Learning for Profit
Collision industry veteran Dan Bailey has been going to conferences, trade shows and industry meetings for more than 30 years, and they have changed his business dramatically.
Through attending these events, he learned about trends and technology that helped him double his revenue in less than a year. A few decades ago, the former CARSTAR CEO bought a pressurized downdraft spray booth, a frame machine that allowed him to repair unibody vehicles, and a computerized management system.
Those investments, all discovered through participation in industry events, enabled his annual revenue to grow from $750,000 in 1979 to $1.5 million in 1980, because he had the technology and capabilities to perform repairs that no one else was doing, he says. Shop operators have the same opportunity to benefit from trade events today.
“(Going to conferences) is what changed my business,” says Bailey, who today is vice president of operations at two of five CARSTAR shops that earn $14 million annually.
Bailey has mastered making the most of his time and money at collision industry events. He makes sure that when he goes, he gets something out of it that can feed his business.
Bailey and several other industry conference goers and consultants—Doug Schlueter, national MSO manager for I-CAR; John Bosin, president of LeanBosin; and Dave McBroom of Sunbeam Autobody in Jacksonville, Fla.—all provided their best advice for how to make the most of your time and money at collision industry events, and how to bring improvements back to your shop.
1.) Remember the golden rule. When it comes to attending conferences, trade shows and other industry events, Bailey has a golden rule: Don’t go unless you can come back with an idea that paid for the cost of the trip.
He spends about $1,200 to $1,500 per trip, and takes four to six trips per year. He goes to the Collision Industry Conference meetings, NACE, SEMA, and his 20 Group meetings. Every trip is worth it, though, because of the ideas he gets and the people he meets. “With having that goal, you’re always looking for that golden nugget,” he says.
2.) Begin with the end in mind. Schlueter borrows this phrase from Stephen Covey, author of the classic book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Schlueter says it’s important not to leave the shop for a trip unless you know what the outcome is going to be. Before you even think of going, brainstorm potential takeaways from the conference. Look at the agenda to see who will be speaking, and on what topics. Think about who you might network with and what value you can take back to the shop. What effects could all of this have on your day-to-day operations?
weaknesses into strengths.”
—Dan Bailey, former CEO, CARSTAR
Bailey says it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. This helps you prioritize what you want to get out of the event. For example, if you have high turnover, issues with employee motivation or if you want to learn about social media, then go to the relevant training sessions. If you can’t get something useful from the event, then you’ll want to rethink going, he says.
3.) Send the right people. Bailey says when you’re deciding who from your shop should go to an industry event, choose someone who can come home and implement change. Maybe it’s a manager, an estimator or the owner. It must be someone who understands how the shop needs to improve. “The way to get better is to continuously turn your weaknesses into strengths,” he says.
Bosin says owners should be clear with employees about what they need to gain from going to a conference. The staffers who attend should be responsible and take it seriously.
“I don’t want to sound like a prude or overbearing, but you can go to events and get caught up in it,” he says. “Without planning, you can come back and say you had fun, but what are you really bringing back to share?”
— Doug Schlueter, national MSO manager, I-CAR
However, he says you can also send people to a conference as a reward for their hard work — not necessarily to implement changes or learn new skills. If that’s the case, then be up front with your employees that you just want them to enjoy themselves.
4.) Plan, but don’t over-plan. Bailey says he plans his trips to conferences at least three or four months in advance. That way he gets his room and plane ticket booked, and he has time to research what questions he has and what ideas or technology he wants to explore.
He also has time to send e-mail to colleagues and plan to take someone out to lunch or drinks during the event.
However, Schlueter warns not to over-plan. He says not to plan more than one or two dinners or lunches, and then leave a lot of flexibility for spontaneously grabbing coffee with people to talk about ideas generated in conference sessions.
“If you’re so regimented and your schedule is so fixed, then you won’t get anything out of the event, because you’re always worried about the next thing on your schedule,” he says.
5.) Take good notes. Schlueter says he uses a FranklinCovey planning system during the conferences he goes to. He takes a page from the planner and takes notes with short bullet point statements that help him remember what he talked about with someone or what he learned in a training session. He does this after the meeting, and can always return to the page to jog his memory of what he learned, as well as ideas for next steps. He suggests shops write down to-dos that can be delegated or even begin e-mail conversations from the conference.
6.) Network. Introduce yourself to new people on showroom floors, meet up with old colleagues from across the country, or pick the brain of the guy next to you. No matter what, make sure you make new connections. You can meet new friends, learn great business practices and get perspective on industry issues. Be sure to bring your business cards with you, too.
7.) Take it back to the shop. Plan to sit down with shop employees with pizza and discuss ideas. If you do nothing else, at least plan to talk about some key points you learned, ideas other shops are using, and questions you want to raise. If you have ideas for big change and are not the owner, then talk to your boss about what inspired you. If you want to make some major changes at the shop and want to get staff feedback, then a lunch meeting is the perfect place to talk about it.
8.) Get involved. Bailey says he highly recommends getting involved with organizations like the Society of Collision Repair Specialists, the Automotive Service Association, the Collision Industry Conference, and others. He has found that when he gets involved, he learns more about the industry and finds out about trends earlier. Then by the time you get to a conference, you are ahead of the game. “I think you have an advantage because you learn about new things sooner,” he says. “The industry always needs volunteers to help move this industry forward, and to make it better for all of us.”
9.) Keep learning. McBroom says there are many opportunities in the industry to keep improving. “The mind set needs to be, I want to learn more. I want to be better tomorrow than I was today,” he says. “I’m an old retired Army major. I’ve always had high aspirations, and I’ve always set high goals. I love to be a winner. I can’t stand to lose.”