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A particular technician was working at CARSTAR Sidney for seven months. Like almost every technician in the collision repair industry, he came in every day, completed his work, and left at the close of business. 

One day, during a routine check-in with employees, Tom Martin’s wife decided to find out if the technician was happy in his current role. 

When Martin’s wife approached the technician, she decided to ask, “What kind of job do you want to do in the long run?”

The technician looked over to Tom Martin who was standing off to the side, and pointed to him. 

“I want his job.”

Since that interaction, Martin, owner of CARSTAR Sidney, has worked to groom that employee into a future leader. As a leader himself, he was not immune to the struggle of working one’s way up in the business or struggling with feeling like he could be a leader himself. In fact, he started in the industry as a car washer and used to spend his afternoons during high school washing cars or helping clean the shop (SEE Sidebar: Martin’s Move to Management). 

Today, that technician is now a manager of one of Martin’s shops. Through the process, Martin learned that one of the most important things a leader can do is work to empower his or her employees.

While he started out small with goals that followed in his mentor’s footsteps, Martin now runs three shop locations in Ohio and his leadership skills have paid off. The shop is producing over $6 million in annual revenue between all locations.

Martin shares his top tips for leading in a body shop environment. 

 

Martin's Move to Management

When he was 15 years old, Tom Martin painted the outside of a body shop. His parents divorced and his mom went on welfare so he needed a way to make some money. He had ambitions. He wanted to buy a car and drive. After a while, the owner of the body shop hired Martin to work there. He’d ride his bike to the shop after school and make money by helping to wash cars or was put to work wherever he was needed. Martin worked for that body shop owner for 22 years and when he was 38 years old, bought the body shop. He’d been in business about one year when he was driving in a new town and spotted the CARSTAR location there.

He thought, “Wow, that is a professional-looking building.”

He eventually partnered with CARSTAR and soon enough they taught him not to just be a body man but to be a businessman.

 

Pinpointing a Shop Culture

“Culture to me is key,” Martin says. “It took us years to develop a learning culture in which every employee wants to discover how they can perform their jobs better.”

In order to get to that culture, Martin had his team organize around a common goal. He wanted every member to focus on helping the customer. In whatever task they were doing, he had his employees ask themselves, “How can I help the customer in what I’m doing?”

It’s also important to encourage development within your shop. To do this, Martin says a leader needs to ask each person separately, “What can I do for you?” The goal is to have employees feel like they can come to the body shop manager or owner once they’ve finished their basic work and ask, “What else can I do today?” or “What else do you need me to do?”

When the staff starts fitting into your desired culture, move individuals into harder roles and give them more responsibility gradually, Martin says.

 

Pushing People to be Uncomfortable

“I think it’s absolutely important to push your employees out of their comfort zones,” Martin says. “In order to push your employees out of their comfort zone, as a leader, you need to have trust in your staff.”

To gain trust in your staff, start at the beginning of the process and look to hire people for their personality traits and characteristics instead of skill sets. And, look inwards to yourself as a leader as well (SEE Sidebar: Selfishly Improve).

For instance, Martin hired a person to start as a car washer and now he’s a technician. Even though he did not have any collision repair experience, he was very thorough, and asked detailed questions in order to do the job correctly. 

At the time that Martin hired him, he lacked self-confidence. All Martin needed to do was encourage him to do his work and now, after about 10 years, the car washer has worked his way up to being the shop’s lead technician.

Martin recommends that a leader sits down with their staff and verbally tells them “You can do it.” Also, any office door should remain open so that everyone feels comfortable coming in to talk to the manager or owner about problems, or goals.

 

Selfishly Improve

“The biggest thing you can do as a leader is to work on yourself because everyone is going to follow you,” Martin says. “You set the tone.”

    Martin shares quick takeaways to help you work on self-improvement.

  1. Go to leadership courses like industry-sponsored ones or ones led by Mike Jones.
  2. Try stepping outside your comfort zone and speaking in front of a large group.
  3.  Look for a mentor, ideally one within the collision repair industry.
  4.  Keep learning new information yourself, like how to manage the finances of the business.

Expecting Staff to be Responsible

If someone is hired on at CARSTAR Sidney, they’re expected to be responsible immediately for any tasks assigned to them. Yet, how does Martin make sure his staff of over 50 people are responsible? He starts in the interview.

When interviewing potential job candidates he will come to the interview with a standard list of questions. He’ll ask the person his or her history and then ask questions to see how they would react in certain scenarios.

Normally, Martin hires people for their personality and character. Then, he works on training them into the type of employee he needs. 

Martin delegates to his team, specifically his managers, to make sure that they can take personal responsibility for their actions. Martin says spot checks allow him to walk around the facility and observe by checking one spot in the shop. But he won’t mention if something is done wrong the first time. This way, he lets his managers step in and take action. 

 

Leading by Example

Martin is always available to his staff, day or night. He takes his backpack filled with some shop paperwork and his laptop with him wherever he goes.

And, since he’s a leader, Martin says he needed to show his team that he could be organized and readily-available if any problems occur.

To stay organized, Martin follows his schedule located on his mobile Outlook app. He keeps an action-item list in that app and checks off the items as they’re completed. He sits down every morning to make the action-item list.

“You go to each shop location expecting to know the tasks for the day,” he says, “but more often than not, there’s a new issue that arises, so you need to stay on top of what needs to get done.”

 

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