Running a Shop Education+Training Apprenticeship+Mentoring

Become a Lifelong Learner

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Jim Keller’s industry education started with a broom handle and a dustpan, sweeping out a Milwaukee collision facility when he was in high school. He ran errands, tracked down missing cans of paint, moved cars—anything for an opportunity to do some real work in the shop.

It’s a story that the majority of collision shop owners can relate to: A kid using a low-level role as a launching pad to industry success.

The rest of his story, though, isn’t quite as ordinary.

From running a dealership facility at age 21 to being one of the country’s first independent multiple-shop owners to founding 1Collision Network, Keller’s 40 or so years in the industry have centered on a foundation of education and training—the one thing, he says, that helped propel him forward at every stage of his career.

“There are so many opportunities now to get the information and skills we need to be successful. Twenty groups, associations, courses—you have to use it,” Keller, 56, says. “The industry’s too tough today to still have the mindset that everything can be learned on the job. [Education] is what’s going to make the difference in today’s industry. It did for me.”

Keller’s story is one of career-long industry learning—how, no matter the stage of your career, there are always things to learn and places to learn them.

Getting Your Feet Wet: Early Education

“Eye-opening” were the words Keller used to describe it.

Just 25, Keller felt he already had substantial experience in the collision industry. After all, he’d spent the last four years running a successful Oldsmobile dealer’s shop, and his own newly opened independent facility was beginning to pick up steam, quickly establishing itself as one of the best in the Milwaukee area.

That was when local industry leader Bob Goff stopped by. Goff, the owner of Goff’s Auto Body (now a four-location Wisconsin staple) and the eventual founder of Goff’s Curtain Walls, was the head of the local collision repair association.

“From being around the industry, I definitely knew who he was, and when he invited me to the next association meeting, I decided to give it a try,” Keller says.

This was the first time Keller realized how much he still didn’t know about the industry.

“You go into this group of all these experienced shop owners, and people were talking about all these different business aspects and strategies that I was pretty unfamiliar with,” Keller says. “It really changed everything for me. I wanted to focus on really running a business and not just the technical aspects of completing repairs.”

Bob Goff, owner, Goff’s Auto Body
Everyone used to see competitors as enemies, but it should never be that way. Once you’re able to see competitors—other shops in your area—as colleagues, you can really start to learn something from them. I was always a ‘brain-picker’; everything I learned was learned from someone else. And if you’re sharing with others and picking other people’s brains, we’re not going to keep making the same mistakes over and over, year after year.

The Progression

That first meeting led to Keller’s eventual involvement in the Automotive Service Association (ASA). Over the years, he’s served on many boards and committees for the ASA. He’s attended all but one NACE event ever held, and presented seminars at many of them. The involvement also led to him receiving an Accredited Automotive Manager degree from ASA’s Automotive Management Institute.

In the early years, though, Keller says his involvement with group education—such as what took place at those early association meetings—led to a quick uptick in his business.

“I opened a second shop in 1985, at a time when no one was owning multiple, independent shops,” Keller says, guessing his company was one of the first MSOs in the Midwest. “To be able to associate yourself with other successful business owners makes all the difference when you’re finding your way as an owner.

Two Thoughts on Degrees
Everyone used to see competitors as enemies, but it should never be that way. Once you’re able to see competitors—other shops in your area—as colleagues, you can really start to learn something from them. I was always a ‘brain-picker’; everything I learned was learned from someone else. And if you’re sharing with others and picking other people’s brains, we’re not going to keep making the same mistakes over and over, year after year.

Taking the Reigns: Mid-Career Learning

Keller’s business was in pure growth mode in the ’80s, and as the shops, and their respective staffs kept getting larger, Keller needed a way to ensure the quality of his operations. That’s when he started looking at standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“SOPs weren’t something that was common at all back then, but it was something that people in my [association] meetings were talking about a lot,” he says. “It made sense to me, and I felt it would be the key to consistency in my business.”

In 1987, Keller and his staff went about creating written processes for every aspect of the shop. He then recorded instructional videos for each one with a camera he owned, and used them as training and review tools for his staff.

“It was one of the things I could take away from the education I was receiving and put it directly into my shop,” he says.

And the project caught the attention of others, including one of his major vendors, 3M. At the time, the company was just rolling out its first ARMS computer system and was looking for instructors to teach shop owners about managing their numbers through the system. They tapped Keller.

“It was really my first experience with teaching,” he says, noting that he confronted his discomfort with public speaking by taking courses through Dale Carnegie Training.

“There’s really something about having to present information to people that makes you take a hard look at what you’re doing yourself. Teaching others can be a great way to learn.”

Speak From the Heart
The Dale Carnegie course had such a profound impact on Keller that he sent six of his managers and estimators through it (at, roughly, a $10,000 price tag). The 14-week courses center on 14 main Carnegie principles of public speaking (each given a week’s attention). He says there are two important concepts that every shop operator can carry over into their day-to-day communication:
1. Always address people by name. And do your best to remember their names. “If a customer walks in, instead of just saying, ‘Good morning. How are you?’ You can say, ‘Good morning, Sue. How’ve you been?’ It builds an instant connection, and people notice that.
2. Empathize. If someone comes in after an accident, Keller says not to immediately tell them what your shop can do for them. Instead, show that you care: “Ask them what happened and if they’re all right, if their passengers were OK,” Keller says. “Show them that you care about them, not their cars. See the situation from their perspective.”

Introspection and Consolidation

Keller taught the ARMS courses from 1988–90, and at the same time, became heavily involved with I-CAR’s training efforts, serving as Wisconsin’s committee chairman.

Bob Goff, owner, Goff’s Auto Body
This was really when people started changing this industry—when people like Jim really changed the way we operate our businesses. This program started to pull shop owners out from under cars and make the focus on running a business. It’s the first step in running a successful business, and it’s what everyone needs to do to push their business forward.

And his business continued to prosper. By the mid 1990s, his two shops (roughly 8,000 and 20,000 square feet a piece) topped $3 million in total sales. Around that time, Keller noticed an industry trend toward consolidation.

“There were a handful of companies that were doing it, and it was pretty easy to see the advantages,” he says. “A big corporation can afford to have experts at each area of the business—finance, marketing, whatever—where a small independent shop can’t.”

So, in 1998, when a Midwest consolidator offered to buy Keller’s two facilities and hire him on as a vice president in charge of training and processes for the company, Keller took the leap. He was tasked with creating the company’s procedure manual and training its 300 staffers at 28 locations on the systems and processes expected in each facility.

Although his time with the consolidator was short-lived (Keller didn’t like the direction of the company and bought back one of his shops just five years later), Keller says the time developing the manual and conducting the training helped him further grasp what was needed in the industry to truly succeed.

It also showed him exactly what he wanted to do next in his career.

Learn to Market
Keller can’t emphasize enough the importance of quality marketing for a shop—and the training that’s needed to pull it off. It needs to be a focus of an owner’s continued education, he says. The key is realizing that marketing must be a “two-pronged” approach: one for customers; the other for insurers.
1.Customers. It goes back to Keller’s advice about speaking, but customers, for the most part, don’t have a large interest in your operations; they care about the things that affect them, like the quality of the repair, the price, the quickness of delivery, and various amenities like the waiting room, warranties and other items. That should be the focus when marketing to customers.
2.Insurers. On the other side, insurers care about all the details of your shop that most customers would never think about: equipment, capabilities, quality of staff, cycle time, touch time, types of parts, etc. These things need to be addressed in any presentation to an insurer.

Pushing the Industry Forward: Advanced Education

Keller founded 1Collision Network during his last years as part of the consolidator group in 2001. The idea, he says, is to bring all the advantages of a chain—the marketing resources, insurer relationships, training, education, etc.—to independent repairers.

“Most [independent shops] don’t have the means to have an expert dedicated to just one aspect of business, like marketing, and another person dedicated to something else,” Keller says. “It’s an advantage that all the bigger companies hold.”

The group developed slowly, but has picked up steam in recent years, now with 15 shops in three states. The goal, Keller says, is to eventually have 150 shops in the network across the entire Midwest.

Bob Goff, owner,
Goff’s Auto Body 

The goal in every career, any successful career, should be to give back to that industry that helped you get to where you are. I can’t think of a better example than what Jim’s doing. To me, if you become passionate about what you do and how you do it, then it’ll be contagious. It takes persistence, but that’s the most important thing you can do: share your passion.


The entire project is really a culmination of everything Keller has learned from the industry over the previous 40 years, and it’s designed to provide shop operators with all the tools they need to run their businesses effectively.

1Collision has a central office in Milwaukee, not far from 1Collision County Line, Keller’s former facility, which one of his two sons now runs. And the network handles marketing services for each of its 15 shops. It also provides them with three separate software systems—a management system, a digital marketing system and a parts procurement system—and onsite training, as well as its quarterly business meetings held in a host shop.

“It comes back to that group aspect of education, which I just think is huge for us,” Keller says. “Most of the shops we work with are already in 20 Groups, so we’re trying to have our meetings be deeper into business operations than just financial comparisons.”

The meetings focus on performance KPIs like cycle time, touch time, severity and parts mix. And each has a training element, in which Keller and his team bring in an expert in a particular area to give demonstrations.

The overall idea is to give shop’s resources to compete in today’s market. And, in Keller’s mind, it can come from many different places.

“That’s what [education] does for us as owners,” he says. “We have to improve the way we operate, and we can’t do that if we’re not learning new things. Learning from each other, learning from courses or seminars, it doesn’t matter which; we just have to do it. There are some powerful ways to improve your business, no matter where you are in your career.”

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