Staying Ahead of the Curve
All businesses are a form of organized chaos, and auto body repair shops are no exception. Besides the essential work of handling cars that come through the shop, countless other chores are needed to keep a shop running smoothly and thriving financially. Those tasks can be anything from sweeping the floors to conducting effective, timely employee reviews.
Unfortunately, when shops are busy, it’s too tempting to push such work aside, and those secondary responsibilities can fall through the cracks. Most shop owners evolve their own unique methods for coping with this work behind the work of repairing cars. However, sometimes change comes abruptly, when a life-altering event jars the owner into a different path.
And that’s precisely what happened to Jeff Baggett, owner of Classic Car Motoring in Irondale, Alabama.
Classic Car Motoring is a family-owned and operated collision repair and automotive storage business, founded in 1978. Beginning from humble origins, it had grown significantly over the years, and in 2020 owner Jeff Baggett was preparing to take it to an even higher level, starting construction on a state-of-the-art, 140,000-square-foot facility.
And then everything abruptly halted. The COVID pandemic gripped the world, and in early March of that year, Baggett was among those who caught the virus early. With so little known about COVID-19 at the time, doctors grappled with his symptoms, and Baggett’s condition worsened quickly.
Aided by a home health care provider, he battled the disease for more than five weeks, and ended up missing two and a half months of work. But he returned to his business with profound insight. “I broke down and cried. Going through all that made me look at life completely differently. I realized that my whole team needed to work together. I’d thought about some of these things before I got sick, but after that, I could see that everyone in the shop had to be in on things. That was the only way it could work.”
Although Classic Car Motoring was well staffed and successful, it had fallen into a pattern of focusing too much on the bottom line, says Baggett. He knew there were many tasks that the shop could be doing better, but that it would take a comprehensive, team-oriented approach to make it happen.
However, that’s often far easier said than done. Veteran employees are used to their specific duties and expectations. Shifting how a company attacks the day-to-day chores of the business can disrupt motivation and morale among workers. And in an era plagued by shortages of qualified employees, that can be a significant risk; good techs can choose where they want to work and may decline their new broader responsibilities.
Along with his newly-built facility, Baggett envisioned a whole different way of looking at his business. The details that often get overlooked would take on central importance to the day-to-day operations of the company. And for that, he knew he had to get all of his employees on board.
To start with, he shifted his entire focus from himself and his business, to his people instead.
“I realized that the most abused word we have in the English language isn’t a cuss word,” he says. “It’s the smallest word in Webster's dictionary. And that word is I. When you take that word and use it in a sentence with your team, it's what makes the wheels run off. You’ve got to take it out of your vocabulary, and you put yourself in the position of each employee.”
Armed with that newfound perspective, Baggett worked to deepen his relationship with his employees, to involve all aspects of their life.
“This year, for the first time, I’ve made a point of talking to every single employee for anywhere from an hour to an hour and 30 minutes about what they feel like, what they think,” he says. “And I made notes of every one of them, about what they thought it would take to make their lives better and easier here.”
Having strengthened his bonds with his team members, Baggett was able to more readily enlist them in the work of the smaller details in the business. But he also had to set aside his traditional roll-up-your-sleeves and do-it-yourself approach to taking care of things. Baggett had a tough time delegating for several years. He says it took practice, but it became a valuable tool.
With this idea, Baggett focuses on taking care of the little things as the day goes on, rather than ignoring them and letting them pile up into big jobs that nobody wants to tackle. He says that cleaning the shop is one of the best examples of this approach.
“My deal is not having to clean up at the end of the day,” Baggett says. “And definitely not on the almighty Friday. So we don’t make messes. Everybody is assigned brooms, dust pails, mops, mop buckets, and we have a ride-around floor cleaning machine.”
To reinforce the need to keep the shop organized and clean at all times, the new Classic Car Motoring facility was designed with an open floor plan, incorporating long, unimpeded sight lines and plenty of windows. Baggett often takes that sense of transparency a step further, giving customers full tours of the shop.
“I always tell my employees, ‘I'm not going to give you an hour warning to clean up,’” he says. “I walk customers through the shop, so they see us working. They see the shop is clean, they see that their car is clean, and they know things are taken care of.”
After reinventing his business and establishing it in his new building, Baggett was well on his way to bringing Classic Car Motoring to an unprecedented level, a super shop that set new standards for service, attention to detail, and high volume of work.
But fate played its hand once again. In late 2021, the company’s newfound business methods were brutally tested, with a literal trial by fire.
“A customer’s car came in on a wrecker. We hadn’t even touched it, and it caught on fire. We had a major catastrophe in the shop,” Baggett says. “My insurance guy said that 94% of the businesses our size wouldn’t have made it through that. But we overcame it. It was a miracle. I give credit to the grace of God first, and second to our employees—our family. Because without them, we would have never made it through it.
“They pulled their shirt sleeves up. They came in, they helped clean, and they got us back going. We were only down three days. We’re still not through fixing the building. It’s been over a year. But we’ve made it through it. We survived. And it made us so much closer, because we buckled down together.”
From the difficult journey of the last few years, Jeff Baggett learned life lessons that have impacted every aspect of his business. He found a whole new outlook that has enabled him to weather the most severe setbacks. This new approach allows him to further refine the tiny details of his business that add up to the overall brand customers interact with.
Perhaps most important, Baggett discovered that the real value of his company is his employees, the people that do the work, take care of customers, and make it possible to stay in business year after year.
He learned that those employees are the key to managing the thousands of little tasks that mount up every day in a fast-paced, successful company.
“I have to give credit to my team, not me,” he says. “I can’t do all the things here. It's a ‘we’ thing, man. I just happen to be the guy they go to if something bad happens or somebody wants a donation for the softball team.”