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Kylie Kepus, who manages the body shop for Mercedes-Benz dealership Phoenix Motor Co., is a bit of an anomaly in the collision repair industry.

Unlike many shop operators, she has no family or friends with experience in the business. She didn’t work in a shop growing up, and the industry was completely foreign to her when she landed a job as a cashier at the dealership 11 years ago.

“I was going through [college], I had a young child, and I was looking for something that fit schedule-wise,” says Kepus, 36. “I happened upon the cashier position, which started out part-time and became full-time. I didn’t foresee myself being in the auto repair industry, but now loving it as much as I do, working with the people I do, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

She moved quickly up the ranks through good old-fashioned hard work, observation, listening, adapting and striving to be the best at every task she did. She credits much of her growth to her 13-employee team, which she says feels like family. She also gives ample credit to another young star, her former boss John Jury, who has since moved to a different facility in the area.

Kepus is still learning, and she’s still a single mom. With three children ages 6, 9 and 16, she’s adept at time management and balancing family life with the needs of the 11,000-square-foot facility. The repair shop closes 65 repair orders a month and pulls in $2.4 million in annual revenue. She’s maintained the shop’s income despite staffing cuts made just as she took over.

And this isn’t just any dealership Kepus is working for. Phoenix Motor Co. has been around more than four decades, making it the oldest Mercedes dealership in the state, with a longstanding reputation to uphold.

So how does a college student/mom manage to grab the collision repair reins at an iconic institution and keep the business moving forward in tough times?

Kepus offers five good ideas:

#1 Step into new roles. Cross-training has long been a part of the shop’s business model and Kepus has never shied away from jumping into a new job.

“I’m a pretty quick learner,” she says. “I observe a lot. Once you learn something and it just kind of sticks, you grow with whatever it is you’re doing, you learn to adapt to your environment.”

Kepus’ first opportunity to show off her ability to adapt came when the shop lost an estimator. She was pulled from the cashier position as a replacement. Former boss John Jury, who made the decision, says she excelled in several roles after that.

“Every time I gave her something to do, she’d be good at it,” says Jury, 38, who followed a similar path to management—rising to the top after starting with Phoenix Motor Co. as a detailer.

Jury made an effort to promote teamwork at the shop, a strategy Kepus has continued to build upon.

“It’s everybody’s job,” Jury says. “I used to detail and do what I had to do. She does that, too. She would pick up the slack.”

#2 Ask questions. Kepus’ thirst for knowledge helped her advance quickly. She was eager to learn and quick to accept help.

“If somebody offers help, don’t be afraid to take the help,” Kepus says. “I don’t think there’s a day that I’ve come into the shop and haven’t learned something new.”

#3 Stick with what works. When Jury moved on, Kepus didn’t implement a plan filled with sweeping changes.

Strategies such as assigning repairs to specific teams of technicians rather than single techs and investing in eco-friendly practices were continued.

“A lot of what we had implemented really worked at the shop, so I didn’t make a lot of drastic changes,” Kepus says.

#4 Do more with less. The most significant operational change made at the shop was beyond Kepus’ control. Just before she started as manager, dealership management decided to streamline the shop’s front office, reducing staff from seven to three.

Though the staff shrank, the workload did not. Kepus and her remaining staff have figured out how to carry the extra load.

Tony Marinella

“Having people in place who can work many different facets is a plus,” Kepus says. Good, working equipment for the body men, proper software for estimators, and employees who are willing to do many different tasks and to help each other out when needed, “that all has a direct impact on running a good body shop.”

#5 Manage your time. “Some days I feel as if I am being torn in a million different directions,” Kepus says of raising a family while running a repair center. “Having a tremendous support staff at the shop helps.”

Kepus says she has learned to make the most of the nights and weekends she spends with her children. She goes to football games with her son in the fall, for instance, and coaches her youngest daughter’s volleyball games in the winter and summer.

Kepus has been a manager for more than a year now, and she’s quick to say she is still growing as a collision repair professional.

Her goals for the business include adding a couple of DRPs to the two the shop has now, and expanding the business beyond the obvious Mercedes repairs. The repair center relies heavily on the dealership’s two stores, but it services all makes and models. Having more insurance relationships would help customers see past the Mercedes name, Kepus says. She’d also like to work back up to previous staffing levels.

Graduating is also on Kepus’ to-do list. She was in the process of earning a degree in accounting and business management when she started working at Phoenix Motor Co. She put her education on hold as she climbed the collision repair ranks. While she has no regrets about that, completing her schooling complements her good habit of learning something every day.

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