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Inside a Mother-to-Son Leadership Transition

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With a dream and a toolbox, Rich Mello opened T.G.I.F. Body Shop in 1980 in Fremont, Calif., leading the shop for 27 years before retiring in 2007 and leaving the owner and managerial role to his wife, Kathy. 

Prior to her husband’s departure from the business, Mello worked the front of the shop and dealt with customers. And, since she already worked in the shop and they wanted to keep the business in the family, Mello and her husband decided it was only fitting that she take on the management role. At first, it felt like a daunting task for her, but with time, research and experience, she has turned into a savvy leader.  

Following in her husband’s footsteps, Mello has been able to keep the business steady and fruitful. The shop has generated $3.2 million in annual revenue for the past five years.  

Today, Mello is working on loosening her grip and passing the baton to her son. She still remains involved with all things T.G.I.F. Body Shop and admits it will be a hard routine to break once the transition is complete. In the meantime, she is focusing on putting all the necessary components in place to keep the shop running, just as she did many years ago.

 

At this stage of the game, I don’t have a set schedule. I work about a third of my time from home and when I’m not working from my home office, I’m at the shop. But, working from home is a better fit for me because it helps me stay focused. If the business calls, though, I’m there. 

Working from home frees up my time and allows me to maintain my involvement in the industry. Currently, I am involved in industry associations like the California Autobody Association, Collision Industry Conference (CIC), Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) and the Automotive Service Association (ASA), just to name a few. I am also a founding member of the Women’s Industry Network (WIN). Sometimes I need to be on a conference call or help plan an upcoming industry event, so working from this office eliminates interruptions. 

I’ll work on writing SOPs or any business development documents and I will also set aside some time to do research. I look at the latest in best practices. I like to know how other shops owners are running their businesses.

When I’m at home and I want to see how the shop is doing, I log into my desktop computer, from which I have a telephone line that connects directly with the shop, so I can take calls from the shop at home. I’m virtually plugged in.

 

When I do start my day at the shop, I’m usually there by 10 a.m. I used to get to the shop really early in the morning, with the intention of leaving early, but it never worked out that way. The first things I do are the fundamentals: I check the voicemail, email, and check in with staff. I want to make sure that our staff isn’t missing anything. 

I’m in the shop more when we have changes with employees. I like to be there for many reasons: I want to be supportive and help with training, and I make sure everyone is there on time for the necessary training, orientation and onboarding procedures. Building that initial connection with staff is so important.

I would describe my leadership style as a mix of invitational and participative. If I’m trying to promote change or if I’m trying to promote engagement, my leadership approach would be to shift the conversation to the person or persons I am dealing with or those who are going to be engaged in it. 

People need to know that you are genuine and sincere and I’m consistent in that style throughout. After my husband retired and I was left to run the company—keep in mind that I had never been in this type of role before—the staff wasn’t sure about me running the shop. I had my own ideas of how to run things, but again, I didn’t have background knowledge of this industry. I did my research and I hired Manex, an outside company to do training and culture development. This totally changed the relationship and communication between me and the staff. With Manex’s help, we became much more open with each other. Today we have very little disruption. Our staff understands what is expected and they move along.

 

With the almost 37 years that we’ve been in business, there hasn’t been a huge amount of turnover. When there is turnover, it’s due to factors we cannot control such as housing booms in other parts of the state. It’s expensive living or even renting homes in and near this area because we are so close to universities and Silicon Valley. When there is an influx in turnover, that’s when I tend to be in the office more. 

The business is built on integrity and genuinely caring for the customer. Our main intent is to make everyone happy. And it’s important to always be honest with the customer, always have integrity. We aren’t just fixing a car, we are making someone whole again. 

I think that consistency is also really important and with so many things going on at the shop all of the time, I’m challenged to be consistent on a daily basis. There needs to be an emphasis on sustenance to maintain constant process improvement. Even though a certain percentage of it is intrinsic, it has to be driven as well. When there are new ideas, they have to be drawn out and implemented. 

If you have a good culture, and everything is copacetic, you can get going. It was a matter of taking the time to sit down and establish that culture. There has to be some sense of transparency; don’t introduce something without saying why it is important. It’s important that staff knows that tunnel vision is not at play. 

 

We are working on new initiatives that we are trying to implement. One of the most important initiatives we are working on is how to integrate scanning into the shop’s repair procedures that are already in place. Our aim is to make sure vehicles are scanned both pre and post repair because we can’t possibly know the things we need to know about the vehicle without doing that. We also want it to become a habit for our technicians.  

Aside from integrating scanning in the shop, I oversee and help keep up the educational aspect of the shop, like making sure I-CAR classes are done. Although I get help with that, I still have to make sure our techs are able to access the courses. Technicians get so busy with their work that sometimes they may need to complete their classes at home or during their own time, so I have to make sure they are able to do that. And, they have to touch base with me and let me know what’s going on because these courses need to be completed by a specific day. It’s important to have two-way communication with staff. 

 

As our succession plan begins to take hold and my son assumes more responsibilities around the shop, I’ve become less involved as a leader. He makes it a point to have daily meetings with technicians and see how things are going. He discusses any challenges they may have and he serves as their connection to the customers. 

Staff has responded well to him. He has the same leadership style as me, which has helped with the transition. He started working at the shop when he was a teenager. He went from being a janitor, to an office role, to detailer, estimator, production manager and now finally to general manager.  He’s now 33 years old, so he’s grown alongside the shop.

SHOP STATS: T.G.I.F. Body Shop  Owners: Kathy and Rich Mello  Location: Fremont, Calif.   Size: 12,000 square feet  Staff: 20  Average monthly car count: 120  Annual revenue: $3.2 million

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