to pick up their cars, I also don’t mind being the one to move their car from behind the gate and review the repair and care insulation.
Each day we continue to develop as a business. In the early days at the shop, I used to focus a lot of my time on the care of the car, not the customer. I’ve since tried to change my ways and spend more time with customers to continue building those relationships. If I’m puzzled, I reach out to others outside of the shop to see how different businesses are able to expand. We’re located in a small town, so it’s important for the community to know who we are.
Inside the shop, I am always in the search of where we can go next. My father always reminded me not to be afraid to spend money on equipment because the last thing we want to do is fall behind. Since I’ve started, we’ve been able to increase our sales and we’ve added five employees. Our team is excellent in that they are also always looking for ways to improve around the shop. I credit my father to building such a strong foundation at our shop, as well as bringing in workers who are willing to change their ways.