The stress Laura and Rodney Gay were experiencing in their personal lives two years ago matched the “absolute chaos” that was brewing in their body shop.
Fort Washington Auto Body of Oxon Hill, Md., was performing amazing financially, but the staff simply couldn’t keep up with all the work flooding in. Treating their staff like family, as they’d always done and still do to this day, Laura and Rodney came to an agreement with their employees: It was time to scale back.
Putting their votes into a hat, all 23 employees at Fort Washington unanimously decided to cut its ties with Geico, which had helped catapult the shop to its $6 million annual revenue.
“It wasn’t my decision or my husband’s decision—it was everybody’s decision at the shop,” Laura says. “And that’s something we do I think that makes us very different. We have a lot of different processes in place that are different than any other shop, but we try to incorporate our employees in all of them. We try to include them in all of the decisions, especially the lasting ones that are directly affecting them.”
That attitude, that dedication to team-building, that willingness to battle adversity, is what has made Laura and Rodney successful in the collision repair industry, both before and after cutting ties with a major insurance company. The income is down, but so is the stress, and the camaraderie is at an all-time high at Fort Washington—which is a blessing for a couple who has faced years of hardships.
Fixing a Broken Business
Laura has 23 years of experience in the collision repair industry, and her philosophy on relationships between employees and management came with her first managing job—at the age of just 19.
She didn’t exactly choose that path—while working in the body shop, her then-manager got into a horrible motorcycle accident. And she cites her ability to work hand-in-hand with employees as the source of her success.
“We thought it would be two weeks or a month,” Laura says. “Well it ended up being 15 or 16 months he was out, so they appointed me the manager of the shop. So, with little to no experience, I was able to, at 19 years of age, manage this body shop that had five body men, two painters and two helpers, and learn how to write estimates, run DRPs and all that.”
After leaving her post, Laura dabbled in the insurance industry and Rodney worked in the body shop as a mechanic, until the day the owner of Fort Washington Auto Body, who had known both Laura and Rodney for years, approached them about running his shop.
Despite their combined experience in the industry, Laura and Rodney were first-time owners and, through old-fashioned hands-on experience, needed to educate themselves on how to pick up a flailing business.
“Back then, we were broke and didn't know which way to go,” Laura says. “I did all the accounting at that time for the store. All the bookkeeping, all the payroll, plus I helped him with estimates.”
Feeling like they were constantly treading water and bobbing for air, Laura says her employees really came through during those tough times. She and Rodney began to implement a system where they approached employees for advice on major decisions, which helped the learning curve and aided them in the future for shop-altering matters.
“I'm not sure how the hell I did it all. Whatever needed to be done, I did,” Laura says. “Our mentality was whatever was done on the carpet was my responsibility, and anything done on the concrete was his responsibility.”
So while Rodney managed the floor, concentrating on the quality of the work, improving efficiency, and maintaining the shop’s established brand, Laura communicated with the insurance companies, set up standard operating procedures, made and implemented forms, and performed all the accounting for the shop. As time passed, they were getting better at managing, getting more in sync with their employees, and getting a ton of work from Geico, all leading to $6 million a year in gross sales. Laura and Rodney had turned things around, and had even purchased a second shop—Sullivan’s Auto Body in Sunderland, Md.
Then adversity struck.
Fighting Through Peril
Rodney, who has adult-onset muscular dystrophy, became very ill. While he tried to slow his workload by concentrating on just one of the couple’s two shops, the stress became too much, and Rodney had to sit out.
“He ended up not working for a year and a half, maybe longer. It's such a blur because it was all so stressful,” Laura says. “And then, at that point, I ran both the stores.”
While the couple hired managers for both of their locations, Laura was performing the work of two people, constantly crisscrossing between stores. To make matters worse, Sullivan’s Auto Body was a mess when Laura got there.
“We basically had to purge it and clean it out, get all the remodeling done, get it up to our standards, get equipment ordered, get the building painted, get new signage, and implement all of our systems and our processes,” Laura says.
However, what really kept business going was, according to Laura, the team of hard-working employees she and her husband had carefully put together. Laura says she and Rodney empower their employees through training and allowing them to participate in business decisions that affect everyone at the shop.
“We try to teach the employees the job and then allow them to do the job without being micro-managed,” Laura says. “Nobody likes to be micro-managed. As long as you're doing your job and you're producing results, we're fine. We congratulate and we're very bonus-driven.
“By the end of the day, we are very thankful for all of our employees. The people we try to hire and do hire are all hand-picked, they're people my husband or I knew in some capacity or our employees knew in some capacity, so that we know whoever we are hiring has carried the same values.”
Using the marketing skills she obtained at her original managing job, Laura was able to secure a boatload of work from Geico for Fort Washington—which, considering Laura and Rodney’s predicament, was both a blessing and a curse.
“At [Fort Washington], we were only doing about a million a year in sales when we came on. It was basically bankrupt when we bought it,” Laura says. “We were lucky that we got Geico to come on board initially, which helped us make a name for ourselves. They gave us customers that we didn't have to earn. We worked really hard to wow those customers with over-the-top customer service.”
Through that partnership with Geico, the shop’s annual earnings increased to $6 million per year. But stress was at an all-time high and the staff just couldn’t keep up with the work.
Knowing it would significantly cut their sales, Laura and Rodney listened to their employees and dropped Geico. Shortly after, they partnered with USAA, a smaller carrier that allowed the shop to operate at a steadier pace. And, despite lower sales ($4.5–$5 million annually), Laura says they are making up the money in other ways—there is less overhead and the production is now more efficient. And, above all, everybody is less stressed, both at work and at home.
“We were OK with that because we wanted quality over quantity,” Laura says. “Not only that, with the DRP we were adding, they were more profitable, and a lot easier to deal with for direct repair.”
With Rodney back at the shop part-time, the atmosphere at Fort Washington has reached an all-time high, and everybody is working in sync, Laura says. Through thick and thin, the Gays are battling through, making the tough calls and incorporating their employees into their decisions.
“I think it's really important you treat your employees and customers like you’d like to be treated. If you do that, it's just amazing what you can get in return,” Laura says. “They're absolutely amazing, each and every one of them. I don't know what I'd do without them.”