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Total Shop Makeover

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Collision repair has always been in Matt Thornton’s blood. He started working in his family’s shop, Parks Royal Body Works in Boise, Idaho, when he was a kid, and purchased the business from his father in 2003. Since then, Thornton, 41, has given the business a top-to-bottom makeover, which has resulted in double-digit sales growth.

Our shop has always been a family business. It’s actually been here since 1947. I grew up in it and used to work down here with my dad. I worked here after school, all throughout high school, and after high school as a painter. It’s in my blood, so to speak. I did leave the business for a couple of years and went to work for a paint supplier. It was the typical father-son deal; I wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with the old man.

When I came back, I started to work my way up the management side and in 2000, I bought half of the business. Even though my dad worked really close with us for a couple years  prepping me and including me in a lot of the financial decisions, he was ready to be out. That was challenging because I was trying to grow the business and the two of us were going in two different directions. In 2003, we bought out my dad’s half of the business, and now my wife and I have been full owners for 10 years. I’ve been able to forge ahead and grow the company. We’ve experienced double-digit growth for several years. With that has come a lot of change. It has really been a makeover from stem to stern.

We used to own two locations of the shop. During the transition period where I bought the whole business, my parents got divorced and we sold the other location. We really wanted to differentiate ourselves from the other shop and we weren’t thrilled with the way they were operating, either, so that meant rebranding our shop. I wanted to make it my own and it was time to breathe some life into the company. The logo was old and dated; it was time to give it a facelift. We kept the same name, Parks Royal, but we changed the logo and the colors to purple and yellow.

Boise is a good-sized town, but it’s not so big that people don’t know who you are. The same people who you have been dealing with for years are still around, so we wanted to make sure they were comfortable not only with the management change, but with the identity of the company. We wanted to make sure they understood that nothing had changed except the look of the place. We do quite a bit of TV and radio marketing, as well as direct marketing to local dealerships and insurance agents. We want to make sure that the people who were referring us work would continue to do so.

During this time, we also started to make a lot of changes to our customer service approach. Most of our work used to come from DRPs, but during the recession, we started to become more aware of building our own database of customers and making the customers our own. Before, it was go, go, go. Now, we spend a lot more time with our customers.

CUTTING EDGE: Having the newest and best equipment and tools helps with morale of his team, Thornton says. It’s one of the many reasons he made the switch to waterborne paint. Photo by Steve Smith

It seems like people are so confused when they come to us. They get so much misinformation from insurance companies, other shops, friends, coworkers, or the Internet. They have such strange ideas in their heads, so it’s important to spend time with them clarifying what’s going to happen and what they need to do.

Since most people don’t go through a wreck but once every 10 years, things have changed a lot in those 10 years. We find that we spend a lot more time with customers in a consultative role. We try to talk customers through the entire repair process, educate the customer on their legal right to choose a shop and the status of their vehicle, and we try to help the customer work with the insurance company too. Fixing the car has almost become a byproduct.

We didn’t just change the outside of the business, we also changed it from the inside out. The way we did business for many years worked, as far as getting the product completed, but there was a lot of stress and tension created during the process. I’ve been on a mission for the past several years to eliminate that tension, so I could make it more seamless.

A lot of it comes down to having the right group of people. I’d rather hire for attitude and teach them the skill than have somebody who is skilled but is the bad apple of the bunch.

Probably the biggest help has been the switch to a team pay plan, as well as other lean processes. It’s taken a lot of the stress off the technicians, which makes them happier. Now they’re all working together as a group, instead of, this is my stall and my toolbox. It became a big source of tension in the shop because someone always thought someone else was being favored or being given the easy jobs.

WORKING TOGETHER: Thornton tries to take a softer approach to leadership, working together with his team to create solutions rather than simply giving orders. Photos by Steve Smith

With the team pay plan, we don’t even need a production manager anymore. We keep the jobs in order of priority in our management system, and the techs can just grab the next job in line. They know which ones need to leave when and we leave it up to them to manage their own time. If it’s a tough job that’s going to slow them down, one of the other guys will come over and help them because they know they’re both benefiting from it by improving their efficiency.

I think that updating the equipment has also helped with morale. A lot of the equipment was getting pretty long in the tooth and needed upgrading. We transitioned to waterborne paint, and we put in a new paint booth, air compressor and air lines. Staying on the cutting edge of equipment and training is something I’ve learned from my dad, and it’s something I am always conscious of.

My style of communicating is also a lot different than my dad’s. He had the old-school mentality of fire and brimstone, “You do it my way and don’t ask why.” Being younger and having a young group of technicians, they’re more responsive to, “Here’s what I need you to do and here’s a general outline.” We communicate more, and they feel free to make some decisions on their own and manage their own workflow.

We do a production meeting on a daily basis and then we try to meet quarterly after work to go through other things we aren’t able to get to. I put up a dry erase board in our break room and everyone writes things down to talk about as they think of them. Then when we all meet as a group, we talk about it and reach a resolution and come up with a new procedure, if needed. A lot of our SOPs have been born from that process.

I’m always conscious of the future and building toward the future, which is why I started mentoring and hosting internships at the shop. When I was that age, there weren’t really any good trade schools, especially locally. In recent years, we’ve gotten two good high school programs and several post-secondary schools that have really good programs. They’ve stepped up and started producing good students that are employable right away. I know how much I would have loved to have that kind of a program, so I’ve made an effort to be involved.

I’m a big believer in education, so I’ve been supportive of all the school programs. I’m on the advisory committee for the high school programs, and we host two-week internships for all of the graduates of the College of Western Idaho’s program. You get to know them a little bit and see what their work ethic is like. All but one of our techs has been through one of those programs. If you’re able to instill some of how you operate in them, it will really pay off down the road.

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