Running a Shop Education+Training

Your Body Shop Staffers Train All the Time, So Why Aren’t You?

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SHOP STATS: Center Collision Location:  Tacoma, Wash.  Owner: Kevin House Staff Size: 12 (3 technicians, a detailer, painter, prepper, parts person; 3 estimators (one is remote), a manager and a CSR)   Shop Size: 10,000 square feet  Number of DRPs: 0  Annual Revenue: $2.5 million

SHOP STATS: Auto Tech Inc.  Location:  Dyersville, Iowa  Staff Size: 9 (2 body technicians, 2 service techs,  5 in the front office)   Shop Size: 12,600 square feet  Number of DRPs: 0  Annual Revenue: $1.8 million overall, $960,000 from body work, $430,00 from mechanical repair, $410,000 from other services.

How does one learn to be a body shop owner or operator? 

In what can be such a hands-on industry, many learn simply by doing it, and while it’s possible to figure out how to run a shop without outside help, that’s not always the same thing as learning to run a business.

Management training is one way to bridge that gap, though according to the 2021 FenderBender Industry Survey, just half of responding shop owners and operators said they attend annual management training. While ongoing training is standard for technicians and other staffers, why shouldn’t it be standard for the bosses, too?

“[Training] taught me there’s a whole lot of business that I didn’t know and that I needed to learn,” says Kevin House, owner of Center Collision in Tacoma, Wash.

House has been taking management courses for the past dozen years and what he’s learned has boosted his bottom line. His shop went from bringing in $300,000 per year to its current $2.5 million. 

Training can be an investment of cash and time, but according to House, it’s been all worth it, for both his business and his quality of life.

Know Where You Stand

House says his motivation for training was simple: frustration.

“When you think you're doing everything you need to be doing and you don’t see results, you’re going to seek something else,” he says.

Having recently bought his current 10,000-square-foot building, House says he felt like he was backsliding, with increasing costs but no plan for heading them off. He says he was contacted by automotive industry training organization Management Success, now called Drive, about attending a seminar in Seattle.

“I honestly thought this: I’ll go there for the weekend, it'll cost me $450 and I’ll know how to grab the bull by the horns,” he says, adding that he soon realized learning what he needed to learn would take longer than two days.

The seminar asked attendees some straight-forward questions, House says, including if they were working more than 40 hours per week, if they had trouble hiring employees, and if they were making any money.

“I failed them all,” he says.

That eye-opening experience, House says, prompted him to take the plunge, signing up for a six-month course while borrowing cash to cover the registration fee of $12,500.

“The amazing thing was that within six months I was able to pay that money back,” he says, “and that sort of told me I was onto something.”

That training experience taught him what he needed to do as a shop owner–track employee production, forecast sales, understand what jobs turn a profit–and how to do it.

Delving into profitability, House says, was shocking. He says he learned that, if everything fell into place just right, he was making only a 3 percent profit. At the time he says he was taking on lot and rental work, while insurance jobs by far had the strongest margin. 

House says he realigned his business to focus on insurance jobs, of which the end result was that 800 percent jump in annual revenue.

Unlocking Potential 

Kevin House, owner of Center Collision, says his body shop has thrived in part because of the business and management training he’s sought out. 

While he says collision repair industry-specific training packs the most punch, he also pursues what he calls “broader spectrum” training.

This winter House took part in a Discover Leadership Training program, which is led by former police officer and leadership trainer Mike Jones. Jones has worked with a number of large corporations including Coca Cola and Exxon/Mobil, as well as Caliber Collision.

Speaking with FenderBender prior to the program, House says he’s hoping to “realize some of my potentials.”

Human Capital

Jenn Benn says she’s in management training not out of frustration, but as a way to prepare for her future.

She manages the collision repair shop at Auto Tech Inc. in Dyersville, Iowa, a business that also does mechanical repairs and towing.

The business is owned by her in-laws, Larry and Cheryl Benn, who are president and vice-president, respectively. Larry started the shop in 1995, and Benn’s husband, Levi, began working there as a teenager

“If this is going to be our business some day I need to step in and learn from the ground up,” Benn says of the shop that has an average monthly car count of 32.

Benn worked in the healthcare field prior to joining the family business seven years ago. She’s attended the FenderBender Management Conference multiple times, saying the camaraderie and speakers at the events motivate and inspire her. She’s also worked with Drive and is currently using ATI as a consultant.

Benn says one of the key benefits of management training for her is a better understanding of employee relations.

“It’s taught me to make sure I am lenient enough to understand that employees are here to get the job done, to get the car out the door, but also knowing that they’re humans,” she says.

That learned mentality has also carried over into how Benn approaches hiring.

“I’m hiring for the person, not the position,” she says. “Find the person who fits the culture.”

Another benefit of training, Benn says, has been its focus on codifying procedures, which is necessary as Auto Tech looks to bring on more people and grow.

She says such documentation builds a foundation for a business, something that can be easily overlooked as a shop works to get its footing.

“Because we’re growing, it’s one of those things that if we don’t get that stuff written down, eventually we’re just going to get overrun.”

Self Investment

Beyond the obvious benefit of higher revenue, House says training has given his life as a business owner greater flexibility.

He says he’s able to take time off for non-industry training (see box) while enjoying travel for two or three months per year.

“That wouldn’t be the case if I’d just stuck with my old ways that weren’t working,” he says. “I’d be working seven days per week and wondering why I’m not making any money.”

Benn, speaking months after attending the FenderBender Management Conference, says she’s still riding the high off one of the speaker’s messages.

“I’m still blown away by Louie [Sharpe’s] keynote,” she says, in which the Illinois body shop owner urged conference attendees to take the lead.

“That’s the one that I’m still focusing on–just how to be that leader and how I realize everything’s got to start with me,” Benn says.

And while House says management training isn’t a fix-all for each of  a business’s issues, he stresses that operating a business is a skill that must be learned the same way it takes training to properly repair a vehicle.

“Most guys who start body shops have a background as a body man or painter, and if you think about it, how long did it take them to become proficient at their skill?” he asks.

“Invest in yourself,” House says. “You have to be the momentum for your company.”

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