Happy, Healthy Work

Dec. 17, 2009
Boosting employee relations through team building is a surefire way to ensure shop success.

Sterling Autobody Centers opened its doors in 1997, and it wasn’t long before the company soon faced a big problem: too much employee turnover. The constant cost to replace people took a toll on productivity and production. The importance of creating a work environment that employees wanted to be in quickly became apparent. The Sterling solution? Improving employee relations through team building and instilling a sense of individual ownership. The results were two-fold. Not only did a happy, healthy work environment encourage employees to stick around, but it also motivated them to work harder. “We found that the more engagement we had with our employees, the better they would produce and the better they handled our customers,” says Mike McDonald, Sterling’s national training manager. “It was a lot better to take care of the employees we had rather than find new [ones].”

To foster a strong sense of ownership and camaraderie between management and employees, Sterling formed a General Manager (GM) Council eight years ago. Managers from across the country (Sterling has 62 locations nationwide and brings in $185 million in annual revenues) meet on a regular basis to share feedback from the field. “The GM Council lets us keep a pulse on the company,” McDonald says. “We want to make sure we attract and retain the best employees.” Now, turnover has decreased dramatically at Sterling because employees feel they have a solid stake in the company and are happy in their work environment.


Creating a positive workplace is as important for business development as it is for employee retention. Here, McDonald shares how it’s improved business in three important ways:

Boosting productivity. A good work environment naturally helps people enjoy their job more, McDonald says. “We treat [employees] how we want to be treated, and that helps productivity so much more.” In an environment in which employees are unsatisfied, they’re more likely to spend time dwelling on the negative aspects of their job, and that in turn, hurts productivity. Inspiring team members to perform to the best of their ability—praising them for a job well done or encouraging them to showcase their talents—goes a long way to ensuring shop success.

Inspiring innovation. Though Sterling mandates specific repair processes, the company also employs the concept of lean, which encourages a sense of continual improvement and innovation. “If someone comes up with a good idea that would help improve things [and] make us stronger, then we have a process that they go through to submit those ideas to their manager,” McDonald says. If the idea seems feasible and worthwhile, it’s given a test run at a single location. “We want to have people give us ideas, but we do it in a controlled environment where we can manage it,” he says. “If it works well, then typically, we’ll roll it out to three other stores and see if it works in those areas.” If it does, the new process is officially implemented companywide. McDonald says a healthy work environment encourages employees to become innovative since they know that their efforts—such as suggesting a more efficient or streamlined repair process, for example—help the entire organization become more successful.

Ensuring employee retention. A team-based environment keeps employees around longer. “If we keep them engaged and [show that] what they do matters, they’ll stay,” McDonald says. “Money doesn’t become as big of an impact.” Taking time to mentor employees also ensures job satisfaction. “One of the things we stress to our managers is that they provide feedback and job performance reviews,” McDonald says. “That’s absolutely vital. People need to know how they’re doing, [and they] appreciate the time you’re willing to take to help them.”

“To do a good job, you need to take pride in what you do. If the things you take pride in aren’t being acknowledged, you’re going to feel unappreciated.”
— Mike McDonald, national training manager, Sterling Autobody Centers


Along with improving productivity, innovation and retention, a healthy work environment strengthens other critical areas of business. McDonald explains which ones have been most affected at Sterling—and why.

• Team performance. “We communicate [frequently.] We share how we’re doing with our team daily,” he says. “On a monthly basis, we typically have a lunch for the group. We share the numbers, how we’re doing as far as our pace, how we’ve done for the past month, how much money we’ve made and the customer service numbers. We keep them informed so they feel a part [of the company]. Once we share that information, we give them the opportunity to let us know what’s impacting them or why we’re doing something.” Employees value the opportunity for feedback and work harder knowing their opinion matters.

• Company communication. “We try to maintain the connection between the front office and production area, [and] keep our front office people as involved in the repair process as we can,” McDonald says. “We want our customers to feel their customer service rep is their advocate—that they are standing in the customer’s place and that they’re intimately involved in the process. That helps a lot in keeping the front office connected with the back. It shows the technicians that the front office cares, too.”

• Individual motivation. Managers are encouraged to provide daily inspiration to employees, such as complimenting them on an excellent job or efforts to pitch in where needed. The positive reinforcement and affirmation encourages employees to work harder and continue performing to the best of their abilities. “Hopefully, that motivates them and inspires them,” McDonald says. “At the end of the day, we’ll share how they’ve done today, and the encouragement to go home and enjoy time with family and come back tomorrow refreshed so we can go at it again. We want it to be a fun environment.” And that fun workplace makes employees want to return to work each day.

• Team pride. “We encourage managers to really praise the group and [other] managers,” McDonald says. Complimenting a great paint job, for example, is a nice way to recognize an employee’s hard work in front of his peers. “In order to do a good job, you need to take pride in what you do. If the things you take pride in aren’t being acknowledged, you’re going to feel unappreciated and eventually leave,” McDonald says. “The meetings, the monthly cookouts—all those things have a very positive impact and help our people do a really good job.”


Creating a happy, healthy work environment has had a direct impact on Sterling’s bottom line. “As a company, we’re doing phenomenally. We’ll be opening 18 new locations over the next two years,” McDonald says. “Financially, we couldn’t be stronger. Our profit margin is good, and the stores are very successful.”

The great thing is that even collision repair centers that don’t have an official training manager or human resources department can still implement effective techniques to ensure employee retention and a strong work environment. “None of the things [we do] require a big corporation to do,” McDonald says. “Providing an ethical place to work, where people are praised for their efforts, where the customer experience is shared with employees—those are all things [any shop owner] can do. You don’t need a multimillion-dollar business. But if you do those things, you might become a multimillion-dollar business.”

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