Empowering Staff with a Personal Touch

Aug. 1, 2015
As manager of Barsotti’s Fender & Body, Amber Alley invests in employees’ growth to benefit her shop

For Amber Alley, it’s all about building from within.

From answering phones to handling paperwork, and from writing estimates to procuring parts—Alley took on a number of roles before her current post as manager for Barsotti’s Body & Fender in San Rafael, Calif. And because of her diverse background and eventual rise to leadership, she knows talent when she sees it.

“I was really lucky that my employer at my first shop recognized my interest for the business,” Alley says. “It allowed me to grow within the industry.”

Alley brought all the knowledge she accumulated at her first shop to Barsotti’s in 2008, where her relaxed and personal leadership style allows her employees to feel empowered and utilize their best traits to benefit the company.

I’ve always really just enjoyed the industry. There's a lot of really interesting, colorful people that work in the business. I went to college for business; so with the dealership and the OEs I work with now, you have a professional, corporate feel. But you still are around everyday people. It’s a nice mix. That appeals to me.

For me and my personality, I couldn’t work in a cubicle all day, staring at my computer. Something about this business is addicting. No day is ever the same. You have good days and you have bad days, but ultimately it’s a fun business. You're problem solving.

People over the years have thought, “Oh, you’re in a dirty business.” But really, it’s a craft. It’s an art. It's sales, it’s coordinating, it’s planning. It’s a lot more than just what meets the eye. So that keeps it interesting.

I’ve performed a lot of roles in this business. I started out answering phones, and eventually became an estimator. I even ran a parts department, which is the best training I’ve received so far. Even today, most of the things that come up on the accounting side revolve around inventories. Understanding how your inventories go in and come out is critical to keeping on top of where your business is.

Working in a parts department really gives you an understanding of how the car is made and what exactly it’s made up of. You can look at a picture and you can re-key an insurance estimate. But as somebody who has never and will never actually work on a car, that was the best training I could have received. Knowing the AC and the dryer and the lines and the intakes, to really be able to have a conversation and sell the job to the customers and the insurance company. That, in my opinion, is very important knowledge.

We've grown to 34 employees. We’re pretty departmentalized. We even have our high-end teams that do certain accounts. We have people cross-trained and whatnot. I actually am very involved with the day-to-day operations. I still run the production.

For a while I was closing all the files, but I'm trying to back away. It’s important that everyone gets involved. You have to find a good mix that’s going to allow you to run the company and do a good job at that too.

I am looking to get involved in the industry and am looking to support organizations that are focused on what's most important to me: the dealings with the insurance companies, the dealings with the customers, the CSI, the OE relationships, the quality repairs, employee relations, employee health and safety—the struggles we face on all that.

I’m actually pretty relaxed with my style. I have a lot of different pay plans, lots of different work schedules. When I find employees that I think are a good fit for the company, either through the quality of their work or the kind of person that they are, I try to accommodate and make my business appealing. The standard is set really high and everyone is aware of that.

I allow employees to make their own decisions. When they make a decision that isn’t best for the company, then we discuss it and I help them learn from it. I believe you hire people and you pay them to do a job. So the only way that it works is that I don’t micro-manage it, because I simply don't have enough time and that would be insane. They need a sense of ownership and control over their jobs.

Even the technicians from the lowest entry level positions are given advanced training in some form. We have several teams of technicians that work together, and each of those teams has a lead technician that I recognized good leadership skills in, so there’s a lot of mentoring that goes on.

I have four employees that have been promoted to various jobs, including preppers and body shop technicians. I also have a woman that started as office manager and is now estimating and managing one of our premier accounts. Those are the kind of people I want in my shop. So if I see someone and I think, “Wow, this kid is a great employee, he's here every day, and he cares,” then I try to promote him or her into a position.

For example, one of our current painters has been with us for a while. He started out driving and cleaning up the shop. He had no background in the body shop. He came in and did the porting. He was a nice guy and very helpful, and you could see he'd take the initiative to help the technicians. I asked him if he’d like a chance to work in the shop. One of my lead technicians with a spot open on his team assessed him and took him on.

So he went to work with a team of three others guys. At first he would clean up their area, then they started teaching him R&I, and then fixing small things and prepping panels for replacement. The lead technicians will do the structural stuff, the riveting, the welding, but the other guys are getting really good exposure to the repair process at the highest level. They’ll be key assets for either my shop or another shop some day.

The follow-up is key. I pay attention to my employees, and I show I care about their growth. With this particular young man, I changed it up and decided the paint shop may be a better fit for him, and he’s actually really happy there. In turn, the employees are very supportive of me. They do a good job and know at the end of the day, the most important thing is customer service and quality.

I keep an eye on their efficiency levels over time, but I try not to make it strictly about the numbers. Of course, you don’t want their efficiency levels to get out of control, but I usually know when something’s going on personally that may be slowing them down. I take a very personal approach. I spend a lot more time talking to employees in general about how their life is, how their day's going, because I think it’s important. They know already what the expectation is. It works well.

We're a little different. I don’t have a production manager; I don’t have an assistant manager. For all intents and purposes, everybody is treated the same, but if you have a technical problem, you go to your team lead. If you have an HR issue, or even a personal issue, you come to me. Usually when people start here, it may take them a little time, but they will eventually find their voice. Not everyone is born to be a leader, but the ones that show that quality usually end up running a team or a department and do quite well.