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An Inside Look at the Industry’s Top Leaders

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If you’ve held multiple jobs throughout your life, chances are you’ve encountered several different types of leaders, from hands-on to hands-off,  a democratic “door is always open” leader or an authoritarian “it's done my way” leader. In certain circumstances, all can be successful. 

But is there a type of leader that is most successful in the collision repair industry?

The 2021 FenderBender Industry Survey addressed that very question and uncovered that visionary leaders, leaders that above all else focused on the big picture and primarily acted as a motivator, ran more successful businesses than hands-on leaders. 

“When I’m coaching shop leaders, I’m constantly trying to get them to disentangle themselves from being too involved in the operation,” says Kevin Rains, FenderBender columnist, industry consultant, owner of Rains CARSTAR Group and perhaps the industry’s foremost visionary leader. “I think it’s imperative that they do.”

The survey found shops that were led by visionary leaders, on average, produced higher AROs, greater revenue and better technician efficiencies. The shops were also more likely to be on the cutting edge of the industry, as they were twice as likely to do ADAS calibrations in-house and were considerably more likely to hold an I-CAR Gold Class distinction. 

So how do some of the best visionary leaders work? How do they structure their days? What do they prioritize? FenderBender spoke with several successful self-described visionary leaders to find out. 


How shop owners describe their leadership style 

41% Direct Involvement - Hands dirty on the shop floor and lead by example

26% Visionary - Focuses on the big picture, inspires team to succeed

16% Democratic - Encourages staff input in decision making

16% Hands off - Trusts team with key decisions, not heavily involved

 

John Gustafson, owner of Gustafson Brothers in Huntington Beach, Calif.

SHOP STATS: Gustafson Brothers Location:  Huntington Beach, Calif.  Owner: John Gustafson Staff Size: 22 (7 body techs, 4 paint and spray techs, 2 detail techs, 3 estimators, 2 parts receivers, 1 sales manager, 1 body shop manager, 1 maintenance tech, 1 general manager) Shop Size: 15,000 square feet  Average Monthly Car Count: 160  ARO: $2500 Annual Revenue: $4.6 million

For a large part of the shop’s 40 years, John Gustafson had been the “answer man.” Any and all shop questions came to him. But as the years went by and the shop continued to grow, Gustafson slowly assumed the position he has now. As the president of the company, Gustafson has a general manager that oversees the day-to-day operations. Below the general manager are several department managers both in the collision and mechanical sides of the business. Each of them oversee their own team.

That delegation has been important for the growth of the business. And after plenty of years being the hub for all questions and feedback, Gustafson was ready to delegate it out. Now his role is from the 30,000 foot level, analyzing potential expansion, new technology and industry trends. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t present. 


5 a.m.

I start my morning the same way every day: I wake up and set my Jacuzzi for a 30-minute cycle. It’s one of the most important parts of my day; it allows me to decompress and analyze the day ahead. After a few minutes, I pull out my phone and go to ColoredNote, a note-taking application that I use to track current and future tasks and my long-term goals. I’ll decide what I need to do today and what I need to keep top of mind for the future. 


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

On the note taking: “I use the cascading method. I have my lifetime goals listed, five-year goals, yearly goals, quarterly goals. They all play off each other. They cascade down. Then I determine the top three things for the day and I make sure those tie to my longer range goals. That way I start my day with high leverage work and not just easy stuff that I can quickly check off to feel like I accomplished something.”

 

7 a.m.

I arrive at the shop at 7 a.m., along with the rest of the staff. I start the workday first by greeting every employee and having a quick conversation. With several managers between me and some of the shop staff, I think it’s an important time to let the rest of the team know I’m present and invested in them and the shop. 


8 a.m. 

From there, I occasionally sit in on daily meetings that the collision and mechanical teams hold. I’m always present for the weekly leadership meetings and the Friday administration team meetings. 


9-11 a.m.

Most of my morning is actually dedicated to reading. For me in my role as a “visionary,” I prioritize reading industry news and keeping tabs on anything the business could do to improve. I also read leadership books, which help improve interpersonal skills. You have to learn and continue to learn. If we didn’t do that, we’d end up like Blockbuster.


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

On the reading: “My hunch is John has a real handle on delegating things for others so they can stay out front. That’s something that’s invaluable, and if there’s not someone staying six months to three years ahead of the people they are leading, they won’t be leading very long. They’ll be trampled by people who will overtake them with knowledge.”

 

1-4 p.m.

In the afternoon, I make the rounds on the shop floor again. It isn’t necessarily to make sure my people are staying focused—although that probably does help—but it’s just about being with my people.

I don’t miss being needed to make every decision or answer every question, but there are aspects of being hands-on that I miss. I come in to work Thursday-Saturday, which might surprise some people, but Saturday is my favorite day on the job. I act as the porter that day! I clean the inside and outside of the shop; I feel like my own “undercover boss.” It allows me to interact with customers and feel connected to the day to day of the shop. 


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

“People look at these soft skills and they hear the word ‘soft,’ especially in an industry dominated by tough male figures, they push it off as irrelevant. But the No. 1 thing people want in their leaders is to know that they are cared for.”

 

Visionary Leaders Sell More

(Average annual sales volume) 


Shops run by visionary leaders:

22% less than $1 million

28% $1 million - $2.49 million

31% $2.5 million - 4.99 million

19% $5 million or above


Shops run by direct involvement leaders:

57% less than $1 million

28% $1 million - $2.49 million

10% $2.5 million - 4.99 million

5% $5 million or above

 


Robert Molina, owner of Collision Care Xpress in Pompano Beach, Fla. 

SHOP STATS: Collision Care Xpress Location:  Pompano Beach, Fla.  Owner: Rober Molina Staff Size: 40 (16 technicians; 6 estimators; 6 managers; 5 customer service personal; 5 detailers; 2 Parts, 1 owner)   Shop Size: 16,000 square feet (customer center); 38,000 square feet (body shop) Average Monthly Car Count: 250  ARO: $4000  Annual Revenue: $12 million

Like Gustafson, Robert Molina grew from a hands-on leader to a visionary leader. For the shop’s first five years, Molina was “a one man show.” He was the technician, the painter, the estimator, the service advisor. You name it, he did it. But he realized he wasn’t growing and it was taking a toll physically and mentally.

“I realized I needed good people with me,” he says. 

Now he isn’t involved in any of the shop’s day-to-day tasks and the business has grown from one building to a collection of three buildings that he calls their campus. Still Molina relies on many of the skills and strategies he picked up as a hands-on leader. From hardly ever sitting in his office to constantly being present for his employees. Molina’s focus remains creating a positive experience for his employees while fostering growth for the business. 


5:30 a.m.

I start my day at the shop early, but I’m not working yet— I’m at the gym. Within our company’s campus, which includes three buildings on the property, we added a gym for all of our employees last year. Without it, I’d be in trouble. And I mean that literally, because my doctor told me I needed to lose weight and that I was too stressed from running my company. Since I started working out, I’ve felt so much less foggy and it’s helped me make better and clearer decisions.

 

Thoughts from Kevin Rains

“That’s very important to me. I begin my day with prayer and meditation. I think those guys, what they’re doing, it’s very physical and I love that. I don’t really have a good daily ritual or practice like that. When I have in the past it paid off in spades. When I get into a rhythm of walking, just for 15 minutes a day, my mind gets so clear. I get so focused. Everything I do is twice as sharp.

I’m not doing that right now and I’m searching for something. Maybe I’ll buy a jacuzzi, like John.”

 

8 a.m.-11 a.m.

Because I’m removed from the day-to-day, I have more time I can set aside for personal and professional development. I start the day by walking through the shop, talking with employees, and I do that constantly throughout the day.

There are a lot of reasons I do that,  but I think it’s important to observe and pay attention to what you see and hear. Around the same time we added the gym, I also committed to bringing in healthy snacks for the employees. Since then, it’s honestly improved energy and efficiency levels amongst the team. 

That’s something I may not have noticed if I had continued to work hands-on like I did for the first five years of the business.


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

On walking around: “There’s a whole management theory developed in the 1980s called management by walking around. I’ve always subscribed to that. My main role is to be a bit of, in my terminology, a chaplin. Someone that’s present to my team in ways that are helpful and nourishing for them, in every aspect of their life. That’s probably about 80 percent of my current job description.”


12 p.m.

Around lunch time, I’m most often in training mode. I run training three times per week, Tuesday through Thursday. It could be estimator training, tech training, management training, I’ll lead it. Or, I’ll schedule other outside companies to come in for training. 


Working Tip: Take care of yourself. 

Finding that release that helps energize the mind and body was a commonality from every shop owner that FenderBender talked to. For Molina, it’s also a message that gets passed down to his employees. 

With the company running a flat-rate system, he says his technicians would be here from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. if they could. But Molina has learned he needs to put a hard closing time of 5 p.m. on the shop to make sure his technicians don’t overwork themselves. 

“Humans are not machines. We need rest. If we see something, we’ll stop them,” Molina says. 


1-5 p.m.

Then in the afternoon, I sit in on production meetings, which help give the staff a game plan for the next day. All the while, I fill in the gaps of my schedule by observing my employees, staying up to date on industry news and planning for the months and years ahead. 

One of the larger company projects that I was able to complete because of setting aside that time was a company mobile application, which we use for both internal and external uses. Team members can communicate with each other but it can also be used to communicate with customers. It’s kind of a combination of a Slack-like service and a CRM service. 


Take More Vacation

64% of visionary leaders take at least six days off per year, with 42 percent taking off more than 11. 


Nearly 50 percent of direct involvement leaders take less than 5 days off per year. 


Kyle Wharff, owner of CARSTAR Ace Sullins in Miramar, Fla.


Kyle Wharff has struggled to give up control. Of the shop owners FenderBender spoke with, Wharff is the closest to the hands-on type of leader. Wharff is in the shop Monday through Friday, and is often the first one in. Before everyone else arrives, he’s getting the office ready and making sure all the cars are in the right spots for his technicians. 

As such, he’s still working on removing himself from some of the day-to-day activities. That process, which has resulted in more hiring and more trust placed on his employees, has proven fruitful thus far. 

“I was always scared to let them fail. I’d be behind them and micromanaging. Once I backed off, things got better for both of us. When they failed, they learned from their mistakes,” Wharff says.


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

On getting out of the business: “What a wonderful surprise [for Kyle]. It’s a little counterintuitive, but if you can make that leap, take that risk, there’s enough evidence to point to it working.”

 

In Wharff’s current role, he acts more as a “floater.” He’s constantly motivating, walking around the shop and lending a small hand wherever is needed. He takes his job as motivator seriously, and it’s one of his biggest responsibilities within the shop. 

But to be a visionary leader doesn’t mean to become hands-off, Rains says. Wharff holds a similar mindset. He is going to continue to be a guiding voice in the shop, and because he loves the industry, he will tape up a bumper from time to time, or do a quality control check. However, his eyes are constantly on the bigger picture of the shop as well.

Throughout the day he goes through industry emails, checks in on QuickBooks, and goes through CCC’s management tool. He also gets tons of emails from CARSTAR that detail new OEM repair information. In keeping with his guiding approach, Wharff often forwards much of this information to his team as well.


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

“It’s not just good for the leader. It’s good for the person who they are trying to lead. Their team won’t grow if they’re constantly present. The worst case scenario is a micro-manager, but there’s all different gradients. The further away you can move from micromanaging, to truly training and releasing people to learn, the better. It’s going to lead to higher revenue. It’s an assumption, but it’s a safe assumption.”

 


Higher Efficiency 

Average technician efficiency of shops with visionary leaders

99% or lower - 5%

100-119% - 9% 

120-139% - 18%

140-159% - 24%

160% or higher - 16%

Don’t track efficiency - 27%


Shops with direct involvement leaders

99% or lower - 18%

100-119% - 20%

120-139% - 12%

140-159% - 10%

160% or higher - 4%

Don’t track efficiency - 36%



Jerald Stiele, owner of Collision Center 1 and Hopkins Auto Body 1 in Minnesota

SHOP STATS: Collision Center 1 Location:  Golden Valley, Minn.  Owner: Jerald Stiele Staff Size: 13 Shop Size: 13,000 square feet Average Monthly Car Count: 125  ARO: $2,333  Annual Revenue: $3.5 million

SHOP STATS: Hopkins Auto Body Location:  Hopkins, Minn.  Owner: Jerald Stiele Staff Size: 18 Shop Size: 26,000 square feet Average Monthly Car Count: 150  ARO: $2,167  Annual Revenue: $3.9 million



Jerald Stiele has a goal every day: Don’t be involved in any day-to-day operations whatsoever. He follows the common adage, “Work on your business, not in it,” and he has seen it pay dividends.

In February 2019, Stiele added Collision Center 1, the company’s second location. He says that would not have been possible without stepping away from the day-to-day. Now, managing two locations plus a glass repair business on the side, focusing on the bigger picture rather than the day-to-day is a necessity. 


1. Address issues right away.

Unlike some of the other shop owners FenderBender spoke with, Stiele does not have a routine he follows every day. He arrives at the Hopkins location around 7 a.m. and normally checks in with his general managers from both locations. He sees if they need anything or have any issues that come up. Then occasionally he sits in on the shop’s morning meeting at 8:30. 

From there, Stiele begins working on any of the issues that came up in his morning discussions with the general managers. It can be going through numbers with his CFO, reworking blueprinting processes with his GMs or planning the shop’s marketing strategy—whatever pops up in the meetings that needs to be addressed. 


Thoughts on Kevin Rains

We always want to be sharpening the soul. What can we do to sharpen ourselves so the available time that you do have is amplified by 10 times what you could’ve done. Finding a groove of a few good habits is really enough to set your life up for great success.”


2. Make time for big-picture projects.

If nothing comes up, Stiele will turn towards some of his bigger projects, such as expansion. Stiele says he’s dedicated much of his time the last six months to scouting out different locations and assessing the company’s different options. 

And while Stiele doesn’t have a set routine that he follows every day, don’t mistake that for disorganization. In fact, he has a paper calendar that he sticks by strictly, and it’s been a big component of his success within the business and outside it. 


3. Find an organization system.

On the calendar are business meetings and scheduled phone calls, but it also includes his kids’ schedules for sporting events and activities and dedicated time set aside for running, which Stiele says is his main method of decompression. 


Thoughts from Kevin Rains

“It sounds like for [Jerald] his calendar keeps him on track and makes sure that he is taking time to sharpen himself away from the business, which in turn will help the business.”

 

“That’s what I have to live by. I schedule that just as I would a work meeting,” Stiele says. “If my wife needs something or the kids need a ride to something, that’s on there. It’s so important for me or I will burn out.”

The calendar has helped him stay committed to doing those tasks, and staying out of the day-to-day operations allows him to take a midday run, or leave the office early to attend one of his kids’ events. 


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