Top Seven Key Management Strategies
When most fellas turn 19, they’re still spending afternoons on the couch playing video games. But back in 1990, teenager Patrick Gray, the current manager of Tom Bell Chevrolet Collision Center in Redlands, Calif., had a little more than Super Nintendo on his mind. Just a year out of high school, Gray was managing Toler’s Auto Body, a collision center in San Bernardino, Calif., overseeing an operation that raked in $2.5 million a year.
Gray joined Bell’s team in 1993, and has since grown into one of the most respected collision managers in the state. Bringing together the lessons he’s learned over the past 20 years, Gray, 39, has drastically improved shop metrics—such as cycle time and on-time rates—by keeping operations and staffing lean. To wit, he hit a 100 percent on-time rate in April in Bell’s new facility. Gray is also shaping his workforce in unorthodox ways, pruning high-salaried positions as well as any employees who aren’t willing to adapt to an increasingly customer-centric business. Whether it’s his youth or just good business acumen, Gray understands how collision repair is evolving, and he intends to stay ahead of the curve by sticking with his winning ways.
1. Shop Design Improves Cycle Time
Gray’s record speaks for itself: His collision center’s on-time rate went from 85 to 100 percent for the month of April, and he’s improved the shop’s cycle time by five days. Gray gives the layout of his new facility—a 25,000 square foot behemoth—much of the credit. “We designed the shop to be as lean as possible,” he says.
The new center was constructed in the shell of Bell’s former Toyota dealership (Bell recently built an all-new Toyota flagship) and features an L-shaped design. That way, all collision stalls face the paint shop. “I think [the layout] definitely contributes to our on-time rate,” he says. “Now, not only can we track the repair, but you can physically look across the shop and see the car. The bodyman knows that in about five hours, he’s going to be building that car. That helps him anticipate what’s coming.”
The shop services roughly 300 cars a month, and that volume is growing now that the facility is a stand-alone building away from the dealership site. The new location has an independent feel, and “helped us change the customer perception that we only fix one type of vehicle,” Gray says.
2. Technology Meets Teamwork
But not everyone has a huge, state-of-the-art facility, and Gray insists that other factors have also played a role in shaving time off his repairs. He’s a big fan of technology, for starters. Gray was an early adopter of computer systems that track inventory and vehicle progress. He’s currently using DuPont’s ProfitNet shop management system, whose vehicle tracker program allows him to identify express-lane-type jobs before they’re even assigned to a technician.
Gray also divided his staff into teams and assigned each a leader. Now, communication about workflow travels between team leaders, instead of jumping willy-nilly throughout the shop. “Teams make everything easier and more efficient,” he says. “It brings together technicians, estimators and parts departments. Stuff isn’t scattered about.”
3. Cut Staff, Raise Productivity
When it comes to increasing output, Gray hasn’t been afraid to make unorthodox choices. In a bid to streamline his shop, Gray cut his production manager from the staff. This wasn’t because the employee was lacking, but because the high-paying position just didn’t make monetary sense anymore, he says. “There’s just no need for a production manager with this vehicle progress system,” he says. “We’ve taken a couple hands out of the pot.” Believe it or not, he says, “just not having one extra hand in dealing with the repair process alone sped things up by a day.” To push repairs along even faster, he added two support people at a fraction of the expense. “They’re helping basically get the cars through the shop, get them aligned, get them to detail,” he explains.
Not surprisingly, dealership owner Tom Bell is thrilled. “Patrick is one of my bright stars,” he says. Bell, who has been in the business almost 50 years, says it’s difficult to find a long-term manager in collision work. “You might end up with a guy who’s a hotshot, but then he turns out to be a three-year wonder and he’s gone,” he laments. Although Gray was young—just 24—when Bell handed him the reins, Bell quickly determined he was trustworthy. “A used-car manager and a body shop manager, that’s really the easiest place to steal from a dealership,” he says. “Good managers are scarce and you don’t want a bad one. Patrick is one of those rare finds.”
4. Push Employees to Achieve
David Boyett learned about Gray’s management style firsthand: In his 40s, he worked for Gray, who then was, as Boyett puts it, “just a snot-nosed kid.” Boyett, now a collision manager himself, met Gray in the mid-1990s when Boyett was a paint rep for BASF. Tom Bell’s shop was one of his largest customers, and when Boyett parted ways with BASF, he joined Gray’s team as a painter. “Of all the places that offered me jobs, I chose to go with him,” Boyett says. It certainly wasn’t the shop itself that drew him: “The facility was maybe a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10,” he says, laughing. “There was no shop layout, since it was housed in an old General Motors service department. We had men downstairs and upstairs, we had no flow for cars.” Yet the shop was pulling in $450,000 a month, Boyett says. “I don’t know how he did it,” Boyett marvels.
In fact, Gray did it by pushing his employees—hard. Boyett says he was initially taken aback at how seriously Gray took the job. One day during his first week, Boyett began painting a quarter panel, masking it behind the bumper. After he finished, Gray came by and asked, “Did I pay you to paint that whole quarter panel?” Boyett tried to explain that no one would see the portion he’d masked, and Gray interrupted: “That’s not the point. We do what we get paid for, and we get paid for what we do.” Boyett smiles at the memory. “Gray said, ‘If you would like me to start charging insurance companies less to paint the quarter panel the way you’re doing it, just let me know.’”
“I’ll never forget it,” Boyett says. “It was really harsh. With Patrick, there were no shortcuts, no corner cutting.”
5. Model a Strong Work Ethic
One of Gray’s catch phrases was “if you build it, they will come,” and Boyett pulls out another story that demonstrates his youthful boss’s level of commitment. “Our back lot was just horrible, and [Gray] would get out there and move all the cars in 110-degree heat. He’d say, ‘If you don’t have another place for a car to get parked, guess what, another car’s not going to come. If we have 10 spaces open, just watch—another car will show up.’ And he was right. He was the first one to jump into black cars with no air conditioning to move them in the middle of the summer. That kind of dedication is how he earned our respect.”
Gray admits that developing a management style with a shop full of veterans who seemed keen to watch him fail was a Herculean task. “There were many times when I wanted to leave the business,” he says. “There was a lack of common respect from some of the older employees, and it was hard to get insurance adjusters to take me seriously.”
6. Emphasize Customer Relations
“People had fairly low expectations [for collision repair] when I started in this business,” Gray says, “But that’s changed.” He recalls working at a shop in his early teens. There was a sign on the door listing times available for estimates. If customers showed up without an appointment, the shop owners simply told them to come back later. That was the norm, and customers built that into their expectations, he says.
“Back then, people felt like they were lucky to get their car out resembling what it looked like before the accident,” he says. “Now, they expect the Lexus treatment from beginning to end, complete with delivery service and concierge service. And shops that aren’t willing to acknowledge that—not necessarily even comply 100 percent, but [at least] acknowledge it—those are the shops that are soon going to be out of work.”
7. Hire From Within
“Your biggest investment as a manager is in your people,” he says. “Nobody is lining up to be a bodyman or a painter anymore. There is a lack of people who want to be involved in collision repair in a serious way.” Long gone, he says, are the days when you could get hired just because you’d painted a car or fixed a door before.
Because Gray believes in the wisdom of hiring customer-centric employees, his management strategy mirrors Bell’s: Bring people up through the ranks. Gray’s current system manager and two of his estimators started in entry-level positions. “You have to raise these people within your own business because there just aren’t a lot of people beating your door down to get into this industry,” he says.
Gray knows that he has pushed some of his employees into adopting this new philosophy, but is adamant that these days, everyone in the industry needs to have people skills—even technicians. And a lot of the older generation he worked with years ago weren’t ready to become de facto customer service reps. “The industry changed, whether they liked it or not, and a lot of them pushed themselves out of collision work because they weren’t willing to work with people or really accept it as a people position,” he says.
Turns out, technology and lean facilities will only take you so far. When it comes to building a successful business, the key is people. Take it from Gray—he may be a young guy, but he’s spent 20 years on the job figuring it out.