Running a Shop

The Best Shop Cultures in America

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What creates a great culture among a body shop’s staff? Great pay? Extensive benefits? Team-building exercises? 

The answer is yes. 

And so much more. 

If you want to set your shop apart amid 2020’s competitive hiring climate, you need to get creative. On that note, in order to pinpoint the key elements needed to build a great workplace culture, FenderBender launched the first annual Best Workplaces initiative. The magazine’s staff sifted through 100 submitted nominations of North American shops with the best workplace atmosphere, then chose one standout shop from four categories: facilities with 15 employees or less, 16–30 employees, 31–50 employees, and no less than 51 employees. 

These four standout collision repair facilities go above and beyond in helping to develop employees, both professionally and personally, to build a cohesive staff. In short, the award initiative was about finding the shops—regardless of size—that have built a unique, strong shop culture that every employee appreciates. 

Here are the key steps required to build a great staff culture. 

INSPIRE BUY-IN FROM EMPLOYEES

Shawn Moody started his business with modest beginnings but significant aspirations. 

At the outset of his senior year in high school, Moody built a 3-bay garage, then finagled a loan from a family member. 

“I started the company as a kid in 1977; I bought a piece of land and got a loan—my aunt worked at the bank,” Moody said with a laugh. 

These days, Moody gets assistance from far more than just family members. His growing collision repair business currently has 240 eager employees. A key reason for that is Moody’s Co-Worker Owned’s unique ESOP, or employee stock-ownership plan. 

Moody established the ESOP setup in 2003, in an effort to share the wealth of the growing business with his valued employees. 

“The difference between an ESOP and a conventional retirement plan like a 401K,” Moody notes, “is that, typically, a 401K would be employee sponsored, and the employee would contribute to that. This is 100-percent employer-funded—there’s no out-of-pocket cost to the co-worker [i.e., employee] other than sweat equity. 

“And, if you can get your co-workers to think like an owner would think, that’s the real power of the ESOP. … People are empowered to make decisions.” 

The ESOP setup, which Moody would recommend for any shop with at least 25 employees and experienced administrative staff, has made it easy to inspire buy-in from the MSO’s workers. That’s evident on the shop floors throughout Moody’s 13 locations in Maine, where you’ll often see experienced technicians willingly spending time to mentor young co-workers. 

“Our senior technicians will spend that time with an apprentice to teach and train them the trade because it’s a benefit to them,” says Moody, whose business utilizes an hourly pay system. “Because, the quicker they get the apprentice up to speed, the more productive they can be. And that helps the growth of the business. So, there’s a real motive.” 

Moody’s has also inspired buy-in from employees in three other key ways:

PROFIT-SHARING: Moody’s caters to employees in multiple ways, such as by offering veteran employees up to 4 weeks of vacation, provided they’ve been with the company for at least 10 years. But a benefit that makes an even bigger impact than that is profit sharing. 

Once per quarter, Moody’s management gives 10 percent of its after-tax profit back to employees. In a good year, that profit-sharing essentially adds up to an extra paycheck per quarter for staff members. 

OPEN-BOOK MANAGEMENT: Once per quarter Moody’s leaders host an all-staff meeting during which management reveals every financial figure and KPI that the business produces. Employees are encouraged to offer suggestions on how the business can improve, or ask questions of Moody’s leaders. 

According to Moody, that type of “open-book management really allows our co-workers to be actively involved in implementing best practices and hitting goals. 

“I don’t know many (business owners) that are that transparent about their finances. And, what it does for us is build that culture of continuous improvement.” 

CHARITY WORK: Moody’s daughter, Danielle, leads the collision repair business’ HR department. And, she has been instrumental in spearheading the Maine body shops’ charitable endeavors recently. These days, Moody’s employees are granted 16 hours of paid time off for charity work. 

More than anything, though, Moody credits his business’ success to the fact that its leaders truly display compassion for their employees. 

“That’s what builds loyalty, is when people are down and you help them out,” Moody says. “They don’t forget that. That goes a long way with them.” 

PROMOTE FROM WITHIN  

Chills sprint up DeWayne White’s spine when he recalls a workplace incident from two years ago. 

During one of the wellness fairs hosted by his employer, White witnessed a co-worker get taken to the hospital. 

“It probably saved their life,” White recalls. “Had a heart attack and just never went (to the doctor), but they caught it from this, and he ended up getting a stent. 

“I’ve been in the collision repair industry for 23 years and have never seen a company more 

dedicated to their people.” 

Yes, the Tom Bush Family of Dealerships has little hesitancy about giving back to its employees, as its health and wellness program illustrates. The program also sponsors walking challenges, and “lunch-and-learns” about topics like nutrition and stress relief. 

The leadership of the Jacksonville, Fla.-area dealerships also displays compassion for its employees in another manner: by frequently promoting from within. When Tom Bush Collision Center needs a new employee, leaders like White, the dealership’s collision director, look at their current staff before turning to any Internet jobs boards. 

Chief operating officer Telis Assimenios, who oversees the Florida dealership group’s collision repair center, worked his way up through the company in a multitude of roles. Assistant collision center manager Christine Rand worked her way up from a receptionist role. Also, it’s not uncommon for part-time porters to be encouraged to strive for a technician’s role. 

That has clearly inspired the dealership body shop’s staff, which has more than doubled the facility’s annual revenue since 2011, producing nearly $6.5 million in 2019. 

“The morale and the culture can be attributed to the fact that we promote from within,” White says. “You’re building long term relationships, and (employees) know that you care.” 

White says the body shop’s leadership has an overall goal to consistently groom young employees to eventually step into larger roles when openings arise. The collision director’s philosophy about promoting from within includes two key elements: 

Pinpoint employees’ strengths. 

In order to promote an employee into a new, somewhat unfamiliar role, shop operators need to familiarize themselves with a staff member’s work history. And, shop leaders need to learn about employees’ interests and aspirations. 

When Rand was promoted from her receptionist role, for instance, the dealership’s leaders took into account the fact that she had experience with accounting coming out of college. 

“You want to put employees in the best place possible,” White says. “Christine had a financial and accounting background. That financial background, to be able to study numbers, to look at our financial statements and look for any abnormalities or successes, those were things that she demonstrated that brought her to that position.” 

Gather input. 

These days, White constantly confers with shop leaders like Rand about employees that show energy, initiative, and promise. He also pays attention to the respect that promising employees garner from co-workers. 

Along those lines, White recently noticed an entry-level valet worker display rare hustle, and soon tried the young employee in a wheel reconditioning role. 

“It seemed to be a fit and a desire of his, and it fills a need for us,” White notes. “And now he becomes a much bigger, more important part of the team.” 

Ultimately, in order to build an exemplary staff culture, you have to make sure employees feel fulfilled, White says.

“We get positive feedback” about promoting from within, the collision director notes. “Especially from the higher-end employees like my painters and body techs that have been here a long time. They see it and they know that you’re just building a stronger team.” 

TRAIN AS A TEAM  

Denville Bear & Body Service’s recent holiday party was a sight to behold. 

Company vice president Kurt Leifken provided a limousine bus, then saw to it that employees were chauffeured to a bowling alley, a go-kart venue, and, finally, a staff dinner. 

“It was just so much fun seeing all the employees together, getting along, joking together,” recalls Frank Sanchez, Denville Bear & Body Service’s general manager. Such events “help instill team-building, and it helps instill family values.” 

Those types of group gatherings are part of the bigger picture for the three-location MSO that was founded in Denville, NJ. Getting more than two dozen employees to work as a cohesive unit is never easy. And that’s also why, since the collision repair business’ first year, in 1962, the Leifken family has put an onus on training as a group. 

Nearly six decades later, when an equipment vendor or jobber stops into a Denville Bear shop to provide training, the vast majority of employees attend, virtually regardless of their position.  

“All of the employees, no matter what level, they should understand all aspects of the repair,” Sanchez says. “Whether it’s a seminar on detailing and buffing, whether it’s adhesives, we have everybody attend.” 

Whether the training sessions last 1 hour or 3, the training takes place around 5 p.m., Sanchez springs for sandwiches or pizza, and a sizable group of employees attends. 

“It helps everyone understand everyone else’s job functions, and what they do,” Sanchez says of the group training. “Our admin assistants, sometimes they even say ‘Hey, I want to understand what these guys do,’ and they attend also. (Training) is offered to everybody.” 

Sanchez has no problem paying a few hundred dollars for a staff dinner from a local deli on those evenings, because the group training sessions are key to building an effective team. The training strategy has helped Denville Bear & Body, which is an I-CAR Gold Class business, produce $10 million in annual revenue and an average monthly car count of 400. 

The family-run business (which kept its well-recognized name even after the national Bear automotive company was sold in 1970), has built a dedicated staff. A couple factors play into that: the manner with which the company caters to Spanish-speaking employees, and its overall loyalty to veteran employees. 

Respect for Spanish Speakers: Sanchez speaks fluent Spanish, which allows him to communicate with multiple employees who speak it as their first language. That helps the entire shop floor operate more efficiently, the general manager says. 

“If they have any questions that they can’t communicate 100 percent in English, I’m here to help them translate,” Sanchez says. “There’s no miscommunication.” 

Appreciation for Veteran Employees: Sanchez estimates that 75 percent of Denville Bear & Body’s employees have been with the company for over a decade. The Leifken family has long valued the expertise of longtime employees, transitioning multiple longtime shop-workers to front office roles. 

That way, the company can benefit from their knowledge while easing the physical toll on veteran workers. 

“I’ve had guys that have been here 25 years,” Kurt Leifken notes. “We moved them to the office because they’re good guys … and they know the business.” 

More than anything, though, the onus put on group training has helped Denville Bear & Body survive for nearly six decades, Sanchez says. 

“At the end of the day, (the team training) puts out a better product,” the general manager says. “The work atmosphere and the training that’s provided for employees, that’s the key to getting them to stay and be happy.” 

OFFER MULTIPLE PERKS 

The first time Andrew Batenhorst heard that his body shop staff had just taken part in yoga exercises, he could hardly believe his ears. 

“I was surprised,” recalls Batenhorst, the manager at Pacific BMW Collision Center, in Glendale, Calif. “These were all men that are macho guys. (But) they said it was a nice change of pace.” 

Pacific BMW offers several such perks to its employees, like massages, health screenings, costume contests, group barbecues, and food-truck lunches. And Batenhorst, who oversees the dealership’s 15-member body shop, knows that those perks—like health screenings that make flu shots and blood tests available to employees—don’t go unnoticed. 

The shop manager knows that technicians, painters and detailers appreciate feeling valued by their employer. 

“I’ve learned a lot in my time about employee engagement,” says Batenhorst, who’s entering his 20th year in the collision repair industry. “When an employee feels like they’re invisible, they start to disappear into the background, and they’re not going to produce what they need to. So, things like this” help. 

Clearly, the generosity has resonated with Pacifc BMW Collision Center’s staff. The staff was especially motivated in 2019, when it produced 35 percent growth in gross sales, pushing it’s annual revenue beyond $4 million. The shop boasts a 95 percent CSI score, too. 

“There is a cost to all this—having a lunch truck come in could be $1,000,” Batenhorst notes. “But it pays off in employee retention and engagement. Employees really appreciate that.” 

Batenhorst has helped forge a solid culture within his shop in other ways, too. For example, the body shop manager makes sure to: 

Update and analyze SOPs. Because Pacific BMW Collision Center’s staff frequently reviews its shop floor processes, every employee knows how long each step of the repair process should take, what order repairs should be done in, and who needs to provide quality checks. 

“Everyone here holds each other accountable, for making sure everybody’s rowing the boat in the same direction,” says Batenhorst, who also credits Pacific BMW’s leadership for “going the extra mile” for employees. 

Observe employees’ personalities. Body shop leaders need to be intuned with their team members, taking note of what makes them tick. 

“Know what motivates them, and what kind of recognition they like,” the shop manager 

suggests. “Like, some of my guys here are super quiet, so they don’t want to be singled out in front of a group. So maybe that should be more of a 1-on-1 thing.”  

Utilize personalized career plans. Batenhorst makes sure to remind employees of the key objectives they’re being measured on, as well as training goals he expects them to accomplish each quarter. Then, he meets with employees every 90 days to review.  

By consistently clarifying and analyzing goals with employees, it helps employees envision an ideal career path. 

“I know, from previous jobs I’ve had, if you don’t have that, you feel a little lost,” Batenhorst says of career planning. “You don’t know if management is on your side to help you get where you want to go in your career. Most people, when they find they have a road map of how they’re going to get there, the engagement goes up and the likelihood of turnover goes down.” 

While Batenhorst prides himself on reviewing SOPs and utilizing a streamlined onboarding process, his penchant for utilizing creative perks like team meals seems to have resonated with his employees the most. 

Those perks, the body shop manager notes, often help employees “if they’re feeling stressed. I mean, we know what it’s like in a 9-to-5 and it can get hectic, especially with the physical work that we’re doing.”

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