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FenderBender Award Runner-Up: Cliff Sullivan

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Touch time is one KPI that any shop owner is familiar with. But the concept of touch took on new meaning to operators and to the world at large upon the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it came to touch time in the sense of interaction between employees, between customers, that metric by necessity had to go to zero in March 2020.

Cliff Sullivan remembers it well. The owner of Premier Coach Automotive in Thousand Oaks and Camarillo, California, even remembers the day. It was March 15, a Sunday. It was the day before Ventura County—sandwiched between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles—was to implement its form of lockdown restrictions. It also happened to be the day Sullivan’s grandson was born.

“Sunday at about noon, I went upstairs in my office, closed the door, and I spent about four hours,” Sullivan recalls now. “My goal, the end goal, was to figure out how am I going to run our business, how are we going to run this business, and keep not only the staffing and our facility safe but equally if not more important, the guests safe.”

The story of how Sullivan was able to do that is part of the reason why he’s a 2022 FenderBender Award runner-up. But it’s because of all the decisions, all the processes, all the team-building that came before in his nearly three decades running Premier that allowed the shop to not just survive but thrive through COVID. That broader story is why Sullivan is so-honored this year.

A People Business

Sullivan’s orientation to collision repair came early on when he entered the industry at the age of 24. The 53-year-old admits now he could barely change a tire or perform an oil change then, but he realized something early on that allowed him to be successful very quickly.

“When I got into this business I realized very, very early on that it’s not a car business,” Sullivan says. “It never has been a car business. It’s a people business … I looked around, absorbed everything, I recognized ‘Hey, I can learn this stuff, really what this is is a people business.’ And once I recognized that, the rest of the business became easier.”

That focus on people continues to guide Premier, which Sullivan bought by the time he was 26. That goes for guests—never “clients” or “customers”—as well as employees. Sullivan reports that 80 percent of his crew have worked there 10 or more years, and 20 percent have been there at least 20 years. 

Sullivan attributes the longevity of that team to employees and management being on the same page and pulling in the same direction. 

“Ownership’s no higher than the staff and the staff is no higher than the ownership,” he says. “Yes, there’s a fine line there of course. There’s a line we have to draw at times, yes. But I walk into someone’s stall, I don’t think it’s my stall. I believe it’s Gustavo’s stall.”

Unprecedented Times

Sullivan says that without getting his employees to buy in, nothing that he came up with in his office on March 15, 2020, to handle the emerging pandemic would have mattered. But Sullivan did have a plan and it centered around one word: touchless. Staying apart was the only way to keep employees and guests safe.

For employees, Sullivan broke co-workers into teams to limit the possibility of spread. The office employees stayed in the office and the shop workers stayed in the shop. If a member of any group tested positive, the whole group would get tested. Anyone testing positive could not come back to work until they tested negative.

“I think that the key with this is that the employees buying in is what made the difference here,” Sullivan says, “and how blessed we were to have people who actually cared about the company, who have been there a long time and we’re family. That’s just how we operate.”

Of course, for any of this to even be necessary, Sullivan had to find a way for guests to bring their cars in without any face-to-face contact. Sullivan’s crew had a sterilized rental car waiting for guests who wanted to drop off. Guests who wanted their cars picked up could leave their keys in a hidden location and the Premier crew would come get it. Keys were always bagged and sanitized. Documents were signed electronically. Communication was by phone or email.

These processes helped Premier get through the peak and surges of the pandemic. Even as protocols have eased elsewhere, Sullivan kept the processes in place and just re-opened their office in early 2022. It is hard to argue with the results.

“So those steps were steps that we practiced, and we practiced, I mean, religiously,” Sullivan says. “From all the facilities we have about 75, 80 employees; we had seven cases the whole time. We never shut the shop down.”

While health is the top priority, never shutting the shop down meant employees were also kept gainfully employed and Sullivan says nobody—well, almost—ever missed a paycheck. The company even managed to add staff as the pandemic went on.

“The only person that didn’t collect a check for about 13 months is me,” Sullivan says. “We gained people through that.”

Sullivan chose to make the best of the bad situation the pandemic was. He doubled, then tripled down on marketing, once it became clear that their processes were helping the company survive. Sullivan pursued more certifications to keep positive momentum going.

“I think taking advantage of that situation, taking a really bad situation and finding a way to make it positive and make it meaningful shows the community that we serve that we’re here to stay,” Sullivan says. “And we’re going to do whatever we gotta do and 99.9 percent of the people absolutely loved the process, absolutely appreciated how much we went out of our way to do this.”

Part of the Community

To Sullivan, serving the community is a responsibility. And that’s not only through providing collision repair services. It means donating pallets of water to local high schools for football games. It’s sponsoring the GIVE – MENTOR – LOVE Foundation benefitting victims of human trafficking. 

With two locations in Ventura County, and possibly a third on the horizon, Premier Coach is undoubtedly a fixture within the community.

“Over the years we’ve done a good enough job, and a good enough job, and a good enough job, and an outstanding job, and an outstanding job and now it’s just not a question. They come see us,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan says he was set to retire three years ago but his kids asked him to stick around. Whenever that day of retirement comes, Sullivan knows he’ll be leaving Premier safe and in good hands.

“I’m not bragging, I’m just being honest,” he says. “I’ll put this shop up against any shop in the nation on quality, speed, customer service, you name it. We’ll beat ‘em.”

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