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Influential Women in Collision Repair

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A warm-and-fuzzy management style isn’t all that common in business, especially in a male-dominated industry like collision repair. But body shop manager Beth Meckel operates a little differently. Her decidedly warm-and-fuzzy skills in developing good employees and cultivating good relationships with business connections have led to a fivefold expansion in sales for the shop she runs.

Meckel started in the collision industry 27 years ago, when she took a job at 17 as a secretary at a repair center in Maryland. After a few years in that position, she felt that she had learned a lot and decided to try for an estimator job that had opened up.

“I went in for the interview and the manager told me, ‘You’re really good at what you do, but in this business, a secretary is all you’ll ever amount to,’” Meckel recalls.

So instead of moving up at that shop, she went to another one, first as an estimator and then as a foreman. Then she got a call from MileOne Collision Center, followed by several offers to take an estimating job with them. “They kept offering me more and more money, and I finally took them up on it,” she says.

But she didn’t last long at that job. MileOne’s Don Czapla actually had another job in mind for her from the get-go: foreman and manager. Six months after she started at MileOne Collision Center in Glen Burnie, Md., Czapla promoted Meckel to that leadership role. “I knew I needed a management change, and her experience as a production manager told me she would be a good choice,” says Czapla, the body shop director for MileOne Automotive. “I gave her the task of growing that shop, and she’s done it.”

Turning The Work Out

MileOne Automotive is a group of about 60 automotive dealers. Based in Baltimore, the company has dealerships in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. It also has nine collision centers, some of which are affiliated with a dealership. Czapla oversees those centers.

The 23,000-square-foot Glen Burnie repair shop, which Meckel has managed for 10 years now, has nearly 30 employees, repairs about 260 cars a month, and sees about $5 million in sales annually—up from $1 million when Meckel took over. Cycle time is close to five days, and Meckel posts the average throughput and cycle time in the lunch room. She also posts each individual technician’s numbers, which might cause trouble in some shops—but Meckel says her guys get along too well for that.

“If I have one guy who’s falling behind, there might be five others out there helping him out,” she says. “They also harass each other if somebody’s numbers are getting too high, and that helps keep everybody motivated.”

Bringing The Work In

It could be argued that Meckel’s success in a male-dominated industry has come in part from a skill that’s frequently attributed to women: developing relationships.

Before she took over the MileOne shop, it was getting plenty of business from other MileOne dealerships. The problem was that there wasn’t much business coming from anywhere else. Meckel began working right away to build relationships with new sources of business, Czapla says.

“She gets a good mix of customers, because she’s built relationships with other dealerships in the company who aren’t associated with one of the other body shops,” he explains. “She’s also getting more business from direct repair programs (DRPs), which we didn’t have many of before.” From those, they get a lot of repeat customers, people who first found MileOne through their insurer and then return to the shop because of their familiarity and good experience. Geico is one of several DRPs that once had no relationship with the shop but that now provide a steady stream of work.

Meckel has also built relationships with her employees, in no small part by being willing to do everything they do to keep the shop humming, from answering the phone to handling some straightening.

“She works really hard, and she’s out there in the shop a lot; she’s not a desk type of manager,” Czapla says. “She’s got a thorough knowledge of the business and its technical aspects, because she’s been in shops all her life. But she also really looks after her people, and she goes to bat for them and gets involved if one of them is having a personal problem that they need help with, like a health problem.”

Experience Trumps Gender

If Meckel were just a great manager, it wouldn’t be that remarkable; there are talented managers all through the collision repair industry. Even the fact that she’s a female manager is less remarkable than it used to be. Meckel says that she had to prove herself to the guys in her shop when she first became manager, but after 27 years in the business that’s no longer the case.
“There was one older guy who worked in the back who basically said, ‘What, are you crazy?’ when I became the manager,” she says. “I knew that once I had his respect, I was in. I earned it, like I earned the other guys’ respect, and it helped that [Czapla] believed in me before I believed in myself,” Meckel says.

That being a woman manager doesn’t pose particular problems for Meckel is no surprise to Leslie Oliver. As the body shop manager for Dean Arbour Chevrolet in East Talas, Mich., supervising seven technicians and one assistant, Oliver has had similar experiences to Meckel’s. Like Meckel, she’s seen no battle of the sexes in her 11 years’ tenure because her experience is more important to the people she works with than her gender. “When you earn people’s respect, they don’t worry about whether you’re a man or a woman,” Oliver says.

Developing Talent

What sets Meckel apart as a manager is her concern, not just for her own shop, but for the industry. Recalling the mentoring and opportunities that helped launch her own career, Meckel does a lot of work to get school-age kids interested in collision repair as a career—and to make sure that the training they get teaches them what they truly need to know.

Meckel’s shop is in Anne Arundel County, which has two vo-tech schools: the Center for Applied Technology (South) and the Center for Applied Technology (North). Both have collision repair programs, and Meckel is a member of the schools’ craft advisories, committees of local business leaders and school officials who work together to make sure that the schools are teaching students the specific skills needed to succeed in the collision repair business.

The advisors work directly with the students as well as the curriculum. There are regional, state and national skills competitions in different areas of repair—straightening, painting, frame repair, estimating and so on—and Meckel judges entries in straightening at the state level. She goes to open houses at both schools to talk about the school’s collision repair program, and what it’s like to work in a body shop. Recently, she was appointed to a new committee that will have her advocating for collision repair at all 16 vo-tech schools in the state.

Meckel doesn’t mentor at arm’s length: She always has a steady stream of students coming through her own shop. “We offer job shadowing, so the kids come and follow my techs and painters around and see what their jobs are really like. I also do mock interviews so the kids know what a job interview is like,” she says.

She completes the mentoring cycle by hiring students from the vo-tech programs. “It’s fun watching them work their way up through the chain,” she says. “We train them as helpers and they work through the summer full time. Then in the fall they get hired full time. I’ve got kids that I hired out of school nine years ago, and now they’re A techs and they’re judging the skills competition they once participated in.”

Czapla explains that he once did what Meckel does now, but had to delegate it to her when his job expanded with the addition of more collision centers to MileOne’s stable. Now, he says, she does a better job at it than he ever did. “She’s really committed herself to it, and she not only encourages the kids in the skills competitions, she also got involved in fundraising for the competitions and for the schools in general,” Czapla says. “She’s convinced vendors to donate equipment to the schools, such as CCC, which donated its estimating system to every vo-tech school in the state. A lot of vendors donate equipment like sanders or body hammer kits, which are necessary, but she’s succeeded in getting some higher-cost equipment for the schools at no cost to the state.”

Winning Everywhere

With all that in her background, Meckel was an easy choice for the “Most Influential Woman in Collision Repair” honor, says AkzoNobel’s Bill Orr. Orr, the director of communications, says that the selection methodology for the competition includes three criteria: the attributes of the candidate and their involvement in the industry and their communities, their personal journey in the industry, and the recommendations of previous award winners. “Beth had stellar credentials in terms of her own personal journey and involvement, but she also received multiple nominations from different people in the industry and previous winners,” Orr says.

Like all good managers, Meckel takes pride in her shop and loves seeing it do well. Setting aside the honors she’s earned, she knows that success—hers and the shop’s—comes from taking the time to develop skills in people. “I went to an insurance meeting that included 18 shops the other day. Our CSI outdid all the others and our quality of repair came out phenomenal,” she says. “That’s not just me; my staff are what make me look good.”

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