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The Top Shop in Downtown L.A.

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A lot of shop owners worry about finding and retaining quality technicians. One who has succeeded on both fronts? Elizabeth Yang, the only female Korean-American shop owner in downtown Los Angeles. Elizabeth has owned Civic Center Collision for 13 years. The business was established in 1948, and it’s located in the heart of downtown. Her website covers the shop’s highlights:

We specialize in both foreign and domestic vehicles, and we have the facilities and the expertise to take on any paint or collision repair job. ... Civic Center Collision is a direct repair facility for most major insurance companies, and our staff consists of people specially trained in estimating and handling insurance claims. ... We offer a lifetime guarantee on all services performed, including parts, labor, and paint for as long as you own your vehicle.”

The Double Dilemma

Ethnicity and gender gave Elizabeth a double challenge when it came to managing her shop. When she took over, some employees had been there 10 or more years. The mainly Hispanic technicians were accustomed to working for a man, and early efforts at managing the staff weren’t easy. They treated her like she knew nothing technically, and she willingly acknowledged an early need to rely on those workers for technical information.

There tend to be two schools of thought for paying technicians: salary and commissions. Elizabeth found a third, more flexible, approach to the problem.

During the next 10 years, she took every I-CAR and ASE course available. She graduated from Masters School of Autobody Management. She trained in computerized estimating and management. She immersed herself in the details of automotive painting and color matching.
Today, she has a state-of-the-art BASF color matching system, two Garmat paint booths, multiple frame machines, high-speed welding systems, a 40,000-square-foot facility with 40 work bays and 80 indoor parking spaces. And she no longer has a problem with workers questioning her authority.

Strengthening a Struggling Enterprise

Early on, the shop had a few insurance relationships, mainly with companies that sent jobs with many problems and little profit. As Elizabeth brought in better equipment and better personnel, she was able to dump those lackluster relationships and establish profitable agreements.

Next up: attracting and retaining quality workers. Elizabeth solved this problem far more creatively than most shop owners I’ve known. There tend to be two schools of thought for paying technicians: straight salary and commissions. Many owners choose not to pay on a commission basis for fear workers will rush through jobs, sacrificing quality to increase their pay.

Elizabeth found a third, more flexible, approach to the problem. She says some workers produce well on a straight salary, while others excel with the opportunity to earn commissions. She pays each technician according to their preference. She also strives to keep her technicians trained with the latest I-CAR and ASE training programs.

A Creative Approach to Employee Care

Elizabeth recognized early on that employees who had been with the company 10 or so years would probably be with her for 25 or more, and would need a retirement plan. But plans like a 401(k) weren’t appropriate for those who couldn’t afford to have money taken out of their pay. So Elizabeth worked with an attorney and insurance representatives to create a fund that could meet the needs of all her long-term employees.

Amazingly, she also provides health insurance for everyone.

The Compassionate Management Payoff

I’ve known very few shop owners who are as concerned as Elizabeth with the long-term fate of employees. In today’s world of lost pension plans, revolving-door jobs and heartless downsizing, Elizabeth is not only a compassionate employer, but also a sharp businessperson who makes certain she has the jobs coming in to pay for the benefits she provides.

I think too few shop owners consider the effects of fair pay, health insurance and a reliable retirement program on morale, performance and dedication. The results can raise a shop far above the competition.

In downtown Los Angeles, Elizabeth Yang has demonstrated that a woman’s strong competitive skills, a first-rate facility, and exceptional concern for employees can make a shop, unquestionably, No. 1 in its region.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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