Matt Thornton had been churning on overdrive for years. As a body shop owner, he felt immense responsibility for his business, and, as a result, he simply couldn’t pull himself away from unfinished tasks at the end of each day.
His high blood pressure hinted at Thornton’s unease. Finally, five years ago, a doctor’s orders helped him see the light.
“He advised me that I need to find different ways to deal with stress, or I’m possibly going to have a heart attack or stroke,” recalls Thornton, the owner of Park Royal Body Works in Boise, Idaho.
That episode helped Thornton realize just how important it is for a business leader to strive to lead a full, well-rounded life, or else they can become consumed by stress.
In short, he learned to “take the vacation you’ve thought about doing but keep putting off because you’re too damn busy with your shop.”
Tyler Makeig, too, has had to re-evaluate his priorities recently; the shop operations manager at Showtime Collision in Running Springs, Calif., Makeig has 1-year-old twins he needs to help care for. Now, he wakes up at 4 a.m. in an effort to get home around 5:30 p.m. and help care for his young son and daughter.
Below, leaders like Thornton and Makeig detail the lessons they’ve learned when it comes to achieving a solid work/life balance.
Become an early bird.
Makeig rises before dawn each day, but it’s not because he constantly obsesses about work. Rather, he wakes up early to go to the gym for 45 minutes before opening the shop.
In 2020, a life coach would call that “self care.” Makeig, however, says the early wakeup calls simply help him clear his head before the day’s work begins.
“It might seem crazy, getting up at 4 a.m. and working out before you go to work,” the operations manager admits. “But incorporating that into my (schedule) helps me set the day up. It just sets a good tone for me.”
Two keys to helping Thornton achieve better work/life balance came when he sought consultation from BASF and also a team-building coach. That guidance left Park Royal Body Works, a $3 million-per-year business, with a streamlined production process and improved shop floor communication.
The team-building coach particularly made an impact via quarterly visits to the Idaho shop. That helped Thornton and his staff create lean-style processes that aided efficiency. Before long, the shop owner went from working 12 hours a day to roughly 7.
“That helped eliminate (some) stress,” Thornton notes.
Stick to a structured schedule.
If you want to be viewed as a reliable loved one to those at home, you have to leave work behind at a consistent time. Makeig, now a father to two infants, makes an effort to end most work days by 5:30 p.m. That allows him to set aside ample time to address chores like changing diapers.
“It’s just a constant thing you have to manage,” says Makeig, who oversees a $2.9 million-per-year shop, of scheduling.
Further advice along those lines: leadership expert and author Peter Barron Stark (see sidebar) suggests shop operators block off time in their schedule well before family events—say, 60–90 minutes—so they’re not left scrambling to finish a work-related task while running behind for an event like a child’s Little League baseball game.
If you want the opportunity to step away from your shop more regularly, you need to be confident that your staff can tackle anything thrown its way. And that becomes much more likely when each staff member is trained in a role beyond their typical forte. At his Idaho shop, which has 13 employees and a 96.2 CSI score, Thornton has found he can cross-train most employees in 90 days or less simply by having them help and observe co-workers when they’re not busy.
He might have an estimator jump in and help a detailer, for example, if there’s a sudden surge of cars that need to be delivered.
“The smaller the business is, the more important cross-training becomes,” Thornton says, “because shop owners can’t be everywhere at every time.”
Don’t hesitate to delegate.
It’s tough to be an attentive parent or spouse if you never lean on your employees at work. In that spirit, Makeig makes sure to use help from his parents, when it’s offered, to care for his young children. And, if he ever has to ask one of his shop’s 16 employees for a favor, Makeig makes an effort to return the good deed.
“You need to have the right people in place, so that the ship stays afloat,” adds the operations manager, whose workplace boasts a 98 percent CSI score.
Thornton eased his workload by first making a list of his daily tasks, then eventually passing along a few small responsibilities to his employees.
“Within a few months, you’ll find that your list becomes 8-10 things you need to do, versus 20,” he says.
Many shop operators fear taking prolonged time away from their shop, concerned that chaos will ensue. That, Makeig notes, is illogical thinking.
After all, in order to take care of business at your shop, you need to be energized. And nothing helps a shop operator refuel, get centered, and refocus quite like a vacation.
“You just have to take your vacations at times when you know it’s going to be a bit slower,” Makeig says.
Meanwhile, Stark suggests buying airline tickets well in advance of vacations, to provide yourself with the motivation to make the trip a reality.
Learn to let it go.
Early in his career, Thornton simply couldn’t walk away from a task until every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ was crossed—even if that meant staying late at his shop. Whether it was returning parts, receiving parts, or closing a file out, it made the shop owner anxious to leave a task incomplete.
But now, the 30-year veteran of the collision repair industry has learned to let it go. He simply takes notes throughout the day to ensure that he makes sure to return to uncompleted tasks throughout his work week.
“It’s not easy, especially when you’re a bit of a control freak—and most shop owners are type-A personalities that are total control freaks,” Thornton says with a laugh. “And I’m one of them—but I’m rehabilitating myself.”