Running a Shop Operations Lean in the Shop Multi Shop Operations (MSOs)

Doing More with Less

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At just 38, Brian Levander has built his multi-shop business into a thriving, growing power in the rural plains of southern Nebraska. 

He started the business with his wife, Annette, in 1997, as a do-it-all, three-bay towing, mechanical and body shop. Today, he has five locations—four body shops and one service center—under the Levander’s Automotive banner with an additional collision shop and a quick-lane estimating center set to open in 2015. The four body shops did a total of $6.7 million in collision sales in 2014.

The only constant in Levander’s quick rise has been change. Having adapted his business model, managerial approach, and production philosophies, Levander spends each day searching for new opportunities to ensure his business’s long-term future.

In running a shop, you really have to be able to fly by the seat of your pants, because this industry is so unpredictable. But that’s not the same thing as being unprepared. You need a plan; you always need a plan.

It’s a difficult balance—being flexible and able to adjust, while staying on a clear path for your business. Finding that balance is the key, though. 

I started my business the same year I graduated from technical school. Looking back, my plan was simple: I wanted to build a business that could sustain itself and grow. How do you get there? How do you go from a tiny business that used to be just my wife and I to the six locations we have today? It’s about finding new solutions that let your business stay on its path.

I keep an office at our Grand Island location. That was the original shop, and that’s my homebase. We have locations from here to North Platte—that’s two hours west of here. I can’t just hop from location to location throughout the day, checking in on things. It’s not possible. 

Everything at our shops are monitored and tracked electronically, from accounting to our management system. I can check it from anywhere, and that’s the first thing I do when I get to my office each day. 

I look over the numbers, compare our shops and see where there might be issues or improvements to be made. The numbers allow me to really know what’s going on at each location every day.

More than anything, though, I’m really trying to look at the financial aspects of the business. I met with a banker early in my career and asked what I needed to do to grow. We were just treading water at the time, and he said before I could grow, I needed to have my accounting and the business side in order. Don’t borrow until you know how to pay it back. Don’t invest in more—more space, more people, more equipment—until you know how to get the most out of what you have.

It was a huge lesson, and it’s one of the biggest pieces of advice that I can give anyone: Don’t leverage.

We grew slowly at first, as we learned the ropes. Then, in the last several years, we’ve grown a ton. The approach for us has become really simple, and it’s remained the same today: How small can we make each shop in order to keep them viable and profitable? 

My days aren’t filled with formal meetings. We want open communication between all our employees and between all our shops. 

I keep in touch with the managers at each shop throughout the day. It’s almost always through email, and it’s a fluid process—no set check-ins or anything. When an issue or a question or a solution comes up, that manager sends me an email and copies all of our other managers on it. That way, we all see the issue and can offer advice. It helps document the situation and the solution, and sets all the other locations up to not make the same mistakes. We learn from each other.

OPEN COMMUNICATION: Levander, seen here with shop manager Shaun Conley, fosters collaboration among all of his shops by relying heavily on email communication. Photo by Liz Mayfield

I want to be there throughout the day for my managers. They are the most critical aspect of each location’s success. We have a fairly unique model for an MSO, considering our markets. Our largest town is 60,000 people; our smallest will be our new location in St. Paul, which will be 2,800. We run lean, usually three techs and a manager.

That makes the manager so crucial. They’re the anchor of that store, the person who has the most impact on each customer. My first, and probably largest, criteria for a new facility is whether I have the right leader in place for that location.

I don’t want to micromanage. I want to have the right person in place, and trust them to make the right decisions. I just stay open to them all day. I want to be approachable, interactive and there for them when they need me.

I guess that’s where my second biggest piece of advice would be: Focus on your people. It’s an interesting aspect of many business owners; in every industry, people say their biggest struggle is finding qualified employees. I agree with them. Being in rural markets, it’s an enormous challenge.

So, let’s take the person who says that’s their biggest problem, and ask them how they spend the majority of their day. It’s almost never recruiting and growing employees. If that’s your biggest concern, why isn’t that what you spend the most time on?

I work closely to network in my area to find people for my business. We work with schools, we talk to our own employees about whom they might know. We do everything we can. And a lot of my role is in trying to recruit and retain the right people.

Who’s our “perfect employee”? Someone who’s invested in us for the long term. Sounds simple, but you have to give them a reason to invest in you. We do that by showing them how much we’re willing to invest in them. We pay higher than our market average. We pay for certifications and training—everything from safety training to I-CAR to any other technical offerings that they come across. 

We want people who are in that improving mindset, who want to improve and appreciate the investment we’re making in their growth.

Part of that growth lately has been a shift in focus for us to aluminum work. Being in farm country, trucks are our bread and butter. The new Ford F-150 will really change things, and people probably don’t realize that it’s going to affect communities like mine quicker than most metro areas. People are going to be buying these trucks very quickly out here.

We’re in the process of having our four current collision facilities aluminum equipped, trained and approved by Ford. All our techs are trained already. The total investment was about $30,000 per shop. Our new location in St. Paul will only be 2,400 square feet, so the space just isn’t there for this work, but we’ll be able to offload it to another location. 

We have a lot of projects like that in the works right now. I spend most of my day managing these projects, which is, in a way, managing our growth. Most of my afternoons are taken up formalizing plans or talking with contractors or my team about the progress. 

We’re doing expansions on three of our facilities and we have the St. Paul location opening up. One of those expansions will be a quick-lane estimating center, which we’re setting up at our service center location that’s also in Grand Island. This is going to really change things for us. The idea is to do more thorough tear downs and analysis—a complete blueprint—and then be able to schedule those jobs for our Grand Island shop. With the ability to pre-order parts and reduce supplements, we’re hoping to create a stream of one-day jobs.

Our processes, systems and approach have worked well to this point. But will it work at 10 locations? Will it continue to work as the industry changes? I don’t know; probably not. 

Lean has been a big focus for the last couple years. We shifted around some of our shop floors, but, really, it’s been about maintaining that same thinking as we had early on: Find ways to do more with less. You need to look at every situation and really analyze it: Do I need another employee, or more space, or another piece of equipment, or do I need to change the process?

It’s my day-to-day job to focus on that. And for my business to move forward, I need to constantly look at it. This industry is always changing. The way we do things now might not be the exact way we do things in six months. As a company, we will go in the way we need to go and avoid being stagnant. 

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