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Embracing Changes in Collision Repair

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Embracing change doesn’t come naturally to Nicole Evans, general manager of Sterling Auto Body’s Allentown, Pa., Location. But it is a skill she has developed throughout her nearly 20-year career with Sterling. And the results have been more than significant: Out of the more than 60 shops in Sterling’s network, Evans’ has consistently ranked in the top five for revenue and is poised to take home the top spot this year. 

Change isn’t always good, but change is necessary. This company changes a lot. We try to be the industry leader in a lot of things, to keep up with the times or be better than the times. Change is inevitable; it’s going to happen. You need to move with the change and you have to embrace it any way you can. It’s hard when you get used to what you do every day—you’re comfortable with it, and then somebody pulls the rug out from underneath you.

But you can either go with the change or you can fight it. If you didn’t have that change, things would get monotonous. You would get stale, going to work every day and doing the same thing over and over again. But embracing that change is why we’ve stayed so successful; it’s why our store has been consistently in the top five of all Sterling stores for three consecutive years.

My father got me into the industry.  We’ve always been car fanatics, and I grew up going to car shows with him as a kid. He helped me get my first job at a body shop many moons ago, where I was the office manager. I’ve always been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career, who taught me from the beginning that you come to work with your technicians and you go home with your technicians. You come with your team and you leave with your team.

That’s why I’m here every day at 6 a.m., and I often don’t leave until 6 p.m. I start the morning by walking through the shop, doing my production list, looking at my repair orders and filling out my production boards. I also look for opportunities to get my cycle time down and check to see if I missed anything at the end of the day yesterday.

I’m always looking for opportunities to improve and that’s why four years ago, we became the first Sterling location to switch to a waterborne paint system. I managed the Sterling Westchester location for 15 years before coming to Allentown, so I’m very familiar with the company and the leadership here.

I started having discussions with Nick Notte, Sterling’s president, about making the switch to waterborne. I could see that it was a switch the shops needed to make at some point. With all the new green initiatives coming down the road, I didn’t’ see any other option besides going to waterborne.

It was a huge switch and learning curve for us, but I looked at it as an advantage actually. I figured it was either a change we could make now and we could pilot it, work with the processes, work with the paint company, and find the right products, or be forced to make the switch suddenly and quickly. Seeing that this was going to come further down the line no matter what, it was an advantage for us to take our time to perfect the process and teach our staff.

That’s not to say it was easy though. The paint technicians had to learn all new guns, a new paint booth system, and learn how to work with the product itself. I really had to make sure there was a willingness there to learn, to go to classes and to let trainers come in here and train the technicians.

Since the Allentown store was the pilot store for Sterling, the technicians considered it an honor and they really embraced it in that aspect. They were up for the challenge and they can see now that it was a good thing they learned early on, because it gave us a leg up over other stores.

Around that same time, I also became more heavily involved  with lean processes. We switched our paint materials ordering process from a consignment system, which meant we had tons of inventory on hand at all times, to a stricter ordering process, where we only order what we need, when we need it.

We have finite spaces set up for all our body repairs, our disassembly and reassembly bays, everything is marked, and our red zones and squares are clearly designated. We threw away all the junk and made sure everything had its place. It has improved our throughput significantly because people aren’t searching all the time; everything is meticulously organized.

We used to be on a team pay system, which meant that all the technicians’ hours went into one big pot. We started running into problems because everyone was getting paid the same amount, even if they were flagging more hours than another tech. It started getting harder to hire technicians into that and technicians were leaving.

Last December we made the switch to a flat-rate pay system. I was very scared of running a true flat-rate store because I had never done it in the past. I was used to one car, one person; I couldn’t understand how one person could work on two or three cars at a time. And what made me even more apprehensive was that we didn’t have to go to flat rate; we could have stayed with team pay.

I started talking with my boss, looking at other stores running flat rate and how they were doing, and I had discussions with my staff too. As I talked more with my technicians, I could see that they were tired of the team pay, and they were getting stale in what they were doing. I never want that to happen, so I decided to make the switch, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I’ve seen a huge uptick in the attitudes of my techs; they’re happier and they’re making a lot more hours. In turn, it’s made the shop so much easier to manage.

All of this took a lot of buy-in from my staff, though. Especially with lean, it’s a culture. It’s not something you do once. You have to make it a culture in your shop and you have to make it an everyday occurrence. People were leery of it at first and said it’s not going to work. It’s up to me to make sure that things don’t fall through the cracks, so I really had to keep reminding them to stay with the processes.

After a while, it clicks and they start to see the value in the processes, but I still work every day to make sure we’re not slacking. Throughout the day when I’m looking at body work or running production, I’m reminding them to clean up before getting their next car, put the equipment back, or move the car into the right square on the floor.

I’m always in communication with my staff throughout the day and I think that’s really key to staying on top of what’s actually happening in your shop. It makes me aware of problems or potential changes that need to be made, and it also provides an opportunity
to talk with my employees about the changes.

If Sterling makes a change in policy or if I start contemplating making a change, I’ll go to the key people and have conversations with them to get their point of view. No matter what, I want them to be aware of what is coming. Embracing change doesn’t come naturally for me, but once I started to see the impact, it became clear to me that without it, we would all reach a stalemate. I want to continue being the best at what we do and staying in the Top 5 of Sterling shops, and that’s what I’m always shooting for.

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