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Ben Rouw

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Ben Rouw wants to be the best leader he can be. He’s currently general manager of Steele’s Collision & Glass in Monticello, Minn., where he’s been the manager for six years.

He’s now pushing himself to higher levels.

Rouw won the Automotive Management Institute (AMI) and Automotive Service Association (ASA) 2012 Emil Stanley Merit Award. With the scholarship, he attended the 2012 NACE Expo in New Orleans, and learned even more about the industry and about leadership than he’s learned in recent years.

“I think I was what they were looking for—someone who came up into the ranks without having any education,” Rouw says. “I’m a guy who wants to learn and build his education, and build his business.”

Rouw’s 10,000-square-foot shop has 10 employees and does roughly $1.5 million in sales each year. And Rouw, who is passionate about shop leadership, is working toward his 120-credit Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM) designation from the AMI.

He spoke with FenderBender about becoming a better manager, and what it takes to be a great shop leader.


How did you get started in the collision industry?

I started back in 1993. I went to college to be a mechanic. I worked for Chevrolet for 10 years as a mechanic, and then I had an injury to my ankle that was more or less a disease that made my bone and my ankle fall apart. Ultimately, after five surgeries, that pretty much took me out of my career. So I made a lateral move to the body shop and got retrained as an estimator.

“I think to be a good manager, you have to have a heart. You have to care about your employees. That has to rub off on them; they have to know it.”
—Ben Rouw, general manager, Steele’s Collision & Glass

After a year, I moved up to Monticello to work at Steele’s Collision. I started out as an estimator here. About six years ago, I worked my way up to manager.


What has motivated you to grow in that position?

I’ve always put my employees first. I want to make sure they’re making money. And I’ve always wanted to build the business. I have a huge heart, and I believe in doing everything to the best of my ability. I’m not a lazy employee. I want to make my mark. I also want to influence people’s lives, and I’m in a position where I can do that.

As far as the AMI scholarship and the AAM degree, I’m doing that for the company so that they have a well-educated manager, and I can make smart decisions. My boss is an absentee owner. So I’m left with all the decision-making on my own.

We have a beautiful shop out in the country about an hour west of Minneapolis. I want to compete with the big Minneapolis shops. That’s what we want.


What have you learned about leading a body shop since you took over six years ago?

The most important part of our business is shop culture. You can’t make people like each other, and you can’t make people like working here. But if you create a positive shop culture, beginning with me leading by example, and keep the reprimands down to a minimum, and listen to employees, they feel a sense of ownership and work harder for you. It all works, and it all flows.

I have a huge amount of respect for my guys. They’re all qualified and certified employees. We pay higher than most industry standards for wages so that we can keep good employees. And it all works if you have good employees. They turn out a good product, customers are happy, insurance customers are happy. Your cycle time is up. Your key performance indicators improve. You end up with more referrals.

And keeping a positive attitude through it all is one the most important aspects of being a manager. It rubs off. If someone is having a rough day, and you go over to that person with a smile and make a joke, then sometimes it can help improve his day. I don’t get angry. But when I do have to reprimand someone for something, it’s to the point, and they understand. They typically feel bad or change whatever the problem is. It doesn’t happen very often, thankfully. I think most people don’t like confrontations. It’s very difficult to let someone go or write someone up for a problem. But it needs to happen sometimes. As long as they understand the rules and the expectations, if you have the right guys in place you don’t have to worry so much. As long as they have bosses they trust and respect, then it creates a family feeling.


So how do you cultivate trust and respect in the shop?

One of the biggest things is listening to your employees, and then acting on what they say. If you listen to your people, then they feel like they’re important, like they’re somebody, like they have a say. Always, in the end, as a manager you can’t give them the sense that they control the shop. However, you want them to feel like they have some input and that they have good ideas.

That’s what I strive to do. We’ve created a shop atmosphere that’s conducive to that. We talk about our problems. It’s important to talk about any concerns, and address them. I think if you hold back feelings, it culminates in one day exploding and saying the wrong thing.

I read a book called The One Minute Manager. It’s a very good book; I would recommend it to any manager. It talks about one-minute praises and one-minute reprimands. You want to have the conversation about what went wrong. But also praise that person when they do things right. They want to know when they do a good job, and when a customer appreciates their car.

Part of it isn’t a trained thing. Part of it is the way you are. To be a good manager, you have to have the right attributes. You can’t just go to school to be a good manager.

This is the truth behind it all: When I was a mechanic, I had a very bad manager. I worked with a lot of really good guys who lost their jobs because he only focused on production. As the guys got older, they were quality technicians but got in trouble because they weren’t getting as many jobs out the door. But they spent a lot of extra time making sure everything was done properly.

I also worked with guys I call “hacks” in the business. They would up-sell to customers for things that they didn’t need, and then they would do shoddy repairs, and they would get praise from the owner or manager. I told myself that if I ever became a manager, that’s not how I would treat my employees.


How can a bad manager recognize they are doing a poor job?

Well, turnover is huge. If you have shop turnover, there’s a reason for it. I think it’s unhealthy to have turnover. It creates an uncomfortable feeling in the shop. You want to see the same people, who get to know our customers. We have a lot of repeat customers. If different faces are out there all the time, it really shows instability. If you’ve got a manager that people don’t like, then it affects the employees and the customers.


Do you have advice for brand-new managers in developing skills to become a great leader?

If I would have gotten myself more involved back in 2006 when I started as a manager, I would have been far better off. The first thing I would have done is join industry groups such as ASA. I would have gotten my AAM degree with AMI sooner, and I would have educated myself as much as possible. It’s also important to network within the industry, and with insurance companies, and make a name for yourself.


Do you have a mentor?

My main mentor is my boss, Shawn. Shawn has been a business owner for many businesses over many years. This is his first body shop. We’ve learned and grown together in the business. Him and I together have had a lot of great meetings, a lot of great discussions, and have bounced ideas off of each other. I have a ton of respect for him.

He’s probably the only reason I’m in this position today. I’m now marketable to other shops if I were to leave, which I have no desire to. He’s built me into the manager I am. I also have a lot of good guys in the industry that I have respect for, and frankly that I love. There’s so much knowledge to be learned from others. That’s why I think that, to be a good manager, you have to open yourself up and allow yourself to take advice and listen to others.


For the shop owners who are reading this and wishing they had a manager like you in their shops, what is your advice on developing employees into skilled managers?

If you make them feel comfortable, first of all, and show them that you trust them, that’s the first step.

I have an owner that made me feel confident. He encouraged me. He never belittled me. He always encouraged me, put his faith in me and trusted me.
If an owner wants to be part of his business, and wants to grow his management, he should be clear about what he expects, encourage the manager, and give that person the right tools to do well.

When I got the scholarship, I thought, “That’s awesome, but how much is it going to cost me?” Shawn took me aside and let me know he’d be paying for everything. I was just ecstatic. He clearly was investing in management. And investing in your management is important. I don’t care how good you are, everyone can stand to be better.


Any final management advice?

I think to be a good manager you have to have a heart. You have to care about your employees. That has to rub off on them; they have to know it.
That creates a lot better of a culture in the shop. You create what feels like a work family. You spend a lot of time together, you work toward achieving the same goals, and you get excited about what you do.

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