Earning Her Stripes
FOR THE EMPLOYEES AT BUDD’S AUTO BODY, IT WAS JUST ANOTHER MONDAY MORNING. FOR ROBERTA FERRARA, IT WAS THE START OF A NEW LIFE.
Her husband had unexpectedly died from a heart attack just three days earlier. And with nobody to man the shop, Ferrara—who had absolutely zero experience in collision repair and had been working as a stay-at-home mother—had to make a tough decision. “My accountant said, ‘You can stay here and run the business, or you can find another job.’ And I decided to keep the business in the family,” Ferrara says. “He died on a Friday afternoon, and on Monday, I was here.”
Despite barely ever stepping foot into the business prior to that day 16 years ago, Ferrara faired reasonably well. She had a great support system through her newly hired manager, who helped her keep up with finances, write estimates, and work with insurance companies. One thing she had to earn herself, though? Confidence from her employees in her abilities as a shop owner—and that was a challenge she took head on.
Budd’s Auto Body isn’t just another body shop in Cedar Grove, N.J. After 54 years of quality service, the shop’s customers and staff had grown to deeply trust and appreciate the only two men that had ever run the business: Ferrara’s father-in-law, Anthony, and her husband, Matthew.
“People come in and say all the time, ‘I remember your father-in-law. I remember your husband. He always did me a favor,’” she says.
However, very few people who had passed through or worked at the shop knew Ferrara, who had her own life outside of the collision repair industry.
And while the community ultimately trusted the shop that had serviced Cedar Grove for so long, there was one problem: How would she earn the confidence of the employees that had worked with her husband for over a decade?
While not everything transferred seamlessly, Ferrara held on to the business amazingly well those first few years. She answered phones, greeted customers and booked appointments. She hired a new manager to take over the estimating duties that previously had been handled by Matthew. Her daughter, Stephanie, quit her job on Wall Street five years ago. She has helped Ferrara keep track of and pay the bills at night and eventually became the shop’s estimator after attending training at Vail Business Solutions.
But, as she quickly found out, those duties were only half of the battle. Her technicians—especially Charlie Barrett, who has now worked at Budd’s for 26 years—were distraught over losing their longtime friend, and scared for their own job security because of their new rookie owner.
“It was very scary,” Barrett says. “I mean, he just dropped from the face of the earth. And then, the following Monday, Roberta was here. It was a really strange, hard time.” “I almost never stepped into the shop. I never knew anybody, not the guys in the back—nothing,” Ferrara says. “They all knew my husband, and I had to prove to them that I knew what I was doing. They were worried about their job security and me selling the business.”
So that became the dilemma: How does a new shop owner earn the confidence of her employees and keep morale up? How does she assert her authority without alienating everyone? And how does an industry newbie prove she can hold her own and carry the business forward?
The answer to all of these questions wouldn’t be found by simply sitting around. Fortunately, it’s not in Ferrara’s nature to sit idly by.
“I’m the type of person that wants to learn from the ground up,” she says. “I didn’t want to always be wondering what my guys were doing—that’s why I started to go to school.”
When Ferrara locked the shop doors at 5 p.m., she would get into her car and drive over to Morris County School of Technology to learn about the business. And no, not about bookkeeping or estimate writing—Ferrara was learning how to weld and repair vehicles.
Being the only woman in the group, she became known as “Rosie the Riveter” in the classroom, where she learned the basics of welding and buffing. She eventually earned a degree upon finishing the class.
“I’d go over to my men and ask, ‘Can you do me a favor and take 15 minutes out of your day today and show me how to weld? I’m being tested on it tonight,’” Ferrara says. “And they knew I was interested in doing it. I wasn’t just sitting up front. Asking for their help empowered them.”
Ferrara continued to win over her staff by completely immersing herself in the collision world, joining the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners to improve the company’s advertising and attending various management training seminars throughout the country.
One of her biggest accomplishments in improving her role as a leader was eliminating many of the DRP relationships that were putting strain on her technicians. While Ferrara lost some business, she says the boost in morale made the shop run smoother and more efficiently.
“They want me to use bad parts, used parts, and it was a concern for me and my customers,” she says. “I wouldn’t put up with their garbage. My men are worth a certain amount of money, and I wasn’t getting half of that for their work—and I let my men know that, too. I decided I’d rather take a loss and have a finer product. I don’t want my men being stressed.”
Ferrara sought out other ways of making work less stressful, focusing on improving the cleanliness of the shop and the outside appearance of the building.
She would come to the shop on weekends and upkeep the beautiful garden that now rests outside the shop. She redid the original paint job on the sign and walls outside and introduced purple to the interior, in addition to completely updating the bathroom and purchasing new furniture.
“It used to feel like walking into a gas station. It smelled of smoke. It was a big eye-appeal problem. It drove people away. I saw that and my husband never did,” she says. “My technicians would see what I was doing. I loved the updated look. It’s more motivating to work in a clean environment. People will naturally think, ‘If you’re taking care of the outside of the building, it means you’re taking care of the cars as well.’”
On top of it all, Ferrara established a schedule and filing system for work orders, which wasn’t part of the repair process when Matthew was in charge.
“Before Roberta, everything was just a mess. It was very disorganized,” Barrett says. “She made everything much more organized. We never even had work orders until she came in. It was nice to know exactly what I’d be working on and have a system in place.”
The final step of Ferrara’s transition into a leader on the shop floor was, simply, showing how much she appreciated her staff. It’s a simple step, but it’s also one she is sure her husband could have improved on.
“I respect them and I let them know that all the time,” she says. “I never leave here on Friday without thanking them for the work that they did the whole week.”
Despite some stagnated growth financially when Ferrara eliminated many of the DRPs, Ferrara says the business is improving year by year, and that shop morale is at an all-time high. Not only has Ferrara proved she can successfully run a shop, but she has earned the confidence of her staff as well.
“These days, they’ll put seam sealer on and I might not like the way it looks,” she says. “I’ll say, ’You know what? Do a little better job. It’s got to look like the factory did it.’ And I couldn’t say things like that if I didn’t have the knowledge to back it up.”
Barrett says that work is much less stressful with Roberta manning the show. Whereas Matthew was very oldschool and believed in doing everything himself, Roberta eased the transition by bringing in Stephanie and a new manager for delegating duties.
Ferrara is living proof that even a lack of industry training doesn’t prevent an owner from establishing him or herself as a leader—as long as the dedication and ambition are there, you can connect with your staff and make the business better. And with a healthy culture established, Ferrara is now looking toward the future by teaching her daughter—who may eventually step in as the shop’s owner—how to lead effectively.
“I’m making her earn the position,” she says. “She started out answering phones and booking appointments, and now she’s writing estimates.”
ESTABLISHING A PATH FOR THE TEAM
Industry veteran Jeff Hendler, who is the business management consultant for JD/Hendler Associates and the former chairman of the Collision Industry Conference, has seen his fair share of brand new shop owners during his 40 years of experience. He says new leaders must craft goals and pave a specific path for their teams in order to create a winning, trusting, interactive shop culture.
There’s a quote from an old movie called “The Cincinnati Kid,” and this guy says to Steve McQueen, “You’re good, kid, but as long as I’m around you’re second best. You might as well learn to live with it.”
This is true for new shop owners—there’s somebody out there that’s been doing it longer, better than you’ll be able to do it. I would encourage new owners to reach out to organizations like SCRS (Society of Collision Repair Specialists) or WIN (Women’s Industry Network). Those groups are full of leaders who have been in your situation, that can provide guidance for anyone who feels lost at a new position.
In the shop, though, you’ve got to develop a culture, a direction that is your own. The first thing new shop owners need to do is fully understand the ins and outs of the shop: how it functions, how the repair process works, how people communicate. Talk to all of your employees, see how they work, see how things are filed and tracked, and then determine how you can take things in new directions and improve processes that play to their strengths.
The most important step in setting that path is good communication with your employees. You need to communicate with your staff on where you want to go and how you plan to get there. Make clear, definable goals about improving efficiency or organization—tangible options people can grasp. They should be physically written out on a whiteboard or on a computer file that everyone can access. That way, everyone can see you monitoring and tracking the shop’s progress.
Not only should you be setting goals and determining priorities, but you should be getting feedback from your staff at meetings and throughout the day. Incorporate their ideas and use their feedback to expand on the goals and make everyone more motivated to achieve them.