Running a Shop

Keys for Creating a Great Shop Culture

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Mike Jones feels workplace cultures funnel down from the top. 

A business’ leader sets the tone, he says. That’s why Jones, the founder of Discover Leadership in Houston, speaks loudly and clearly, in an effort to command the room. It’s why he often tells off-the-wall jokes. And, it’s a big reason why he takes an interest in the lives of his staff members. 

“The boss is the mood-setter,” says Jones, a noted public speaker and author who often provides consulting to body shop owners. “If they’re in a great mood, then the team’s going to be in a great mood.” 

Florida body shop operator Sheryl Driggers concurs. 

“If we come in and we’re in a bad mood, or all we wanna do is pick out what’s wrong, everyone’s going to follow suit,” says Driggers, a co-owner with Universal Collision Center, which has three locations in Tallahassee, Fla. “If we come in with energy, people follow suit.” 

It’s what they call the “vitality quotient” in cognitive science, Jones explains. 

And it’s vitally important for businesses like body shops. Because a leader’s energy often permeates a workplace, impacting an entire staff.

Of course, several elements factor into a collision repair facility’s culture, from the overall personality of the staff, to compensation, to name just two. And, if just one element of the workplace atmosphere is less than ideal, it can be extremely difficult to correct a culture. 

And that, eventually, can impact a shop’s bottom line. 

Yes, building a great culture starts at the top. But, in order for an ideal workplace atmosphere to truly take root, everybody needs to embrace their bosses’ philosophies. 

When that happens, “nobody has the mentality that ‘That’s not my job,’” Jones says. And “everybody’s here to help everybody do what they can to make sure we all win.”  

FenderBender spoke with several individuals to discover the most overlooked steps to building a great shop culture. 

STEP 1: HIRE TO IT

Of all the elements that can create a great workplace culture, hiring might be the most underrated, according to Jones and Driggers. 

  “Knowing the people on your team,” Jones says, “and knowing and having the willingness to meet them where they are, really gives you an opportunity to develop real trust in those relationships, where people will go to battle for you.”

When Jones consults with body shop leaders, he instructs them to truly learn not just their own personal leadership style, but to also learn the way that their new employees want to be led. And that can be accomplished rather simply, really, through personality testing. 

Performing such tests can help shop leaders identify the exact characteristics, talents and skills they’re looking for when hiring employees like CSRs or estimators. 

“We’ve gone through and identified the personality traits they want at the front desk, meeting their clients when they walk in the door,” Jones says. “So, I can hire to that. And, if I hire to it then I know who’s in my building, and I know how to meet them where they are” as their boss. 

Troy Hummel, who leads 48 employees for Michigan’s Champion 

Automotive Group’s five collision repair centers, keeps a close eye on personality traits during the hiring process. Hummel, who served as the GM of a large independent shop earlier in his career, tries to weed out any candidates who have trouble embracing a team concept.

“When I’m interviewing,” Hummel says, “it doesn’t matter if it’s a porter or an estimator. I hire them first [based on] their ability to work within a system. 

“If I’m looking at a candidate who’s an A-tech, but he stirs the pot, he’s moody, he’s a prima 

donna, to me he’s less desirable,” adds Hummel, who oversees facilities that often produce $1 million per month in combined collision repair sales.    

By thoroughly learning about their employees before they’re hired, a shop leader can ensure that their staff shares their vision. 

“I’m going to give you my word,” Jones tells employees. “And, you’re going to give me your word—that this process, and our procedures, we’re going to follow them this way, every time. 

“In gaining those agreements, we build some authentic trust in a relationship,” he adds. “And people just play differently when they know who has their back.” 

STEP 2: FIRE QUICKLY 

Brad Wiersma tried to absorb as many of his father’s business lessons as possible, before Randy Wiersma left the collision industry in 2008. The elder worked exhaustively, listened to his employees, and earned respect. 

Of course, you don’t achieve long term success in collision repair without the ability to act decisively, either. And that’s one trait Brad Wiersma displays when necessary these days at Randy’s Body Shop, in Paducah, Ky. 

If an employee has developed a habit of acting unprofessionally, Wiersma doesn’t let the wound fester. First, he issues a verbal warning. The next misstep results in a termination, documented in writing. 

Because, if the hiring process is paramount in building an ideal shop culture, then firing quickly isn’t far behind. After all, an easy way to improve a poor workplace culture is, ultimately, by eliminating its root causes. 

Before any firing takes place, though, shop owners need to make an effort to unearth any unforeseen issues that might be impacting an employee’s work. 

“Maybe they’ve got something going on in their personal life,” Driggers says. “Or, maybe there’s something that we’ve done as leaders, like broken their trust. Get down to the root of the problem. If someone’s not adopting the culture … most of the time it’s something deeper. 

“But, if we can’t reach something that’s beneficial for me, and that’s beneficial for you, we’ve got to walk away from each other.” 

In Michigan, Hummel eliminates workplace cancers quickly, even if they’re generally productive employees. He’d rather have a technician who accepts and embraces their role within the team dynamic than a high-producing employee who creates tension throughout the shop floor.  

Similarly, at Randy’s Body Shop, there is no ‘three strikes’ policy. After the second unacceptable offense, disgruntled employees are shown the door. 

Wiersma simply tells the soon-to-be-departing employee, “We’ve discussed this in the past;, I don’t see any changes happening, so it’s time to part ways.” 

Of all the difficult decisions shop owners are required to make, parting ways with a 

frustrating employee doesn’t need to be one of them, Wiersma says. At times, authoritarian leadership tactics are appropriate, because a shop’s positive trajectory can be thrown off course quickly by just one self-absorbed employee. 

“If it’s somebody that just isn’t going to get on the same train that you’re wanting, you’ve just got to sever that tie as quickly as possible,” Wiersma says. 

“You don’t need to taint your whole facility because of one personality complex.” 

STEP 3: COMMUNICATE AND COLLABORATE 

Every employee can impact a workplace dynamic. 

Driggers saw evidence of that when Universal Collision Center added locations in recent years. In those cases, as the roles of shop leaders evolved, it had a noticeable domino effect. 

“When we first opened,” Driggers says, the shop’s owners “absolutely drove the culture, because we were there from the start of business each day until close. Then, when we started to grow, and we weren’t at every location from open until close, we realized each location took on a culture of its own. 

“And we had to create the culture we wanted.” 

Eventually, Driggers and Universal’s other owners, Jason Driggers and Frank Gandy, found 

that, by emphasizing collaboration among coworkers, their 49-person staff became more cohesive than ever. 

So, the shops began utilizing a “repair planning team,” in which young, fledgling technicians began working alongside veteran body techs, for instance. And, once those longtime shop workers took younger coworkers under their wings, Universal reached rare heights. The three-shop MSO currently produces a combined $9 million in annual revenue.

Now, Driggers notes, “we work as a team to make it happen.” 

At Champion Automotive’s collision repair centers, Hummel seeks feedback from all employees, including from assistants during monthly sitdowns. He feels the roundtable discussions help his entire staff pinpoint procedures that are especially effective. 

Another relatively easy way to build an ideal shop culture is by having employees take part in charitable events as a group. At Randy’s Body Shop in 2018, for example, Wiersma had employees work as a unit to refurbish a vehicle for a Recycled Rides event. The staff then presented the vehicle in Nashville, as part of an industry symposium. 

That charitable endeavor helped galvanize his staff, Wiersma says. 

Workplace cultures are fragile dynamics. As a result, it requires frequent work to build a harmonious shop atmosphere.  

“What’s the trust level? What’s the communication level? Are we collaborating?” Driggers asks. “Because, if any of those three things are out of alignment or not working properly, then the culture starts to suffer.

“If we’re not building relationships with each other, we’re going to assume the worst about each other,” she adds. “So, go sit down and listen to [an employee] at lunch. Make the person feel heard.” 

Ultimately, in order to build a great culture, shop leaders need to be compassionate, approachable, and, to an extent, inspiring. 

That’s why Wiersma, for example, invests heavily in training for his staff, whether it be for in-house, continuing education courses, or to send members of his staff out of state for training.

“When a technician sees that their boss just spent $4,000 on them to go to training,” Wiersma explains, that’s “when the ‘a-ha moment’ is. They think, ‘This guy sees something in me, this guy trusts me, this guy wants me here.’ 

“And I think that’s when you get your buy-in—that’s where you get your culture.” 

STEP 4: ADDRESS IT CONSISTENTLY 

Perhaps the most direct route to building a great shop culture is by focusing on improving it on a virtual daily basis. 

That helps explain why Hummel makes a point to speak to every technician he encounters on shop floors in Michigan. 

“I know what they did last weekend,” he says. “I know their kids’ names. They know I care about them and not just the hours they produce.” 

There are several additional, easy to implement, measures shop operators can take each week to work on their workplace’s atmosphere, beyond simply performing employee surveys or creating employee newsletters. They include the following: 

Review payroll. Hummel consistently performs a payroll review with various employees, so they understand why their compensation is what it is. 

“Payday,” he says, “should not be a surprise.”

Offer coaching. Offering guidance is a frequent focus for Driggers at her facilities. She makes a point to coach employees in areas where there’s a gap in goals and performance. She tries to point out why each element of an employee’s job description is vital to her team’s overall success.

“If you have kids, you provide every resource for them to be successful,” Driggers notes. “We should be doing the same thing for our team members.” 

Review SOPs. By periodically reviewing your shop’s procedures, it helps employees understand what is truly expected of them. Shop employees tend to be more engaged when working in an environment with clearly stated standards and objectives. 

At Champion Automotive Group’s collision repair centers, Hummel has helped shop workers get on the same page by emphasizing processes like those utilizing quality-control check points as vehicles move from the body area to paint, for example.

“The body man gets the painter and an office staff member to review that repairs were completed properly, all parts that need to be painted are available to the painter and have been checked,” Hummel explains. “This relieves [possible] tension between the body techs and the paint employees.”

More than anything, though, shop operators simply need to try and make meaningful connections with their employees. Because, when employees know that their bosses care, it often fosters trust and a desire to embrace one’s role on their team. 

“Leaders and managers tend to be focused on tasks and outcomes,” Driggers says. “That’s very much the way I used to lead—by being focused on tasks, data, and outcomes, thinking if I just said it enough, and sometimes loud enough, it would lead to success. But we need to connect with our team and get to know them as human beings.” 

As a shop operator, she adds, “Our mission is to care for people and deliver excellence. That [entails giving] the same level of excellence to our internal customers that we provide to our external customers.”

HOW TO FIX A NEGATIVE CULTURE 

Troy Hummel, who oversees 48 employees as the body shop director for the Champion Automotive Group in Michigan, provides tips for turning around a poor shop culture.

As Told to Kelly Beaton

We do what’s called a PIP—a personal improvement plan. Some people think of it as a writeup, but it’s more of a formal discussion where we sit down with an employee and say, “Hey, you do really well at this, this, and this, but how can we help you do better at this?” It’s not, “Fix it, or hit the bricks.” It’s more of a conversation like, “You’re struggling with this; how can I help you get beyond this?”

 

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