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How I Work » Herbert Winslow

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Herbert Winslow opened Car Struction Collision Center in Chesapeake, Va., in 1989 with a tiny facility and equipment purchased on his dad’s charge card. Thanks to savvy marketing and customer care techniques, the shop has since blossomed into a 43,000-square-foot, 33-employee operation.

I used to be the king of Greenbrier. I dominated this market back in the day. But everyone saw how good I was doing, and several competing shops went up all over the place. I was being attacked from all sides. I considered selling to a consolidator, but just couldn’t follow through with that. This is all I have ever known, and my whole family is involved in the business. I couldn’t sell something that I gave birth to. This is my baby; I live and breathe this place.

I decided to stand strong and go a different route. I really started marketing and strengthening my brand, which is now my main daily focus and objective. It’s paid off—after 23 years of business, we’ve grown every year except for two.

I like to take it easy in the morning. I’ve paid my dues with 12-hour workdays, so I try not to rush out anymore. I’ve got three managers in place who are capable of taking care of morning business, so I don’t need to be there right away. I raise chickens at home, so I wake up around 6 a.m. every day to feed the animals, read the paper and have my coffee.

I get to the shop about 9 a.m. The first order of business is to touch base with the technicians. I find out how everyone is doing and chat about the latest football game. Meanwhile, I visually track everything happening on the shop floor. I make sure jobs are on track, assess repair procedures and look for performance issues.

Then I walk through the parts department to assess inventory. I track when parts are scheduled to be used and try to clean up the inventory if some parts have been sitting too long. I also read through the latest customer satisfaction reports and comment cards, and meet with the managers to discuss any issues or concerns that need to be addressed that day. I spend each morning checking these specific areas to stay in tune with operations.

I go to the gym three days a week to see a personal trainer. That’s usually from 11 a.m. to noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It serves as a structured time to get some work-life balance, and, of course, stay healthy.

My son goes with me. He’s the production manager at the shop, so we use that time to discuss business and lay out new strategies. It’s a great time to hash things out and process frustrations. I’m hoping to hand the business over to him when I retire in five years, so this one-on-one time provides him with insight as to what it takes to lead the company.

I like to be around in the afternoon when customers pick up their cars. That’s an important element to build our brand image. People like to know who owns the place and interact with business leaders on a personal level. I spend an hour a day greeting people at the door. We have several promotional items, like branded T-shirts, and I like to give a few things to each customer.

That face time with customers has developed relationships and driven repeat business. I assess business reports every Monday—half of our customers are repeats, while another 25 percent are customer referrals. I put a referral rewards program in place to promote and thank past customers for sending work our way. They get $25 in cash or shop credit for every customer referred. Customers get to choose which benefit they want.

The whole customer experience is what sets us apart from other shops, and serves as the basis for our marketing and branding package. We offer premium services and a high quality customer experience—that’s exactly the message I use to market the shop. You have to give customers more than what they ask for. We do everything possible to make the repair experience convenient and comfortable. The customer lounge offers Wi-Fi, satellite radio, leather sofas, oriental rugs and original artwork. It also includes a full kitchenette equipped with a Keurig coffee machine, snacks, tables and granite countertops.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: From left to right: Melinda Winslow (Herbert’s wife); Herbert; their son, Matthew; and Melinda’s sister Melissa Oglsby. Photo by Mario Barkley

I’m a gardener, too. I have a farm with a garden and orchard. So I also bring in fresh fruits and vegetables to give to customers. We’ve got watermelons, tomatoes and peppers lining the office counter that customers are free to take. I like to think that makes us unique. There aren’t many other body shops that offer fresh produce.

I also built a 6,300-square-foot indoor customer service center. It’s a horseshoe-shaped, drive-through facility that includes two lanes for vehicles and two vehicle lifts. It’s helped land several direct repair relationships. The president of GEICO toured our shop to check it out, and said it was the best-looking collision repair facility he’s seen throughout the entire country.

I focus my energy the rest of the day on external sales and marketing strategies. That’s a huge commitment and requires me to step outside of the shop quite often. But I love doing it. I want to be the face of our brand. I like getting out and talking to people, which is important because people in the community must be able to attach a face to our company name.

I consult with other business owners in the market daily. I have a friend who owns a mechanical shop nearby. We discuss issues, the state of the industry, what other repair businesses are doing around town, and who seems to be getting the work. I do that in order to compare my performance with other repairers. If business is slow, I want to know whether we’re doing something wrong, or if that trend is market-wide. So I circulate throughout the neighborhood and talk to different business owners, suppliers and vendors every day.

That’s really helpful to proactively identify market trends, keep my finger on the pulse of economic conditions, and understand why business activity is the way it is. The tactic helps constantly improve the strength of marketing and branding efforts.

I’ve also committed to a number of community service activities. I joined the chamber of commerce and two advisory councils for a local community college and vo-tech program. I became a designated drop-off site for the local food bank, and support the community’s school sports teams. I’m dedicating a huge portion of my energy to community service—community service that can deliver business returns.

I attend a lot of business networking events during the weekdays, too. You meet a lot of people at those things to generate business leads. I always look to connect with people who operate companies with fleets of vehicles. For example, I recently joined a private club, and my objective was to meet fleet operators at the top of the food chain. I attended a networking breakfast and landed a connection to fix an entire fleet of dump trucks. Those face-to-face interactions make a huge impact. Letting people put a face to our company name helps them get to know our brand. I just can’t afford to keep my head in the office. I’ve got to get out in the community daily and introduce myself.

I find ways to diversify the business as much as possible. We repair everything from motorcycles to RVs to dump trucks. I also attempt to land as many corporate fleet accounts as I can. I’ve had accounts with rental companies, new and used car dealerships, garbage truck companies and heavy equipment companies.

I do a lot of things for marketing. I thought I would try all these different things and see where it takes me. If I get the results I want, that’s cool. But if not, I’ll take another stab at it. I’ve learned that you just have to try new things and see how it goes. I’ve been trying everything I can think of for the past 23 years. We’re doing all kinds of things and just having fun. 

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