Running a Shop Shop Culture Family Business

Remembering the Start of our Family Shop

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I have been feeling kind of nostalgic about my shop lately. We just passed our 10-year anniversary and my dad’s shop is fast approaching it’s 40th year. Thankfully we are not losing momentum, as my sister just opened a shop of her own a little over two years ago.

Like most shops, though, ours have humble beginnings.

My dad used to work 80 hours a week in a meat-packing plant that was owned by my uncle. It was grueling, physically draining work that started at 5 a.m. every day and involved being in meat freezers and carrying heavy sides of beef to cutting tables, all while surrounded by the sights and smells of recently slaughtered cattle.

At the time, I was 2 years old and my sister Kelli would not be on the way for another four years, but my dad began thinking to himself, “There has to be a better way to make a living than this!”

And with that simple resolve he bought a book, Auto Body Repair and Painting by William Hogg, and $20 in tools, and started fixing cars on the weekends in our back yard. My uncle Gail was a mechanic, primarily working on Volkswagens, and he did not want to mess with body repair and painting so he started referring people to my dad.

Dad developed quite a reputation in those days for his speed. He even had business cards printed up that said “Same day service on small repairs.”

His big break came when a local Chrysler dealership gave him a car to repair. He pre-ordered all of the parts and painted them ahead of time so he was ready. They dropped it off in the morning. He had it back to them, fully repaired, painted and detailed to perfection by the end of that same business day. They could not believe it.

They gave him another one. Same outcome. Then another, and another.

Eventually, they hired him to run their whole service department including the body shop.

Dad is an entrepreneur, though, and eventually he had to have his own shop again. That came in 1978 when he opened Gary Rains Body Shop, right on the main street that runs through the west side of Cincinnati, Glenway Ave.

Even though I enjoyed having a job there—not to mention some great cars in high school like a restored classic 1969 Oldsmobile 442—I decided to go a different direction and became a minister. After 15 years completely away from the industry, serving in a small local church just a few blocks from where I graduated high school, I asked Dad if I could rejoin the family business. I spent a year training at his shop and then opened our second location, Center City Collision, in the same Cincinnati neighborhood where I served as pastor.

Dad is 70 now and still very active in the first shop. He has been in the industry in some fashion since his early 30s. We are starting to talk about transitions and roles now. What we mostly have are a handful of questions we are starting to work through:

  • Should we align all three shops around one common brand and vision?
  • Who will run Dad’s shop as he moves toward retirement?
  • How do we reward the investment of time and effort that people have put into the shops over the years and at the same time protect them as assets for future generations of our family?
  • Is it time to consider selling one (or more) of them?

My dad, my sister and I are all looking at these questions from different perspectives. My sister and I have the benefit of relative youth and the energy of taking the shops to even greater places, building on the sturdy foundation Dad has laid. He is ready to stay involved, but perhaps not as much as he once was. I have lobbied to align the shops and pursue being a small regional chain of shops, maybe as many as 10 someday. My sister and dad, not so much. They are content with where things are heading and the steady, even pace in which we are already moving.

Sometimes it’s good to get in touch with the early days, with what got you into this industry in the first place. There is meaning there and also an interesting story that will connect your team and customers. It’s also good to consider where things are heading and stretch things out on a timeline that is even longer than your own life. That “beginning-to-end” perspective often yields insights and energy that apply now in the day-to-day grind of running your shop.

At whatever stage you are in, I hope you take time to think through this long-range perspective for yourself and your shop and I hope that you find it meaningful and helpful with whatever current challenges you are facing in your business today.

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