The Succession of Leadership

Oct. 21, 2022
Army veteran Cody Key has developed a dedication to collision repair that has involved earning multiple educational degrees and establishing a path to succession.

Leadership isn’t a skill that magically develops overnight. It takes dedication, cultivation, and a forward-thinking approach. An effective leader may look different depending on the person and the circumstances involved, but one thing is for certain: collision repairers know more than a thing or two about good leadership.

For Cody Key, the presence of leadership has been a throughline throughout most of his automotive industry career. Key started working at a Maaco location in Fort Smith, Arkansas, as a shop manager in January 2019. But his leadership skills started developing long before then. 

“I spent nearly 10 years in the U.S. Army,” Key says. “My initial job was a bridge crewmember where I built land bridges and floating bridges over water.”

Key went on to become an Army recruiter for a time, and then finished out his Army term by returning to his bridge crewmember job. 

“The biggest [skill that I learned] was the discipline to make things happen and not let outside distractions deter you from what you want to do, or what you want your organization to do,” Key says. 

He brought those skillsets and the mindset that he learned during his time of service directly into the automotive industry. 

“I left the Army in 2010 and went straight into the car business,” Key says. “I worked my way up from a car salesman to a finance insurance manager to finance director to general manager with a few different dealerships.” 

Key went on to do some consulting work for dealerships, and even served as chief operating officer for a gas station group. He had an impressive resume by the time that group sold. But then came the question of what comes next. 

Decide to Do More

Key says that Bill Lytle, a 10-year franchisee with Maaco body shops, noticed Key’s resume on Indeed during this time. Did Key have direct body shop experience? No. But he had a resume that showed initiative. Key says that, for Lytle, that was all he needed. 

“I didn’t even apply. After the gas station group sold, Bill Lytle called me and asked if I was looking for work,” Key says. “At the time, I wasn’t. But I was also getting a little bored so I thought, ‘Why not?’ [Bill Lytle] said I was already hired before I accepted the position.” 

Key’s first role with Lytle was as a shop manager for the Fort Smith, Arkansas, location. Even though he didn’t have any professional body shop experience, the atmosphere wasn’t foreign to Key. 

“I grew up with my dad working in our shop. We didn’t have a commercial shop, it was just our backyard shop,” Key says. “He would buy vehicles, perform the body work, paint them, and resell them for money. I’ve been around it my whole life.” 

Pair that experience with a military and automotive background, and Key was able to impress. 

“After about three months [Bill Lytle] saw that I was being under-utilized,” Key says. “From there, I filled a regional manager role for Oklahoma and Arkansas, which was four shops.”

But Key didn’t stop there. As a regional manager, he helped Lytle’s franchise grow from four locations to seven over the last several years. 

“Going into 2020, we all know what happened that March when the whole country shut down with COVID-19. But between Bill and I as a team, we continued to grow. We saw double digit growth year over year, even with the pandemic,” Key says. “Even through the Great Resignation, we continue growing. In 2021, we increased our footprint more than 70 percent by acquiring three Tennessee shops.”

For Key, the writing on the wall quickly became clear: he was successful in this business, and Bill Lytle was starting the search for a successor. It was a conversation that began rather early in Key’s Maaco career. 

“We first started talking about it in mid to late 2020,” Key says in regards to the succession plan. “With everything happening, it just wasn’t the right time with COVID and a lot of the shutdowns.”

Seek Greater Understanding

Although the transition didn’t happen right away, the concept of becoming a Maaco franchisee proved to be quite the motivating factor for Key. 

“I started seeing the potential with Maaco, being an owner, and trying to make myself more marketable,” Key says. “Trying to approach Maaco corporate was kind of the incentive to go into higher education.”

Once the idea got into his head, Key decided that he wanted to make his higher education happen. Key says that Lytle was all for it, too. In fact, his support was another huge motivating factor. 

“Bill and I were sitting at a hotel one night and he gave me a challenge to try to get my bachelor’s degree before I turned 40,” Key says. “When Bill made it a challenge, I took it personal and went for it.” 

Fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit and a supportive mentor, Key got his bachelor’s degree at Grantham University in Kansas City, Missouri, which recently reorganized as the University of Arkansas-Grantham. Key went on to enroll in a master’s of business administration program there, and at the time of this writing is about two months away from finishing that program. 

Franchise owner simply feels like the next logical step for Key, and he is in the midst of making it happen. At the time of this writing, he is in developmental planning stages with Maaco corporate to take over the franchise from Lytle. After two years of talking about it happening, it is now finally in motion. 

Armed with his impressive academic achievements and a foundation of strong leadership, Key can’t help but reflect on the military background that started his journey. 

“It afforded me my first formal education of leadership and how to treat people and how to lead them,” Key says. 

Keep Up the Momentum

Key also notes that he has always been able to rely on the constant support of his family throughout this time of professional development as well. Key appreciates the support of his wife Tiffany Key, son Caleb Fleming, and daughters Kaylee Key, Alley Key, Samantha Key and Justice Key.

Key’s dedication to leadership is a perfect example of follow through. As he prepares to take on his new role as franchisee, the overall impact isn’t lost on him. Not only is he fulfilling a succession plan that he was able to develop with the person who hired him, but he is now equipped with degrees in higher education that will serve him for the rest of his life. 

Key isn’t slowing down any time soon, either. He has big plans for the future and taking the Maaco franchise to the next level. Through this succession, the future looks bright. 

“In the immediate future, I’d like to start looking at some additional infrastructure needs as far as personnel at more of a regional-type position so that I start working for additional unit growth, along with the same sort of sales growth,” Key says. “We have some growth opportunities in Oklahoma, huge opportunities in Tennessee, and we could potentially even branch out to other states, maybe in a couple of years.” 

About the Author

Hanna Bubser

Hanna Bubser a digital editor at Endeavor Business Media, providing written content for Ratchet and Wrench, FenderBender, and National Oil and Lube News.

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