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Peterson Santos began his career in the collision repair industry the same way most do: at the bottom. When he started with ABRA Auto Body & Glass in 2001, he was an entry-level parts coordinator. Through the years he worked his way up, managing three different ABRA collision shops in Georgia until he was promoted to district manager. Santos, then a high school graduate, began to see that if he wanted to continue to advance his career, his education had to move along, as well.

Collision professionals face a big disadvantage when they lack a college degree, says Kelly Lowery, who holds a master’s in business administration (MBA) and is the education manager in the collision repair program at Universal Technical Institute (UTI): They often struggle to comprehend the impact that financial decisions can have on a business. “Managers and owners who are negotiating with insurance companies, business stakeholders or dealer principles are at a serious disadvantage without financial and management tools obtained in a university business program,” he says.

So Santos wisely set out to eliminate that disadvantage. Now an MBA, he’s the ABRA vice president of operations for the Georgia market.

Invest in Education

Today’s market requires an understanding of all aspects of business, excellent management skills and the ability to ask good questions, Santos says. A college degree can provide those marketable traits—not only for folks in large multi-shop operations like ABRA, but also for owners and managers of small body shops.

“I always wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it when I graduated high school. Then I thought I was too old. I started college when I was 53 and graduated with my MBA at 59.”
— Kelly Lowery, education manager,
Universal Technical Institute

Santos decided to hit the books and earn his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from the University of Phoenix. From the horizon-expanding experience of relating to diverse viewpoints to the mundane realities of juggling work, study and personal time, college enhanced Santos’ abilities as a manager.

Notable changes to his management style included a boost in confidence—and his paycheck—along with greater skill at effectively managing and motivating his team. Santos discovered he was better at setting clear expectations and gaining employee trust than he had been before attending university.

Rollie Benjamin, ABRA co-founder and CEO, observed Santos’ transition firsthand. “[Throughout his education] I could just see the energy and the enthusiasm from him in how he was interacting with his daily responsibilities,” Benjamin recalls. “It changed his way of thinking. He is a very effective executive leader today and his education has had a profound impact.”

UTI’s Lowery, who grew up in the automotive industry like Santos did, says he regrets not having his degrees while he was a shop owner for 27 years.

“When I started in business, being a very good tech was what I thought was the most important skill. But I found going to the school of hard knocks, to learn the front office is not the best way to learn to manage a business,” he says. “That puts you in a defensive position too often. Having a business degree helps you understand and execute plans using proven business tools.”

As Lowery discovered, it’s never too late to get an education.

“I always wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it when I graduated high school. Then I thought I was too old,” he says. “I started college when I was 53 and graduated with my MBA at 59.”

Master the Business

“My ultimate goal was to become an executive,” Santos recalls. With that in mind, he was off to school again to earn his executive MBA from J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. He graduated in December 2009.

An MBA can be an invaluable asset to moving into the top levels of business in general and the collision repair industry in particular. While earning an MBA was challenging work, Santos is glad he made the investment in a graduate-level program. For him, it made the difference between being a manager and being a leader.

Santos’ MBA experience built on the confidence and earning power afforded by his bachelor’s degree, polishing his management skills and teaching him how to ask better business questions.

“At the end of the day you have to be able to work through people,” he says. “The MBA gave me a better understanding of how to work through my people, how to motivate them, how to engage them. The MBA improved my leadership skills [so that I was capable of doing those things.]”

As for investing tens of thousands of dollars in an MBA program just to learn to ask the right questions? “[You gain] a broader perspective,” Santos explains. “When you know how to ask the right questions, you can better identify your resources within your company and how to utilize them. You begin to engage the whole team and when you engage, you motivate them.” And that, Santos now knows, is what leads to success.

The perspective that comes from higher education—especially in an MBA program—comes from studying problems across various industries. Your professors have experience with other industries, Santos says, and your classmates come from varied business backgrounds and walks of life.

“Fifty people could be from 50 different industries in one classroom,” he marvels. That heightened awareness of how business principles and strategies play out in other industries can help you think more broadly about your own issues—how to implement and fine tune them for collision repair, Santos says. “I believe this gives me a competitive advantage.”

School Work

Big benefits come from continuing your education, whether through an undergrad program, an advanced degree or continuing technical education. Attaining those benefits requires a notable commitment. John Shoemaker, president of JSE Consulting, recommends the following considerations:

• Time Any higher education program is intense and demands a lot of involvement. You will study on a daily basis, more than likely spending time away from your family and friends.

• Money Tuition costs can be high, even with employer tuition reimbursement programs.

• Availability Your class schedule may require you to be away from the shop at certain days and times. Peterson Santos, ABRA vice president of operations for the Georgia market, studied at least two hours a day, every day, for 16 months while completing his MBA. Santos offers some advice on choosing a degree program that fits your circumstances:

• Research the school. Attend their open house, either in person or virtually if you’re considering an online program. Read their admissions and scholarship materials to get a sense of the university’s philosophy and focus.

• Find a program that is focused on the finance and leadership aspects of business—like an executive program. Combining leadership and finance can speed your path to success.

There are a variety of program formats for both undergrad and MBA degrees:

• Full-time—This traditional route focuses on furthering general business administration knowledge, such as financial statements, troubleshooting, managing employees, et cetera.

• Part-time—A nights-and-weekends curriculum is geared toward industry professionals working full-time. The curriculum mirrors a full-time program, but takes longer to complete.

• Executive—General business concepts are layered with a focus on building strong leadership skills.

• Online—Programs vary by focus, duration, start date and cost. Many allow you to complete coursework exclusively from your computer.

Smart for the Industry

A college degree may not come cheap, but it does pay off. Customers notice when repairers are good critical thinkers, savvy about business and effective with staff.

“I believe that as customers continue to educate themselves through the Internet and other resources, if we do not have a good business stance, we are not going to be able to retain our customers,” Santos says. “Before, people would just show up to a body shop and not really know what to expect. Now, people expect more [service and knowledge] from a body shop than they do from Nordstrom. The difference between [a customer choosing] body shop A versus body shop B is service, knowledge and experience.”

An education will allow you to tap into customer needs, better your business and, ultimately, improve the quality of the industry itself, Santos says.

ABRA CEO Benjamin concurs. “The information age and the technology age make higher education even more critical, and it absolutely correlates to success in one’s position. We would raise the bar in the industry [if more people pursued a higher education],” he says.
In any industry, a more educated workforce tends to be more highly paid, more productive and more innovative. “Why,” Benjamin asks rhetorically, “would ours be any different?”

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