Climbing the Steps to Leadership
Brian Frame descibes himself as a student of continuous improvement: He frequently reads leadership books, visits shops across the country to gain new ideas and inspiration, and always focuses on new ways to build leaders within his company.
“The more I talked to people in the industry, one of the biggest problems we were facing is the lack of technicians,” he says. “Especially in our market in Southern California. It’s a huge, huge problem.”
Frame is the third-generation owner of Gene’s Paint and Body, a 12-person, $2 million-per-year shop in Montrose, Calif., started by his family in the 1940s.
As many of the technicians from older generations have started to retire and age out of the business, he says it became even more of a priority to find ways to bring younger generations into the shop.
“If you read ‘The Toyota Way,’ it’s all about bringing people to the company and building leaders,” he says.
To do that, he created an innovative “ladder to leadership” program that not only brought new blood into the shop, but also cultivated leaders from the very start.
There’s always room for error in the collision repair business, says Frame, and that’s only exacerbated when the staff doesn’t click.
“For a long time, my shop had been a frustrating place,” he says. “There’s so many opportunities for errors along the way and everything has to click just right for the car to process through there perfectly. Some of them go through smoothly and some of them don’t, but the more that you can get through smoothly, the happier everyone is.”
To achieve that, he says you need a staff that works well together. And at Frame’s shop, that wasn’t always the case with his technicians. In particular, his A-tech was a classic case of a technician wanting to work completely solitarily.
“We had an all-star performer, a very good technician, but he just didn’t believe in what we were doing,” Frame says. “He wanted to work the old-fashioned way.”
When Frame realized that he couldn’t get his buy-in, he made the difficult decision to let the A-tech go.
“Once we made that decision, we’re not taking a 10-year step back here,” he says. “We’re moving forward like a samurai warrior. They don’t look backwards.”
At the same time, from networking with other peers, he knew that finding qualified technicians was a challenge and he wanted to be proactive, especially as his technicians were starting to get older.
Frame decided to start recruiting and started by heading down to the local trade tech school in his northern Los Angeles area to talk to the students.
“I wanted to see where they’re at in terms of their skillset and the product that the school is putting out in the market,” he says. “What we found is that it was very bad. They’re not giving them the skills they need to be able to enter the industry. They get out of these classes and think they’re going to be the next Chip Foose when they don’t even know how to prep a bumper.”
The visit was a wake-up call, he says, and quickly made him realize that it was going to be difficult to smoothly introduce these new graduates into the shop directly from school.
He was determined to grow new talent that he would be able to grow into leaders and staffers that would fit the culture of his shop. He wanted to be able to mold them, he says, without already having negative habits instilled. He needed to find a way to not only help them gain new skills, but also to instill the right attitude and leadership skills.
What Frame decided to implement is a hiring process that is part mentorship and part internship. He dubs it the shop’s “ladder to leadership program,” and developed a set of positions that a technician must go through as he advances throughout the company. He created a ladder graphic that shows the different positions, tasks and steps a technician must complete to show he is ready to move on:
- C- TECH: Every technician begins as a C-minus tech, performing teardown work. Frame says he must demonstrate the ability to follow the shop standards, exhibit drive and commitment.
“The idea is to get them to understand the teardown process, how to take the car apart, how to diagnose 100 percent teardown,” he says. “Everyone knows it needs a bumper and a fender, but it’s the clips and retainers and the small stuff that hold a job back from being delivered at the end of the day.”
- C+ TECHNICIAN: Then the technician moves on to reassembly. In addition to those responsibilities, he must be able to train and teach the newest C-technician in teardown procedures.
- B TECHNICIAN: The B technician is a body-tech helper, who performs medium repairs, cleaning welds, door skin jobs, corrosion protection.
- B+ TECHNICIAN: The last step on the ladder is a B+ technician, who is able to read and understand repair orders, has most of his or her own tools, is able to do quarter panels and pillars to OEM guidelines, and can train everyone on the lower rungs of the ladder.
- A TECHNICIAN: The technician is able to perform all the tasks in the shop and cross-train every new technician underneath him.
The technician is paid on a performance-based pay plan and as he works up the ladder, he also receives accompanying raises. The C- technician is given a set of tools at the beginning, and is then matched up with a more experienced teardown technician, who spends time developing the younger technician. Frame continues to check in with the more experienced tech, and when it’s determined that he is ready to be given more responsibility, he moves up the ladder.
Frame says that the biggest key to the system is the training component. Upon moving up the ladder, the technician must be able to successfully train and develop the next technician underneath him. Frame says it has taken at least six months for technicians to move up the ladder to the next position.
“It’s obvious when they get to a point where they’re ready to improve their skillsets,” he says. “They master what they’re doing, and by mastering it, they have to be able to train others on it. There’s so much to being able to show someone else how to do it because you learn so much by teaching others. If you can really do that, then you truly understand it because the guy who you’re training understands it now too. The idea is that you can’t master it until you can train it.”
Frame started by hiring a graduate from the trade school. He says that the beauty of the program is that the
risk is relatively low if the hire doesn’t work out. In fact, he weeded through five potential hires before finding the right fit. For those that didn’t work out, he says it came down purely to attitude and willingness to learn. Since then, he’s started working with a staffing company to help find potential new hires.
“They understood that I’m not just looking for a body,” he says. “I’m looking for someone who has the mindset of wanting to make this a career and be willing to learn.”
Frame currently has five technicians in the program and he says the program has completely turned around the culture in the shop.
“The morale of the entire company has improved since that decision was made,” he says. “We’re cranking cars through here fairly rapidly with very high quality.”
Although he doesn’t pay his veteran staffers extra to help mentor the younger technicians, he says that the real benefit to the veteran staffers is the amount of work it takes off their plates.
“What we’ve found out is that by taking the job responsibilities off the A-techs, they're freed up with a lot more time,” Frame says. “As opposed to spending their time doing the tedious stuff. A surgeon wouldn’t mop the floors. He does what he’s paid to do: the surgery. It’s kind of been going on in the industry for years. It absolutely helps them out.”
The program has been so successful that it has allowed Frame to fast track his plans of opening a second location.
“I had an unforeseen issue in that I would be developing techs at a rapid rate with no place to put them,” he says. “That’s never been an issue in our industry. Lately, the last 10 years, we’ve had overqualified guys for the position. I’ve got a long-term strategy of opening another shop where I can put them and I already have that in place.”
Finding good technicians is a real challenge, Frame says, and it’s one that shop owners need to take seriously and act proactively. Although it is time consuming, he says the biggest surprise has been how much it’s transformed the existing staff, as well.
It has inspired the technicians to get more organized and create dedicated teardown and disassembly bays, which Frame says has helped efficiency.
“What we’re trying to do is establish leadership throughout the entire organization,” he says. “So if the body tech doesn’t have anything to do, his job responsibility is to go help the people who are underneath them and train them to learn how to do things faster and better. Because when we start them out and they’re very green, they are slower at doing things. And that’s OK. We understand that.”
Finding new talent and creating ways of growing new technicians is becoming increasingly important and something that every shop should undertake, says Lee Rush, manager of business consulting services at Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes. One way of doing that is by creating an apprentice program. Rush discusses the benefits and the biggest key to creating an effective program.
I think we are all aware of the challenges in the industry with regards to our current tech base. The average age is increasing, therefore retirements are approaching and have approached. Our tech base is beginning to exit the industry and newer technicians are coming in at a lesser rate. The younger generation is not coming in at the same rate that the industry demands.
The obvious benefit of developing junior apprentices is growing your own and having a new talent pool. But another benefit to having apprentices is to supplement some of our labor shortages with the apprentice. I like to focus on keeping the talented, higher-skilled techs on the higher-skilled functions and operations. An apprentice can supplement that.
The keys to this is having a written apprentice program. It doesn’t matter if it’s a two-page or 10-page strategy, but there has to be a written plan. This is a pretty significant culture change for a shop. The truth is that for years, we’ve hired these young men and young women, stuck them in a wash bay in the back of the shop, we’ve had them sweep the floor with no clear development plan. It outlines goals, what you’d like to see that apprentice accomplish and technical tasks.