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Cruel Winter

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For most collision repairers, the winter of 2013–2014 would have been the stuff of dreams: One of the coldest Thanksgivings on record led to the coldest winter in 30 years for the Dayton, Ohio, region, a winter that included a “polar vortex” blowing in a record 12 consecutive sub-zero days and 53.6 inches of snow (the third-snowiest winter on record for the area)—all of which was followed by tornadoes and severe flooding of the Great Miami River in March.

But Tom Martin was less than thrilled. To him, the unrelenting winter represented wasted time, money and personnel as he tried to prepare for the opening of his second location, Troy CARSTAR in Troy, Ohio. He had planned meticulously, researching and seeking advice for more than a year prior, budgeting and combing through operational details to ensure that the new facility would run just as smoothly as his already booming CARSTAR shop in Sidney, Ohio.

As the saying goes, you can’t control the weather. And thanks to what he calls “the worst winter ever,” the ground-up construction all but came to a halt, which meant the planned New Year’s opening was effectively off the table.

“My first year, I had originally budgeted $1 million in sales,” Martin says. “That’s what I budgeted out. It became very obvious that I wouldn’t be able to open. I was losing my entire first quarter to the winter being bad.”


THE BACKSTORY

Martin was hired by the original owner of Sidney Body as a 15-year-old, and he’s never left. What was once a small, 3,000-square-foot operation in rural Sidney continued to grow, and Martin officially took control of the company in 2002. Since then, Martin has gone gangbusters: He joined CARSTAR the next year, moved to a new 8,800-square-foot facility in 2004 and was doing well above $2 million in sales in 2012. He credits much of the success to a focus on lean operations, which has resulted in 6.3-day cycle time and 3.6-hours-per-day touch time. By 2013, the shop was doing so well that the staff had effectively “worked me out of a job,” Martin says.

“My staff had grown substantially and developed to where I wasn’t in the day-to-day operations. I just pretty much coached,” he says. “I’ve always had the approach that I wanted to grow and develop. And I needed a job!”

That’s when Martin began toying with the idea of opening a second franchise. He talked to other CARSTAR owners who had second and third locations, conducted market research and gained as much advice as he could to determine if his operation was truly ready.

“I didn’t want to go in blind,” he says. “I had great guidance and I felt that it was time. I wanted to see if we could duplicate what we did with Sidney because we did such a great job and I really thought we could grow the business.”

THE PROBLEM

Throughout 2013, Martin’s plans for the second location kept moving: With his existing Sidney location as the model, Martin looked to enter a similarly sized rural community where he knew he could market well and capitalize on word-of-mouth referrals. He eventually settled on Troy, Ohio, a town of 25,000 located 20 miles south of Sidney.

“Troy looked like a very good opportunity,” he says. “There was nobody bringing the service that I felt my staff and I could bring.”

Martin initially wanted to take over a solid pre-existing business from an owner looking to retire, but couldn’t find a business to fit his model. So, instead, he decided on a ground-up construction project. Because he had gone through expansions with his Sidney location, Martin both felt he was well equipped to handle a ground-up construction and knew what he wanted in the new location. He wanted at least 8,000 square feet of production space, 2,000 square feet of front office space, dedicated space for an Enterprise partner and sufficient room for a potential expansion in the future. Martin began hiring and assembling a team that would be able to carry out the culture he had created at his Sidney store. He also planned to bring over a manager and production manager from that store to ensure that culture was instilled.

Unfortunately, delays occurred throughout the process of purchasing the property and selecting a construction company, which tacked on an extra two months before they could break ground. Although Martin was still dedicated to an opening date of Jan. 1, 2014, construction didn’t begin until early November. That meant that exterior work was being completed much later than expected—and that’s where the problems occurred. Early and heavy snow and ice storms began hitting the area and while the construction crew tried its best to continue working, Martin says it was slow going, at best.

“It was real cold and there was tons of snow and they just couldn’t build,” he says. “It took longer to build anything because there was so much snow. They had to build up tarps so they could do some masonry work. Everything slowed way down in the construction area.”

THE SOLUTION

Meanwhile, although construction at the Troy location had come to a crawl, business at Sidney was booming.

“Along with all that bad weather, it caused lots of accidents,” Martin says. “Our typical first quarter in Sidney grew 30 percent that quarter. That’s how busy it was.”

In fact, it was so busy that Martin didn’t think the Sidney store could keep up. And with the Troy store staffed but sitting dormant, Martin decided to take an unusual approach: He temporarily moved the six staff members from the Troy store into the Sidney location.

Martin says doing so allowed him to do multiple things: effectively accommodate the influx of work; utilize the newly hired staff until the Troy store opened; recoup lost sales from the second store’s opening delay; and train the new staff and instill the shop culture even before opening.

ADJUSTING TO CHALLENGES: After successfully growing his first CARSTAR shop, Tom Martin decided to try his luck opening a second location. Although a tough winter delayed plans, a unique solution forced his staff to bond and work collaboratively. “I got to see everybody under fire,” he says. “There were some that didn’t make it and we brought the next one in. It worked out really well.”

Space was limited, to be sure. The 15-employee shop was already maxing out its 8,000 square feet, which only included 1,200 feet of office space. Staff was forced to get creative and make do with the space available. Martin gave up his office and made two workstations to house estimators. Technicians gave up some production floor to allow for a small makeshift production office where two people were stationed.

Martin had always subscribed to lean philosophies and systems, but the staff was forced to adhere even more strictly to those processes to ensure that work could properly flow through the shop. The benefit of this, Martin says, is that the new staff members were able to train alongside veteran employees.

THE AFTERMATH

While it wasn’t an ideal situation initially, Martin says that the decision to bring the new staff to the Sidney store was actually a blessing in disguise.

“I really look like a genius, honestly, and it was all luck,” he says. “Even though we were all cramped into a small space, we had a lot of work to produce. I was training people and it worked out quite well.”

The Sidney store ended up producing record numbers and finished the year at $2.9 million in sales.

The Troy store eventually opened on March 31, 2014 and Martin transitioned his staff over—first moving half the team at the initial opening, then shifting the rest when work load demanded it. To Martin’s surprise, even with the lost first quarter, the Troy store still finished out its first year at $1.2 million in sales. And he credits a lot of that success to his team, the training they were able to partake in during those winter months at the Sidney store, and the bond it eventually created.

THE TAKEAWAY

Martin has always been a big believer in finding the right team and developing those employees, and the exercise of opening his second location only strengthened that belief. Martin says he’s always keeping an eye out for potential new employees, be it by being an advisory board member at the local career center or getting to know people in the community. Ultimately, he says, it comes down to finding people with great attitude and involving them in your growth.

“My approach to all of our growth is that I would go back to my key people,” he says. “‘This is what I want to do. This is why I want to do it. How do we get to where we want to go?’ That’s the culture that we developed and built over the years. That culture has let me achieve a lot of success.”

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