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How to Keep 90-plus Employees Motivated

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With 17 years of body work and eight years of dealership management experience, John Cole felt confident in opening his own collision repair shop. After all, he had taken a Chevrolet dealership from $900,000 to $4.5 million in annual sales in just three years.   

But things weren’t that easy. When Cole poured his life savings into the 14,000-square-foot building that became the first Cole’s Collision Center in Albany, N.Y., 10 years ago, he didn’t expect to be nearing bankruptcy within six months.

“I had a very big facility to start with—I didn't want to start small,” he says. “That put me between a rock and a hard place because I didn't have enough money to be able to attract guys.”

One year into ownership? It was a completely different story: He cleared $1 million in sales, built his client database through marketing, and grew his staff to nine—seven of whom remain with him to this day.

Ten years and five Cole’s Collision Center locations later (four for everyday retail customers and one for trucks), Cole is using the same managerial strategies to keep his customers satisfied and his employees motivated to produce quality work.

The key to building this business has been three things, which we advertise to the public: You have to do what you say you’re going to do; you have to have work ethic; and you have to have quality technicians to stand behind what you say you’re going to do. If you have those three things, then you can get it done.

We do a lot of TV advertising, and I am always in the commercials. We actually us a caricature of me that’s become a mascot for us. I just had somebody draw a 2-D caricature of me, and I went to an animator and asked, “Can you make this thing move? ” They did all this cool stuff with it and we put it in our first commercial and it was a real hit. I’m able to brand myself and how I run my business in a fun, engaging way.

It’s all about being in your business and allowing people to get to know you. That doesn’t come your first year, or even your second or third year. I’ve been here 10 years. After that long, people just start to know who you are and they trust you. If you’re doing the right thing and you’re taking care of people, sooner or later everybody will start coming to you.

I try to get into all the stores at least once a week, if not a few times a week. My days are planned out a week ahead of time, and usually my day doesn’t end until 7 or 8 o’clock every night. I have a criteria for which stores I’ ll visit each day, and that’s based on two factors.

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT: It took time for John Cole to develop the right team for his first location, but now his 90-plus employees help make the five-shop business what it is today.No. 1: What we have going on at each store.

And then No. 2: Where I can fit that into my schedule, as far as doing my reports.

Basically, it’s wherever I’m needed the most. I can tell just by the needs of the building at the time, if management needs an extra hand, or if a facility maintenance guy needs some questions answered. I like to hold insurance company meetings and accountant meetings at different shops as well, making myself more present to my employees.

I have a wonderful staff underneath me. I have eight managers, and I have a general manager overall that does a great job. I’m needed less and less, but I’m building the business more and more.

 

I learned to delegate a long time ago. I can’t grow a business by doing everything myself. It just gets to the point where, with four locations, I literally, physically cannot be everywhere at one time. If you become a control freak and do everything for everybody, they never grow and mature. You just have to let people make mistakes and then coach them through it and help develop them as managers.

PERSONAL APPROACH: John Cole (right) makes it a point to interact with members of his five-location team each day. We have weekly management meetings so I can keep up with everybody’s concerns. We have a whole job description written out, all the way up through our disciplinary process for our managers to follow to help them and empower them in the stores. We support our managers. We don’t step on their toes or try to micromanage. When you micromanage, the manager never has any kind of power.

My general manager and I have a great relationship. He actually took a risk with me. He was my assistant at the dealership I walked out of. He came to me and said, “I want to work for you,” and I basically told him I couldn’t pay him much. He didn’t care. He was on board with my philosophies about running a business and treating employees with respect. I paid him out of my pocket for the first six months. Even when I was going bankrupt, he hung in there with me and helped me build the business.

Today, we have around 90 employees. He’s gotten very good at delegating and addressing issues from a higher point of view. He runs reports on each of the stores and we go over them weekly, one-on-one. We’ll look at numbers, we’ll look at strategies, we’ll look at whatever problems or opportunities we have in areas, which helps me plan out which stores I’ll be spending the most time at in a given week. Like any business, you constantly want to make sure you’re growing. And I can say, totally to my employees’ credit, we have not stopped growing in 10 years.

 

I treat people the way I want to be treated: with respect. That’s why seven of those original nine employees are still with me. We take care of them and we pay them well through a flat-rate system.

I pretty much know every single employee in my company, most of them on a personal basis. While I’m at a shop, I make it a point to talk to everybody. I’m very approachable. I was a technician for 17 years. I understand the struggles and the things they’re feeling. A lot of business owners, especially in our area, have never worked on a car in their life. I like to say hello to my technicians and at least ask how they’re doing. You never know if the technician may have a need that the manager, during his busy day, might be missing. If I can help or assist my manager, I will.

We also have our mentor ing program. It’s just easier to grow a quality employee and allow them to buy into how you run your shop. We work with a lot of students and kids that want to get into auto body, or just anybody we find with great work ethic, who shows up ever y day and wants to learn.

We pair them up with technicians, and then, within a few months, they’re either moving up to a B-plus or C-plus tech. And then after a few years, they’re moving up to an A-tech. Typically, you'll know within the first few weeks if the kid is going to do well or not, if you’ve got somebody you can train and coach to become better. We want all of our employees to have positive attitudes, to work toward a common goal.

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