The 2018 FenderBender Awards: Cynthia Varnell
Each year, Cynthia Varnell sits down with each Gustafson Brothers Inc. employee to set goals. But these are not goals to achieve certain KPIs, or goals to attend more training, or goals to become more organized at work.
No, Varnell focuses on something else—she wants to discuss what’s important now.
“Our culture is to find out each and every employee’s current WIN (what’s important now),” says shop owner John Gustafson. “Cynthia works tirelessly to connect with our team members and record their WINs, to help them achieve those wins.”
You want to buy a house? Varnell will put you in touch with a real estate agent. She’ll help you set a budget. And throughout the year, she’ll follow up, ask how the search is going, hold you accountable.
You may ask why Varnell—who, in addition, manages the shop’s marketing strategy, human resources department, and recruitment efforts—would set up such an elaborate system that involves documenting the WIN goals, tracking their progress and updating them each year. But really, her answer is simple:
“It shows team members that we care.”
Above all else, that fervent, undying ambition to show everyone in her shop and her community that she cares is what drove Gustafson to nominate her for a FenderBender Award. From co-founding the Gustafson Brothers Education Foundation to organizing and promoting the shop’s Intro to Auto Youth Camps to coordinating on-site training for her co-workers, Varnell constantly looks to not only help, but also empower others to believe they can achieve tasks seemingly above and beyond their abilities.
It’s part of a cycle at Gustafson Brothers. Varnell herself felt empowered by Gustafson, who repaired her wrecked vehicle before she even started working for him. She was so impressed by the shop’s work that when a part-time assistant role opened at the shop in 2007, she jumped at the chance.
“I thought it would be a temporary job,” Varnell says, “but I loved that John was so open to new ideas.”
As Varnell’s passion for helping others became more and more evident, her role evolved from part time to full time, from assistant to administrator/marketing director/HR manager. Simple tasks like setting up social media accounts evolved into the shop’s extensive marketing efforts today. Inspired by her mother’s role on her high school’s PTA and her father’s stint as a softball coach, Varnell was raised with a communal mentality that allowed Gustafson Brothers to get out into the community and breathe some life into its marketing.
“From a company standpoint, the best marketing is building relationships with community,” she says. “They think, ‘If Cynthia is really nice and works there, I’m going to go there.’ I truly feel like when you give, people give back 100 times over.”
And they give back in multiple ways. Going beyond the word-of-mouth business the shop receives, Varnell’s efforts have gone on to inspire curiosity among the youth of Huntington Beach, Calif., about the automotive world. Varnell’s biggest passion of working with children conveniently intersects with the collision repair industry’s biggest issue of recruiting young people into the trade, and because of it, the shop has become a haven for teenagers and young adults hoping to segue into the profession.
And that starts at the early stages of education. Varnell, an active member in the area’s Kiwanis Club—which has given her a Distinguished Service Award four times over the years—helped set up the Kiwanis Reading Oasis Room, which is filled with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) books. The hope is those resources will inspire kids and parents to think beyond traditional four-year universities and consider a career in automotive—which Gustafson Brothers will gladly help to advance with its education program.
Both the vice president of the Gustafson Brothers Education Foundation and the founder of the Auto Talent Co-Op, Varnell guides a rotating stream of kids interested in automotive careers through camps, classes and apprenticeships at not only her shop, but other shops looking for extra help. She even secured funding through the Transition Partnership Program and Department of Rehabilitation to provide paid internship programs for youth interested in an auto profession.
That desire to help kids directly intersects with her co-workers, who in turn help run the shop’s Intro to Auto Youth Camps. Varnell’s caring nature rubs off on her team, cultivating a chain of giving back that’s not only helping the shop grow, but helping the industry grow as well.
“The whole auto community knows we need to change to be able to continue to work on cars five years from now,” she says. “We created this foundation to get donations from vendors and get scholarships for our auto camps. That legacy can live on beyond Gustafson Brothers.”
Ensuring that legacy lives on? You could go as far to say that’s Varnell’s WIN.