A Focus on Planning

Dec. 1, 2011
Wayne Houston’s commitment to running a tight shop focused as much on employee happiness as repairing cars has allowed him to grow year after year.

Do you have to work 24/7 to make a buck? Not at Alpine CARSTAR Auto Body Repair experts, you don’t.

Wayne Houston has been Alpine’s general manager for nearly 30 years. He comes in every day at about 9 a.m. He leaves at 5:30 p.m. or so, occasionally later, but rarely as late as 6 p.m. He occasionally works on Saturday, if it’s his turn to be there for the half-day estimates-only day.

His wife Tricia works part-time at a restaurant from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., so their schedules overlap and their evenings are spent together. They have a daughter and two grandchildren, and Wayne and Tricia spend as much time as they can with them. At home, Wayne talks about work, but never for too long, and only if there’s an interesting story from the day.

And he isn’t working a soft schedule while everyone else works overtime. “This place is deserted at 4:59,” he says.

    “The key is preparing at the beginning of the day instead of panicking at the end."
—Wayne Houston

During the day, the shop is all work all the time.

“During your eight-hour day, there’s not a lot of time to breathe, and it’s pretty much nonstop 8 to 5,” says production manager Mike Birks.

That’s because Houston, owner Gary Boesel, and everyone on down the line have all embraced a commitment to work smart, work hard, and go home on time at the end of the day. “Gary is adamant that we work a hard eight hours and then go home to our families,” Houston says.

Alpine CARSTAR is a 13,500-square-foot shop in Aurora, Colo. The shop employs seven body techs, with two bays each, and three painters. A mechanic on staff takes care of repairs like struts, alignments, and AC charges, and there are also two detailers and a parts manager. With two frame machines and two paint booths, the shop repairs about 160 cars a month and generates about $4.5 million in revenue each year.

Boesel’s commitment to balance has also helped fuel the growth of his busines. Four years ago, he bought an even bigger shop about 20 miles away on Jordan Road in Centennial, Colo., and the business has been growing by 25 to 30 percent every year. The shop, which is about 16,200 square feet and repairs 120 to 125 cars a month, generates about $2.8 million annually now, and he hopes that it will soon bring in what the Alpine shop does. Because the Alpine shop runs the way it does, he can afford to focus on that growth.

Plan, Then Communicate

To Boesel, the best kind of production day actually starts the day before. That’s why Houston and Birks sit down at the end of each day and review what they know about each car together, so that they have a plan to execute the next day.

“The key is preparing at the beginning of the day instead of panicking at the end,” Boesel says.

By pre-planning before they even plan, they put themselves in position to communicate with each role—the estimator, the parts manager, the paint techs, the customer service representative—to make sure that the car moves without pauses through each stage.

All of that information is captured on a centrally located board. Each vehicle in the shop has a folder, or jacket, that travels across a board in the production office as the car travels through the shop. A system of stickers shows at a glance what has happened with the car—whether parts have been ordered, for example. Each folder moves to the jobs area when it’s time to path it out, the paint area when it’s ready for paint, the reassembly area, and so on.

But almost as important as that system of communication is Houston’s insistence that the whole shop stop every day at 9 a.m. to talk about where every single car is and what’s happening with it.

“We try to get all on the same page, so that we know that a car isn’t moving because it still needs parts but they’re expected later in the morning,” Houston says.

Hiring and Firing

Running a tight ship prevents unexpected overtime that can put work and life out of balance. When it comes to personnel, making good hires is key to that tight ship. But almost more important is the ability to part company with employees who just can’t fit in with your shop system.

“I’ve had potential employees come to their interview and try to make it sound like they’re better techs than anyone,” Houston says. “I didn’t hire them.”

That’s because the team concept is so crucial to the culture of efficiency that Houston and Boesel have been cultivating for years at Alpine. They don’t want techs to monitor what the others are doing, building resentments because some other tech has more work and might be making more money than they are. They want each tech to help the others out, so that no matter who does what, each car gets through the process and out the door as efficiently as possible.

Houston has also let techs go when their skills were right on, but their willingness to do things his way wasn’t.

“We had one guy who thought he had a better system than we did, that he had everything all figured out,” he explains. “He was a great tech, but he wanted to work on his schedule, not ours, and he wanted to get all the work he could and then do it on his own timetable.”

It worked for the tech, but not for the rest of the shop, and not for Houston.

“He has identified some employees who weren’t a good fit for our system and process,” Boesel says. “If that means letting someone go for the good of the team, he does it, and that has helped us to be more successful.”

Manage in Motion

Houston doesn’t spend his days behind his desk, monitoring the shop’s progress on his computer. He spends them on the floor, in the well-known method of management by walking around.

“As soon as you step behind your desk, you don’t know what’s happening on the floor—whether your tech has run out of gas in the welder or is stuck due to a dented or missing part,” Houston says.

To keep the shop running efficiently, Houston makes it his business to monitor everything that’s happening on the floor. He visits all of his techs regularly, asking them how jobs are going, what might be going wrong, and what they need to get things done.

That walking-around mentality does more for Houston than keep the techs hopping, though. It also gives him the detailed information he needs about every aspect of every car in production so that he can anticipate problems, solve them ahead of time, and plan for future work. He distributes work to his techs intuitively; he apportions a variety of work to each tech, making sure not to give too many heavy hits to any one tech and not to give too much work to someone who’s already swamped.

“As I walk the shop, I know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and I know from experience how long it takes them to do different tasks,”
he says.

Most of the techs at Alpine have been with the shop for 10 years or more. Houston believes that fairness and a steady stream of work have helped to build trust among his techs, who know that the harder they work, the more money they make—but that nobody is earning more just because they’re lucky, or on good terms with the right manager.

“They’re all making money,” Houston says. “It’s easier to convince them to just focus on the car they’re working on when they know there’s always another car coming.”

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