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Empowering Staff

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Mike Phillippi is quick to credit his staff with many of the changes implemented at his shop, Body Builders Automotive Inc. in Rolling Meadows, Ill. After decades in the business trying to do everything himself, Phillippi realized his staff was the key to running a more efficient, profitable shop. By listening to his staff and trusting their ideas, Phillippi has created a shop culture that is open, inviting and full of change.

When I started in this industry, it was just about working hard.  Working hard, working a lot and doing a quality repair. I’m old school. I opened my own shop with my brother when I was 25. Back then, I was doing everything from working in the shop to doing the estimates to calling the customers. We didn’t have processes in place, so everything was always hectic.

Then, about 16 years ago, I hired an 18-year-old girl named Maria to work in my front office. She said to me, “You’re sacrificing a long-term goal for a short-term gain.” The long-term goal was the success of the business and the short-term gain was that I was fixing situations that were coming up throughout the day. The problem was that I wasn’t coming up with a system for fixing those problems permanently. She completely opened my eyes. All of a sudden, I started seeing all the good in these people working for me, and all of their ideas. I started to realize that I couldn’t do it all. I needed those people to do it with me.

After Maria opened my eyes, we really started working on the process more. In the last eight years, the shop floor has been reorganized for workflow around five times. I’ve only been the reason behind that move twice. The last three times, it was all the staff’s doing. The number one thing that I came up with: I don’t know everything. And who better to ask than the employees? When they give input, they really feel like they’re part of the organization.

Did I always agree with the move? No, but it’s their shop. My son, Joe, our general manager and an architect by trade, laid out the whole building. He moved everything around and then he put his plan up on the big screen TV in the lunchroom for everyone to review. People would say, “Move the frame machine to this spot,” or, “Moving that won’t work.” They kept moving things around in the plan until they all agreed on the workflow. Then they came in on a Saturday and did it. It was really cool to watch.

We also had a technician who laid out the entire production cycle on the side of the paint booth. With tape he wrote paint, body, etc. We bought magnets that hold a picture of the car that’s being repaired and now there’s a visual. They take the magnet and move it to where it’s at in the cycle, they hang the car key on it, and they even know what area of the parking lot they’re going to find the car in. It’s a great way to simplify and make sure everyone is aware of where a car is in the process.

A VISUAL REMINDER: One of Phillippi’s techs came up with the idea for this workflow board pasted on the backside of the paint booth. Photo by Michael Boyd

During this time, we were also switching to waterborne paint. We were part of our paint manufacturer’s group and I just loved it. It was so eye-opening to meet with other shop owners, listen to them and have them challenge you. The problem was that I kept hearing from my employees that a different paint company offered better waterborne paint systems. What was going to benefit me more: being in the group, which the techs didn’t go to, or letting them use the brand of paint they wanted to use? So I listened to my techs and we went with their pick, and it’s awesome.

I’m looking to hire another technician right now, so I’ve been interviewing various candidates. During the first round of interviews, I have Joe and Maria sit in on the interviews with me. Now if I decide to bring somebody in for a second interview, he will be interviewed by two or three of the technicians who will be working with him in the shop.

My reasoning behind that is, first of all, they might see something I didn’t see. But they’re also going to be more into helping somebody and making sure they succeed if they had a say in hiring them. They will help that person move along, whereas if I just throw somebody in the shop who they’ve never met, they just don’t feel a part of that decision.

We’re looking for team players. We might have somebody who can do it all, but they’re not a team player. That’s not the person I’m looking for. They don’t have to know it all, because together we know it all.

I’m open to training anybody. For example, one of my younger techs was a mechanic. He just blows me away. He’s keeping up with the best of them. Another employee worked in a manufacturing plant and now he’s a disassembly tech.

Once a year I do employee reviews with all employees. I’ve always enjoyed helping people reach their goals and the reviews have been a great way to learn more about the employees. For example, one of my employees would like to teach. I didn’t even realize he wanted to teach until we had a review, went out for lunch and talked for a while. That’s when I learned his real passion.

There’s value in the business when you have an employee who’s good and who wants to move to a different part of the company and continue performing. Now I’m aware of his passion and further down the road, when he has the experience, I would be more than happy to have him teach body repair to younger techs.

I always want to motivate my employees and help them make money. We’ve been experimenting with the best pay system for the technicians lately. I started with team payrolls, then we went to individual commissions, and then we went to hourly. There have been a lot of changes, but I wanted to find the best pay system for both my staff and me. I really want hourly to work and I know that it can, but it has to be managed properly. The problem before was that I was not measuring their individual performances and the level of production started to get away from me. I’m considering trying it again at some point, though.

Now I’m back to flat rate and Maria posts their hours every week in the lunchroom so they can track them. What was amazing is that they never questioned me. They were so accepting of my changes because they know I will never cheat them.

You’ve really got to listen to the employees,  encourage them to share their ideas with you, and never put their ideas down, even if they’re off the wall. I frequently hold meetings with the whole staff where we discuss the future and I just shut up.

The business is the employees. You have to be honest with them and you have to thank them daily. There are certain times you need to get angry. But you’ve also got to lighten it up. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s a family here.

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