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Maintaining a Family Feel

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When Rick Wood walks into his business and sees someone he doesn’t know, he sticks out his hand, introduces himself and strikes up a conversation.

For many, an act like that is just common courtesy. It is—but keep in mind that Wood is co-owner of the 38 California locations of Cooks Collision, which, at over 800 employees, is one of the largest, if not the largest, family-owned collision repair business in the U.S.

Taking that brief moment to make a personal connection with his employees is one of the ways that Wood has kept the culture that his family has emphasized since day one, no matter how large the business has grown.

Cooks Collision has been a family operation since Wood’s father, Bob, purchased the business from Ray Cook in 1979 and realized a lifelong dream of owning his own body shop. Bob decided to keep the Cook name since it had such a good reputation in the Redwood City area. Wood and his brother, Don, began working for their father when they were in middle school. Cooks began adding additional locations in the 1980s. During this time, the brothers started taking over operations for their father, who was transitioning into retirement. In the 90s, Cooks expanded its footprint even further in California and since then, the brothers and other members of the Wood family have continued to take advantage of ways to grow Cooks Collision.

With each new location, more responsibilities are added  and Wood’s “family,” which includes the 800+ employees that work for the business, grows. Creating and maintaining a family culture isn’t always easy, especially when that culture includes hundreds of people, some of whom have never even met Wood or any member of the Wood family. However, with carefully thought-out processes and a commitment to staying true to its family values, the Woods have managed to maintain a family feel.

Creating Deep and Meaningful Relationships

“If you’re spending time with people and listening to what they have to say, they’ll appreciate it,” Wood says.

According to him, the only way to maintain a family-owned culture across many locations is by instilling your family values into others and the only way to do that is to treat employees the same as you would treat your family—which he admits means sometimes being brutally honest if someone is not living up to his or her expectations. It’s also important that there’s open communication and that the employees that are not blood related are still being given necessary information about what’s going on in the business. That’s why Wood is willing to give out his personal contact information to anyone that asks.

“If anyone asks for my cell number, I’ll tell them,” Wood says. “If I don’t personally give it to someone, someone else within the company will likely share it with them and let them know that I’ll happily take their calls. Many people are reluctant to do it at first, but once they have, they keep on doing it.”  

When working for a large company, Wood explains that there’s often a disconnect between employees, especially in different tiers of management. Wood does whatever he can to connect with his staff and check in to see what they’re going through, not just at work, but in their personal lives, as well.

“You never know who just had a baby or who might be struggling at home,” Wood says.

The MSO has even gone so far as to create a fund for employees who may need help, whether it’s due to a medical issue, financial situation, or some other circumstance. During a monthly meeting, each member of the leadership team presents a case and then the MSO decides on a person to give the funds to.

Develop All-Star Regional Managers

With close to 40 locations, Wood says that it could be a few months or up to a year before he visits a certain location. That’s why it’s so important that he maintains relationships with his regional area managers and location managers and that they’re aware of what’s important to the business in order to maintain the family culture.  

Cooks Collision has a leadership team of 17 people. Those 17 people are all involved in a phone call once per week and an in-person meeting once per month. During those meetings, the team discusses any major issues. Wood also makes it clear that any member of the leadership team should contact him if there’s anything they need to discuss one on one. During this time, Wood can emphasize the company’s values or let the team know if there’s an area that needs improvement.

Another major responsibility Wood has had to delegate is hiring. The majority of the hiring, unless it’s for a senior leadership position, is handled primarily by the company’s HR department and the interviews are conducted by either a location or an area manager. Since Wood has a close relationship with all of the managers, he’s confident that each knows what he would look for in an employee. Plus, he adds that the managers know the hiring needs of individual shops better than he does, so it works out better this way.

Level the Playing Field

In a family-owned and operated MSO, it would be easy to assume that family members get special treatment. Wood wants to emphasize that that’s not the case at Cooks.

“Members of the family have to earn their way— just like everyone else,” Wood says.

Woods goes on to say that one of the things that the family stresses most is that they shouldn’t feel more important than anyone else at the MSO because of blood ties.

Wood believes that by communicating this and the fact that the MSO grows people from within is part of the reason that Cooks Collision is so successful at maintaining its culture.

“People understand that they have an opportunity to grow with our company,” Wood says. “They stay loyal because they know that one day they’ll have an opportunity to further their career.”

Wood says that with the exception of its director of HR and its CFO, all of the leadership position are filled with people who have worked their way through the ranks at Cooks.

Build Careers, Not Just a Job

Just because it’s a family-run business doesn’t mean that every member of Wood’s family works there.

“It’s not a fit for everyone,” Wood says.

One way that the family makes sure working there is a right fit is by living by this motto:

“If you want a job, go somewhere else. Working here is a career.”

For a family member that wants to work at Cooks, Wood says that he or she needs to understand that it’s not punching in and out—it’s a way of life. The values of every member of its staff, including relatives, need to be similar and need to be demonstrated while doing business.

Wood says that his brother is always saying, “If you take care of the business, the business will take care of the family.” He explains that what his brother means by that is not that the business is more important, but that if you do the right thing for the business, it will work out in the end for the family and its needs.

The Rest of the family weighs in... 

Rick Wood’s brother and equal partner, Don Wood; Rick’s son Matthew Wood, area manager; and daughter Amanda Van Puffelen, area manager; share their thoughts on the family business and what has allowed them to be so successful in maintaining that culture.

How does Cooks do a good job of maintaining the family culture across so many locations?

Don: Frequent visits to locations, consistently engaging employees about their own families. Keeping tradition.  

Matthew: We do a good job maintaining the family culture because the family is engaged in the shops and connected. It’s not just about the profits and numbers, it’s about our people and the relationships. It is not uncommon for us to have tenured employees who have built long careers in Cooks Collision. We have been a large part of our employee’s milestones in life, and have provided them the means necessary to buy homes, start families, and better themselves. We take good care of our people and they take care of our customers, which provides us the opportunity to thrive and be successful.

Amanda: It starts will all of us. We believe that our leadership team embodies the values that we as a family believe in. From there it’s about hiring people who are a good fit within that culture and holding everyone to those standards.

How do you make employees feel like a part of the family?

Don: By sharing and interacting about important events in my own family and asking employees to share about their family. Listening. Encouraging them to be there for their families by never missing important events. They can take off early to see their kids’ games, plays, recitals and school functions.

Matthew: We make them feel like family by genuinely knowing them and always checking in. We build relationships where we know their wives, husbands, and children by name. We know what they like to do and we connect on a personal level.

Amanda: As a family member, it is important to talk to our employees and find out about their lives. I genuinely care about my employees and their families—so I ask about them, I talk with them about their professional and personal goals to see how I can help them achieve what they want in life. I also probably give them way more information than they want to hear about my kids’ activities.

What do you look for when you’re making a hire?

Don: Honesty, character, attitude, adaptability.

Matthew: We look for people with positive attitudes, and a strong work ethic. I would rather hire a person that has those character qualities and knows nothing about cars. We can teach everything you need to know about cars. We cannot teach a person to have a smile on his or her face, or show up to work on time or go the extra mile without being asked. I would say we are a service organization. We are about helping others, not ourselves. If we help enough people get what they want, they will help us get what we want.

Amanda: In an interview I am always looking for someone who is honest, will have integrity and is interested in joining a company that they can grow with personally and professionally. Some of our best hires are no longer in the positions they were hired for because they desired much more for themselves and we were able to help them get to where they wanted to be.

How do you remind employees of the culture of Cooks?

Don: By being present. Being there for people in good times and in bad. Living by example in the decisions we make in tough times. We always do the right thing and always take the high road.

Matthew: We remind them by our actions. It’s the golden rule. Treat others how you want to be treated. Since so much of our culture is serving others, as Cook family members, we lead by example and give respect and humility. Always do the right thing.

Amanda: I’m in the shops daily, so reminding employees of our culture is seen through my words and actions. The decisions I make are always with one thing in mind, “What is the right thing to do?” My employees know that when I am looking at a vehicle or talking to one of them or even a customer, I am always going to make the decision based on what is right. Sometimes what is right is not always easy, but making those choices with my employees involved or as a witness allows me to provide an example for them to see.

As the company grows, what are the things you keep doing to continue to make it feel family-owned?

Don: We have family picnics and making it all about family. We let them invite as many family members as they want—we had one employee invite 14 family members. We have a BBQ, food trucks, ice cream, snow cones, face painters, hula hoops contests, a car show and the Great Wagon giveaway. The Great Wagon giveaway is where each shop is given a wagon and a budget to customize it. The wagons are then given to employee’s kids. We had close to 1800 people at this year’s picnic. It’s a large expense but it’s worth every penny. We have manager retreats that include spouses and give away family trips that are specifically set up for employees to get away with their loves ones. We also have a special fund set-up to take care of our employees in times of great need.  

Matthew: We never deviate from our roots, it’s important to still stay connected on the ground level to our employees in the shops on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon for any one of the family to in the shops daily checking in with our people.

Amanda: One example at Cooks Collision is we have a great tradition of giving everyone turkeys at Thanksgiving time. This was something started by my grandfather a long ago and something we have continued every year. I think our long time employees appreciate it most. It’s not the actual gift of a turkey, but the what it symbolizes that means the most. We care about our employees and want them to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with friends or family enjoying one another.

What are the biggest obstacles for maintaining a family culture?

Don: As we grow, it’s difficult to remember everyone’s name and to spend time with each employee.

Matthew: Remembering everyone’s names. Sometimes we have new people starting weekly, so we need to be sure to stay on top of the new friendly faces. It is part of our family culture, and it makes people feel welcome when we address them by name and know them.

Amanda: The biggest obstacles for maintaining a family culture are the rapid growth spurts our company has gone through and the geographical area we cover. It’s difficult for family members to have a presence everywhere, which is why we rely on our employees to help maintain a family like atmosphere.


What advice would you give to a fellow family-owned shop that was struggling to maintain its identity?

Don: Stay engaged. Stay humble. Keep and maintain traditions and always stay true to your values.

Matthew: Whatever your identity is and whatever principles define you and your roots, never change. Obviously, business models can change and adapt, but your core values of who you are should never change.

Amanda: The only way to maintain your own family identity in business is to be who you say you are, because people will see your actions and follow them much more than they will follow what you say. Always stay true to what your family believes and expect nothing less than that from anyone who is employed.


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