Create a Plan for Growth

Sept. 29, 2010
A step-by-step growth plan leads to a better business—especially when you broadcast it to your employees.

Four years ago, Livonia Collision in Livonia, Mich., was a really small shop. About 15 cars a week were repaired, and annual revenues were $400,000. The shop’s owner, Bill Fernimos, knew there was room to grow.

So in 2006, he set the shop up for a breakthrough by creating a detailed growth plan that called for landing more jobs, becoming more efficient, and improving communication between his front office and the shop floor. “Setting these goals gave me a clear idea how to advance my business, and [pointed out] things I should be discussing with my employees,” Fernimos says.

The plan worked: Fernimos landed a contract with a large automotive dealer, increasing the shop’s business 300 percent to as many as 45 cars a week. He improved shop efficiency by implementing a full disassembly estimating method, which improved technician productivity and dropped cycle time 25 percent. Regular planning meetings improved shop communication, and that reduced the stress level in the shop and cut employee turnover by more than 50 percent.

“If you don’t know what values you uphold
or believe in, a culture will exist within your
shop—and it may not be the culture you want.”
—Sharon Gregory, instructor,
PPG’s MVP Business Solutions courses

With these improvements, Livonia Collision is set to break $1 million in revenue this year. Fernimos says he couldn’t have done it without a clearly written strategic growth plan, including strategies to get his employees on board with the changes that the plan required.

The wisdom of creating such a plan is not lost on Sharon Gregory, owner of Tega Cay, S.C.–based SBG Learning Strategies and instructor for PPG’s MVP Business Solutions courses. Without one, she says, shop operators tend to get stuck in the day-to-day operations, often overlook key changes in the industry, and lag behind competitors who mind the cutting edge. “The leadership of the business [works] really hard, [yet] never makes progress toward improvement,” Gregory says. But with a road map to the future, for you and your team, you’ll have a great driver for success.

Vision for the Future

Shop consolidation, technology, social media—it all adds up to big challenges in the industry, says John Martin, manager for PPG Industries Performance Learning, and author of MVP Business Solutions programs. Those developments have made it crucial for repairers to think about the future, and how their business will fit into it.

That’s not often an easy task, especially when you’re already swamped with work. So start small with a basic SWOT analysis: analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of your business, and a vision for the future will “slap you right in the face,” says Sean Carey, owner of SCG Management Consultants.

• Identify your values. Think about the ideals your business is built on, and identify the important aspects to uphold—like honesty, integrity, customer focus or teamwork, Gregory says.

“If you don’t know what values you uphold or believe in, a culture will exist within your shop—and it may not be the culture you want,” Gregory says. And the wrong culture can breed low productivity and distrust among employees.

• Write a vision statement. A vision statement specifically defines and describes the future of your business. It should be a mantra that employees see and hear on a regular basis, Gregory says. Write and post your vision statement so every employee can see it every day.

• Write a mission statement. A mission statement describes the things your business will do on a daily basis to achieve your vision for the future, Gregory says. It’s different from the vision statement in that it drives your day-to-day activities. (For more on creating a mission statement, see “On the Same Page.")

• Set goals. Goals outline specific achievements that will help fulfill your mission and vision, Gregory says. Tackle three goals at a time. Make them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound, so you can easily determine your progress toward achievement.

• Determine your processes. Once your goals are set, lay out processes and activities that help you to accomplish them. “Articulate your plan in writing,” Martin says. “Otherwise, you won’t have a clear picture of what you need to accomplish, and you won’t be able to effectively communicate those ideas to your employees.”

Employee Leadership

When it comes to communicating the business vision to staff, Carey says shop operators often fail. Owners set goals in their own mind, but fail to tell anyone else about them. It’s important that the employees within your organization know what you’re doing—and understand how they fit into that plan—so “everyone is marching to the same beat,” Carey says.

As a constant stream of new ideas flowed through his head, Fernimos says he would get out on the shop floor and start moving things around in an attempt to make operations more efficient. One time, Fernimos put up shelves to store parts in the shop, and created “parking spaces” for equipment so everything had its place. But the new system never worked out. The floor jacks routinely ended up in the space reserved for brooms because no one else knew the floor jacks had a parking space.

“The guys would wonder what I was doing,” Fernimos says. “I never communicated my ideas to the rest of my technicians.”

How worrisome is this kind of communication breakdown? Fernimos says productivity at Livonia Collision actually decreased by 25 percent before he learned to communicate more effectively with his staff.

Leaders have to direct their employees into the culture of the business every day, Carey says. A shop must be transformed into a place that embraces change, and moves forward with new processes to help the business grow. Here are some tips to make that happen:

• Communicate openly. Create an “open-door” policy where employees can ask questions and challenge ideas.

Gregory says shop operators all too often just tell people what do. But having a participatory management style will get you more buy-in from employees. “Employees will take ownership when they feel their voice is heard, and take ownership over their actions,” Gregory says.

• Hold regular meetings. Ask for employee feedback and listen to their recommendations, Gregory says. Ask them to come prepared with ideas for improvement. Discuss specific, concrete ideas for change so they have a good understanding of the direction you’re headed.

Fernimos holds daily meetings to discuss day-to-day activities, and weekly meetings to discuss big-picture business strategies. He spends at least 10 minutes every day writing new possibilities for the future, and discusses every one with his employees. Fernimos says his staff likes to be involved with discussions about things coming up for the business, new improvements and how those changes will create a better workplace for them.

• Set expectations, and be consistent. Give employees direction, Carey says. Make it clear to your employees how their work helps you accomplish the goals of the business. Employees want to be led, Fernimos says, and given advice on how to improve.

• Build trust. Effective leadership is impossible without trust, Martin says. “Be open, honest and approachable, and follow through with everything you say you’re going to do.”

Fernimos logs everything discussed during the shop’s meetings, and makes sure he follows through. “[Employees] know I’m not blowing smoke during these meetings, and that I follow through with everything we talk about,” Fernimos says. “It brings energy to the shop.”

• Identify the social styles of your employees. Leaders need to understand everybody communicates differently.Four main styles of behavior—driving, expressive, amiable and analytical—capture how people communicate, and understanding your employees’ styles will help you build a bridge of open communication, Gregory says.

Thought Stimulation

With so many possible improvements, it’s sometimes tough to know where to start.

Martin pares it down to three ideas. “Identify three things that would have the most positive impact on your business if they are achieved,” he says. “Those are the things that are most important to achieve first—and will have the highest impact on your business.”

Interacting with other industry professionals can help you identify those ideas. Gregory suggests shop operators attend training and industry conferences.

It’s not just about the training, Gregory says. Interacting with other people who have similar business expertise can give you ideas to implement in your shop, and hold you accountable for improvement. In fact, the greatest value sometimes comes from those peer interactions, she says.

It’s all about being a continuous learner, Martin says. Network with your peers and other collision centers, and read often. Gregory says the books you read need not be industry specific. Reading about human interaction, human resources and human behavior can help you build better relationships with employees and give you insight into hiring new employees who fit into the culture and vision you’re creating.

Plan to Grow

If you want success and growth, your best bet is to plan for it. For Fernimos, a strategic business plan has led to a calmer, low-stress workplace with greater productivity and more effective communication.

But Fernimos isn’t done. “As a business owner, you should never be satisfied with where you’re at,” Fernimos says. “There’s always room for improvement.” So what’s next for Livonia Collision? Fernimos plans to double in size, and become a $2 million business by 2013.

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