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How I Work » Billy Coleman

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Billy Coleman is always up for a challenge. As the shop manager for Gullo Ford Collision Center in Conroe, Texas, Coleman’s staff is partly composed of workers who were hired with no experience in the automotive industry. Thanks to a strong mentorship program and dedication to training, those hires have turned into long-term employees, allowing Coleman to maintain the shop’s positive culture.

I’ve been with Gullo Ford 18 years now, and what’s impressed me the most is the culture here. I’ve worked at places that were not enjoyable to work at. The majority of the people we hire enjoy working here. It’s not a place for people who aren’t willing to work.

We look for somebody that has a good attitude and a good outlook on life. We want somebody who is happy for the opportunity to work in a place where we all try our best to get along and make it a fun place to work. I think that’s why so many of our guys have been with us for so long.

My job as shop manager has been a little different lately because I’m training someone to become an estimator. Normally, I’m here first thing in the morning, making sure everything is going in the right direction, managing employees and taking care of customers.

But, right now, I’m training one of our bodymen to be an estimator. He’s done body work for 20 years, so I’m not training him how to look at a car and know what to repair; I’m training him on how to use the software, the insurance regulations, how to work with the DRPs.

We’re proud of the fact that we promote from within often. He’s been here 10 years as a body tech and he came to us and wanted to know if there was an opportunity to advance into the office. He was our lead tech so I had no doubt that he could identify what was wrong with the car. Two years later, that opportunity presented itself and we started making plans for bringing him into the office. I’ll be working with him every day for at least the next month. He’s a hands-on learner, so I’m letting him write the estimates, and then I correct him along the way.

BUILD YOUR OWN: Coleman puts a priority on personality traits over experience when hiring. He’d rather train and mentor the right people than have someone come into the shop with bad habits. Photo by Melanie Hall

In the shop, we have a very strong mentorship program. I would say close to a quarter of our staff didn’t have any experience in the automotive industry when they were hired. When I’m hiring, I look for someone who has a good attitude and a willingness to learn. Personality can’t be trained, so even if they don’t have that much experience, it’s still worth it to me.

I’d rather hire someone who has a good outlook and who I can train in-house on the way we do things than someone with a ton of experience who is a prima donna. Because we do spend a lot of time trying to hire the right people, most people we have can train other people—and they want to. We start them off as body shop helpers and they specifically work with one person.

The mentoring process usually lasts at least a year. We’ve had some people who caught on very quickly and who can move up in six months, and we’ve had other people who it took several years until they worked on their own. As long as they’re still performing at a level that’s acceptable, we let them work at their pace.

One of our intermediate bodywork techs came in with no experience and he mentored as a helper for eight years. But he was valuable to the team and he wanted to learn, and eventually it was time for him to break out and become a tech. We’re not in the business to take advantage of the helpers. We don’t want to break their spirit or drive to learn this trade. We want them to feel they’re being paid well and fairly, because they’re an asset to the team.

Most of the day, I’m overseeing employees and making sure everything is on track and moving in the right direction. But I’m also working on making sure that we’ll have enough work three months from now, so I don’t want to worry about also having the right people in place.

A TEAM APPROACH: Coleman works hard to incorporate his team in shop decisions. Having a responsible staff in place allows Coleman to focus on other areas of the shop. Photo by Melanie Hall

To me, it’s a better deal to move somebody up who you’ve had working for you and who is ready for a new position than to go out and find somebody you don’t know. New hires are a crapshoot: You don’t really know what you’ve got until he comes in here the first week and reality sets in.

I’ll give you another example: Our technician who runs the fast-track lane came from the restaurant business. We paired him with our heavy-line tech, who was a veteran in the shop, to act as his mentor.
In four years, he was up and running and doing all kinds of work. He could do bumpers, disassembly and reassembly.

Six years ago, we started to implement our fast-track lane, and it was a no-brainer to promote him into that role. He knew how to take a car apart and put it back together, but his cup of tea isn’t the real heavy collision work. So now he’s the dedicated technician for the fast-lane booth, which are jobs that require less than 15 hours and no structural repair or weld-on panels. But you can give him up to 25 cars a week and he’ll keep up with all of them. He is very good and it makes up around 40 percent of our business now.

Training is really important to us. Cars are so difficult to understand the technology in them that, unless you’re going to school and learning about them, you’ll get yourself in trouble. We’ve maintained our I-CAR Gold status for 10 years now, and that requires us to take a certain amount of courses every year. We want every employee to be working toward I-CAR Platinum and complete two units of continuing education every year. We pretty much insist these guys go and learn what’s in the vehicles. But we also try to make it as easy as we can for them: We pay for the training, their transportation, and all of their meals.

I’m also on the Ford Advisory Council for Collision Repair. Once a year I go to Detroit with the council and we learn about things that are coming, new vehicle technology and repair procedures. For example, I knew how the Fiesta was going to be built two years before they introduced that car. It allowed me to start training my guys to understand the car and the different steel parts. We also get information about industry regulations, trends and practices. It’s a way for us to have a two-way communication with Ford.

I spend a good chunk of my day promoting the shop and making sure I’m staying in contact with all of the insurance agents and meeting their needs. In the state of Texas, it takes 32 hours of continuing education every two years for the agents to keep their license. That education can be about ethics, writing insurance, diminished value, but they can run $200–$300 a class. About five years ago, we partnered up with Fixed Gear to offer more than 50 online classes for them to complete that education.

I get nothing but great feedback from it, and these agents completely appreciate that our company is doing this for them. It’s a marketing tool for us to build a relationship with the insurance agents. Of course, you still have to have a good relationship with the agents outside of that, but I definitely feel like I’m going to get recommended over the majority of shops in town here.

I think all of the training we do pays off with the customer experience tremendously. We have a very high standard for customer service, and we have a 98 percent CSI rating. It’s never an issue for me to have a picky customer because all of my guys do a good job working with them. If I had the type of employee who wasn’t willing to put in the effort, it would be tough for me.

My day now is a combination of dealing with customers and managing employees. When things are going the way they’re supposed to, I don’t have to spend all day dealing with customers. I like it better when I’m interacting with customers because I want to. I’d rather be greeting and talking to them, than having a hand in every interaction. 

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