Growing from Mistakes

Aug. 1, 2014
Three shop owners explain how their biggest mistakes have led to their greatest successes

It took Thomas Edison more than 1,000 attempts to create the first light bulb.

Henry Ford went broke five separate times before Ford Motor Company hit its stride; the same goes for Walt Disney, who was once (now famously) fired by a newspaper because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel had his first book rejected 27 times before it was published. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one of his more than 800 paintings in his lifetime.
Get the idea?

Failure is an inevitable and necessary part of success, building character, knowledge and life lessons that can’t be taught any other way than through experience.

As Edison once told a reporter inquiring about his missteps, failure is all in how you look at it: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
The same philosophy can—and should—be applied to a business.

Three shop operators share their biggest mistakes, failures and missteps that helped shape their respective successful businesses.

Killing the 8?–?5 Mentality

Kevin Conner Co-owner Conner Brothers Collision Centers Richmond and Midlothian, Va.Size: 24,000 (Richmond) and 16,000 (Midlothian)Staff: 20 (each shop: 3 office personnel,  3–5 body techs; 1–2 painters, 2 detailers, 1 manager)Average Monthly Car Count: 240 (total)Annual Revenue: $4 million (total)

Change can be one of the biggest obstacles in running a family business, says Kevin Conner. Conner owns Conner Brothers Collision Centers along with his father, who started the business in 1976.

“I was in the Marines, and not even that can prepare you for working with family,” he says with a laugh.

Working alongside his brother and father, Conner helped grow the shop into a two-location business, which later opened a third facility now run by his brother. (The third shop runs under the same name but is owned and operated separately by Conner’s brother now.)

Through the years, Conner has worked to help the business keep up with emerging trends, which he credits for much of the shops’ growth. In 2014, he and his father will open a third location—fourth overall for the brand.

But, as Conner came to realize recently, constant growth and effective systems can sometimes lead to a true business killer: complacency. Conner had to find a way to kick his shops off cruise control.

The experience has always been what we sell our customers. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized that experience wasn’t worth buying.

Sometimes you’re too ingrained in a business to be able to take a step back; luckily, I was handed an opportunity to do that.

Let’s take a step back for a second. Technology is a big part of our day-to-day in the shop. We do mobile estimating with tablets and the CCC System. We’re heavily active in our online presence. We’re not a DRP-heavy shop, so it’s always been imperative that we get out and do a lot of this grassroots marketing and grow organically through referrals.

We started doing pay-per-click Internet ads in late 2013. With the service we used, we had a designated phone line that would record calls, so we could monitor how the campaign was working.

The first time I listened to the recordings, I was horrified. It was absolutely mind-blowing to think of how painful it was. We were lethargic, just no energy. We were going through the motions and didn’t sound like the company I thought we were.

I was panicked. We were losing 90 percent of these customers that were calling. Keep in mind that this was only for calls on that marketing campaign—maybe 10–15 percent of all calls over that period. It was enough, though, to recognize a real problem.

I started looking around, and we had become a true 8–5 company; people punched in and punched out, and worried about little else. If they got an hour for lunch, they were out of the shop for 59 minutes and 59 seconds.

The problem wasn’t our staff, though. We had good people. But we were so focused on our systems, on the processes we used, on the new tools and technology—all these things that worked very well for us and made life easier—that we had become complacent.

I hired an HR consultant to get her view, and it was the same. And, right away, I had her begin retraining our staff. We focused on creating systems for our customer interaction, processes that would allow our team to excel.

We set up a method of follow-up with customers: If we do an estimate for you, and we don’t get the job right away, there should be a thank-you card put in the mail the next day. Less than 48 hours later, make a phone call. Ask about the repair, get them scheduled in. And that’s not counting already having explained what we can do for them when they’re in here.

When we get the job, we keep them updated to the Nth degree. We use Auto Watch, email, text and social media to keep them up to date—or just a phone call when that’s what they prefer.

When the repair’s complete, we send out a heavy-stock thank-you from the repairer and CSR, who mention the repair and thank them for the work. We’re getting everyone involved in it, and we’re trying to demonstrate that this is what’s important to the growth of our business.

We’ve gotten out of that complacency period, and hopefully we keep everyone here. Either way, we’re moving in the right direction again.

Winning the Small Battles, Losing the War

Jack Lamborghini Co-owner Total Care Accident Repair Service Raynham, Mass.Size: 9,600 square feetStaff: 15 (5 body techs, 2 office workers, 2 owners, 1 blueprinter, 1 prepper, 1 painter, 1 detailer, 1 “floater,” 1 parts person)Average monthly car count: 75Annual revenue: $2.7 million

Over the last 38 years, Jack Lamborghini has seen just about everything a shop owner can in the collision repair industry.

He has an intimate knowledge of how national chains operate; after all, he served as the general manager for seven high-performing MAACO shops in the 1970s, along with owning an additional location.

As a long-time industry consultant, he’s been in and out of some the largest and most successful shops in the country. In the late 1990s, he helped lead the acquisition team for the now-defunct Collision Team America.

He’s run small independent facilities, and owns and operates one today, Total Care Accident Repair Service in Raynham, Mass.

Yet, through it all, Lamborghini says the biggest lesson he learned was during his four-year hiatus from the collision industry in the mid 2000s. Sometimes, he says, you need to “step out of the forest to really appreciate how beautiful the trees are.”

I woke up one day in 2002 at 49 years old, and just said I wasn’t going to do this anymore. I gave two months notice to the shop, and I quit.

I was done with collision repair. Beat up, frustrated, tired, angry—pick a description and that was me. To that point, I’d dedicated my whole career to the industry, but I wanted nothing to do with it anymore. Quitting wasn’t necessarily the mistake I made, though. It was simply the result of what I’d already done wrong.

But let’s stick with that quitting part for now.

I was running Wilburn Auto Body in Wilburn, Mass., and also facilitating 20 Groups at the time. I don’t have to tell anyone reading this that one of the largest, day-to-day issues we face today in the industry is being completely compensated for repairs by insurance carriers.

And I was the guy “fighting the good fight;” I went to work each day with my boxing gloves on, ready to take on each insurer and fight tooth and nail for every dime we were owed. We weren’t going to charge the customer, we weren’t going to ever use an aftermarket part, and I wasn’t going to give up until I won.

Or until I fizzled out.

I developed this mindset that the industry was heading in a bad direction, that industry changes were happening for the worse. I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to work to fix cars and help people get back to their lives; I didn’t want to come to work every day for a battle.

So, I quit.

I took nearly five years off. I decided to go into another industry completely and purchased an embroidery franchise.

I hated it, but it helped me come to a realization: Every industry changes, every industry has challenges, and that will always be the case. You can’t just quit and run away from those issues.

This is when I realized my mistake: I became consumed by the insurance battles, and lost sight of the big picture of what we’re doing in this industry. I lost sight of what our business should be about, and what my role as an operator was.

There are always going to be challenges in this industry. We’ve gone through different ones in the past, and we’re going through one now. That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting the good fight, but we can’t drag customers or employees through the mud to win these daily dust-ups with insurers.

Getting back into things at Total Car, I’ve realized that my job is to put my customers and my employees first. I need to do right by them in every decision I make, whether that’s battling over the pennies or pushing my own personal squabbles to the side.

This is a great industry, and I owe everything I have to it. It’s a mistake to let a handful of issues ruin that.

Scheduling Satisfaction

Johnny Mock Jr. Owner Johnny Mock’s Auto Body Shop Turtle Creek, Pa.Size: 23,000 square feetStaff: 22 (9 body techs, 4 painters, 2 detailers, 2 owners, 1 CSR, 1 office coordinator, 1 production manager, 1 office manager, 1 parts manager)Average Monthly Car Count: 125–130Annual Revenue: $3 million

Johnny Mock Jr. says he feels like he spent the majority of his career “trying to catch a tiger by the tail” in running his family’s collision business.

Since he took over running day-to-day operations following his father’s heart attack in 1976, the business has grown substantially, emerging from its original 1,600-square-foot building, going through a number of additions and expansions to arrive where it is today in its 23,000-square-foot, $3 million-a-year state.

Along the way, though, the road hasn’t always been smooth.

“I’ve made enough mistakes to pay for six or seven doctrines,” he jokes.

But the misstep that truly changed his shop the most happened just three years ago when Mock was faced with a problem that many would envy: too much work.

The lessons he learned, he says, are what have helped make his shop a more customer-focused company.

Hail storms can be big boons for a collision repair business, especially like the one we had three years ago on the Fourth of July. There were more damaged cars than you could know what to do with.

But we had a brilliant idea of what to do with them—we were going to fix as many as we could, all of them that came to us.

Now, it wasn’t a complete and total miscalculation of our capacity. At this point for our shop, we were a business all about numbers; I tracked them religiously, and, as a team, we focused on hitting them every day, week, month and year.

It was what we were all about.

We’d had storms before, we’d had rushes of work before, and we’d always found a way to handle it. I did the math, and figured if we worked our tails off, we could handle it again—for a big payday.

Normally, we work on about 125 to 130 cars per month. That July we worked on well over 200, maybe closer to 250. We blew past sales records, and our net profit actually improved 7 percent.

We got it done but it almost cost us more than we gained.

We ran out of hoods—our entire region ran out of hoods for vehicles after the second week or so. Those jobs got delayed. We aren’t a PDR shop. We had to outsource a lot of that work, and too many times, sublets were discovered while there. More jobs got delayed.

Customers were frustrated, even ones who’ve worked with us for years.

It was so damn stressful that, if I were a drinker, a bottle of gin would’ve sounded pretty darn good each day. You can make money, and we did, but you get into a situation where you have to ask, “Is this how I want to make money?”

I’ve made lots of mistakes in running a business for more than 45 years, but this one changed our whole approach.

First off, customers weren’t angry that their jobs were lengthy; they weren’t happy about that, but they were angry because we gave false expectations. We overpromised and underdelivered.

We could never do that again.

Second, that happened not because of the sublets and mistakes. Those were results, and they only arose because we didn’t schedule correctly and attempted to work way over capacity.

And, third, because we were so busy, and because we had people pulling down so many jobs in the shop, we weren’t giving customers enough attention in resolving these issues.

One of the first things we did was hire a full-time customer service representative whose only role is to deal directly with the customer at contact points—the phone, when they walk in, follow-ups. That frees up everyone else to do their jobs, and gives the customer far more attention.

We also changed our approach to workflow, in that we try to optimize it, not exceed our capacity for it. Schedule smarter, not more. It’s not only improved our customer relationships, but also our team’s dynamic. 

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