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Growing Your Own Talent

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One of the most rewarding aspects of being a business owner is watching people develop and progress in their careers. I’ve had the chance to see a number of my team members grow within the industry over the last 10 years, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my shop.

But, when hiring, it can feel difficult—even impossible—to accurately identify and choose those goal-oriented, driven people who can take an opportunity and turn it into a career.

An example: One of my techs, Mike Vann, came to me with just a little experience from a production shop. Over many years, he has acquired the tools, knowledge and skill to move from being an apprentice fixing small dents to a true A-level technician who can handle any job I throw at him.

Then there’s Jason Sneddon. My father hired him right out of vocational school at our family’s original shop, and he literally started out at the ground level: sweeping floors and prepping cars. Eventually he came with me to help launch my shop and went from prepping and painting on his own to estimating and, eventually, to managing a large crew. When he started with me we were only doing about 10 cars a month. Ten years later, he was managing our whole team pulling closer to 100 vehicle a month through the shop. He moved on to manage a Carstar facility, but before then, he had held nearly every position in the company.

Mike and Jason are both examples of guys hired from within the industry—young repair professionals looking for an opportunity to grow.
But is there ever a time when it’s a good idea to hire from outside the industry?

Chris Marshall, my current general manager, started with me a little more than a year ago. We have been friends for many years and kept in touch—more on than off—for the past 15 years or so. Before coming here, Chris earned a doctorate degree in leadership and worked as both a school administrator and professor at a local college. He is an expert at leading and teaching; his experience and education back that up.

Yet, Chris had no industry experience at all and has had to learn this business from the ground up—but not in the same way that someone coming from vocational school would. Yes, I want him to get his hands dirty from time to time, turning a wrench or trying his hand at painting; he also needs to be able to write a decent estimate. However, I did not hire him for him his technical skill. Bringing him on board was due to his ability to help us create the culture and team that my business needs at this point in our development.

Early on in my career, I thought I had to hire “Swiss Army Knife” employees—guys who could do anything from frames to paint to learning to write proper estimates. We (sometimes jokingly but also with real admiration) called these guys “Walking Body Shops.” They were versatile and wanted to learn everything from top to bottom.

But now, as our shop has grown from just a couple employees to a team of almost 20 people, the culture has shifted to more specialists, men and women who go after a deep mastery of a particular role.

We still have a couple Swiss Army Knives around and we try to cross train whenever possible, but, as we grow, I have discovered that the kind of person who is really good at Quickbooks is not necessarily the best person to prep and paint cars. And it rarely makes sense to push them to do both.

The bottom line is that you look for the people who have the talent to fit with your shop’s needs, whether that’ technical, cultural or otherwise.

I often hear how hard it is for shops to find talent—and I agree! It is not easy. However, the talent you are looking for might be right in front of you and is just waiting for an opportunity, or, perhaps, they are in a completely different field but looking to make a change.

Sometimes talent is hiding in plain sight. But if we are willing to take the time and risk to develop it or ask for it, we might realize it was there all along. 

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