Running a Shop Sales+Marketing Finance

Finding Your Inner Circle

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When John Beckworth decided to change everything about his shop, he did a very thorough job—and the results couldn’t have been any better. No one complains about complications with insurance companies anymore. Employees are held accountable for producing results. They’re also more positive and empowered.

But, the president of Mile One Wagon Works in Washington, D.C., says, his shop didn’t always run this smoothly. Beckworth credits the shop’s success to the valuable advice and helpful suggestions he received while participating in the Coyote Vision Group, a peer management group that connects shop owners and managers from different competitive markets. “You see what you need to fix a lot more clearly,” Beckworth says of being involved in the group. “There’s a big danger in changing if you don’t know what to change. I’ve learned to evaluate and correct the right things.”

“You’ve got to set expectations for yourself,
and most of us aren’t hard enough on ourselves.”

PROS OF A PEER GROUP

Elainna Sachire, president of Square Systems, Inc.—an independent company that creates 20 Groups or peer management groups, such as Coyote Vision, for body shop owners—says there are many valuable reasons why a shop owner should become part of a peer group. Here, she lists her top three:

• Knowing your numbers. Always being aware of where you stand financially—especially compared to your colleagues—is absolutely critical, Sachire says. “Some peer groups don’t reveal financial numbers, but you should find one that does.” This idea may make you feel uncomfortable at first, but it can end up being a smart business move. “It amazes me how far off shops’ benchmarks really are,” Sachire say, explaining that most shop owners set benchmarks that are far too low. “The benefit of sharing those numbers is learning true performance benchmarks. Based on its size, a shop should be pulling in so much gross profit percentage.”

She offers an example of how disclosing your numbers can be useful. “Let’s say you’re a shop owner in St. Paul, Minn., and I’m a shop owner in Cleveland, Ohio. At the end of the day, you’re pulling in a 3 percent net profit and I’m pulling in 15 percent, even though our shop size is the same,” Sachire says. “Wouldn’t you want to know how in the heck am I doing 15 percent?”

“A lot of people don’t feel comfortable sharing numbers, but I think that’s an old way of doing business,” Sachire says. She returns to her example: “As long as two shop owners are not in a competitive marketing area—following the 60 miles apart rule—there’s more to benefit from in seeing each other’s numbers than there is to worry about. It’s all about better performance and stepping it up to the next level.”

• Building relationships with your colleagues. Your peers are invaluable resources, and you should take advantage of them! After long days working in the trenches, you can go to 19 other people to ask questions and get “good, solid advice,” Sachire says. “Building relationships is key.” The best part is that you can ask a question about anything—pay plans, different operating models, sales and marketing—and chances are one of your colleagues has already experienced a similar situation and is able to offer some sound advice.

• Becoming more well-rounded. Shop owners are miracle workers with cars, but sometimes embracing effective management skills can be tough. Fortunately, being in a peer group allows you to expand your skills beyond technical knowledge. “I think being in a peer group will allow an individual to better develop all aspects of the business,” Sachire says. “Most shop owners got into the business because they were either technicians or grew up in the business. All they know is how to fix cars.” If you feel you may fall into this category, don’t worry. “In a group, we spend a lot of time well-rounding [shop owners] on all parts of the business,” Sachire says. Some particularly important focus areas include: sales, marketing, finance, administration, IT, company culture and the empowerment of employees.

LEARNING FROM THE BEST

Steve Schaefer, owner of Schaefer Autobody Centers in St. Louis, Mo., says he’s definitely benefited from the honest communication that flows among his peer group. “You’re with a group of people in the same industry who communicate truthfully about their situation and performance,” says Schaefer, who, like Beckworth, is a member of the Coyote Vision Group, which meets on a quarterly basis. “You can really see what the possibilities are, and what your opportunities are.”

“From an economic standpoint,
now is the critical time to be in a group.”

He also says that listening to the successes of your peers can inspire you to accomplish great things, too. “All of us have strengths and weaknesses,” Schaefer points out. “When you see someone who is doing really well, you can see it’s possible to get there, too. Sometimes you need to hear it to believe it.”

About sharing his financial information, Schaefer agrees with Sachire. “If you’re not in a competitive market, then sharing numbers is not a big issue. If there’s respect, there’s nothing to worry about.” All the members of the Coyote Vision Group own shops with revenues of $3 million or higher.

“When you surround yourself with your peers, you realize things you didn’t know you had a problem with,” Beckworth says. “When critiquing your financials, someone on the outside can give you a fresh perspective. We’re all open and honest. No one wants to spend their time and money just to be told they’re the best.”

Holding yourself accountable is also an important aspect of being part of a peer management group. “When you’re self-employed, you’re not really reporting to anyone,” Schaefer says. “You’ve got to set expectations for yourself, and most of us aren’t hard enough on ourselves. [A peer group] provides an outside measurement.”

Beckworth also sees the inherent value in being responsible to someone other than himself. “There is extreme value in being held accountable and having peer pressure,” he says. “It’s good for me.”

NOW’S THE TIME

Even in a tight economy, paying the member fee to join a peer group could be worth it— because you’ll learn how to not only survive but also thrive in a struggling market. Sharing ideas and brainstorming with colleagues offers you a chance to improve your business in the tough times. “From an economic standpoint, now is the critical time to be in a group,” Sachire says. “People want to spend money when things are good, but you need to be in a group when things are questionable. A peer group can help support you as you face hard decisions in a tough economy.”

Beckworth agrees. “Living in your own little world is dangerous,” he says. “Society is so dynamic. If you’re not always improving, you’re behind. You have to be more efficient and get more done with less resources. That’s 2008. You get more bang for your buck when talking to your peers than going home and venting to your dog.”

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