The Industry’s Next Generation of Leaders

Aug. 1, 2011
There’s no age requirement for running a successful body shop. Two shop operators share how they succeeded early—and plan to continue for years to come.

It’s no secret that the collision repair industry’s workforce is aging, especially at the top. Shop operators who launched their businesses decades ago are nearing retirement and passing the keys to a new generation. Some newcomers grew up sweeping floors and shaking paint cans at the family repair center; others rose through the ranks after breaking into the industry on their own.

Regardless of how it’s done, climbing into a leadership role doesn’t have to take a lifetime. To prove that, FenderBender talked with Shayne Hedahl and Robert Tarr, a shop owner and manager respectively. Both transitioned to the top before their 30th birthdays.

These young men boosted their careers from the bottom up by seeking out strong mentors, maintaining an incredible work ethic, embracing fresh ideas, and holding the utmost respect for colleagues and customers.

Teacher and Coach

Robert Tarr, 34

Robert Tarr was a student at Texas Tech University in 1997 when he landed a job chasing parts and transporting customers for a local Chevrolet dealer’s body shop.

He was pursuing a degree in history, education and physical education and viewed his auto industry involvement as temporary. But within three years, he was managing a 16,000-square-foot body shop in Lubbock, Texas.

“I graduated in December of ’99 with intentions of being a teacher and a coach,” he says.

Tarr left the dealership just before graduation and took some time off to get married. Soon afterward, he realized his mid-school-year graduation made finding a teaching position difficult. He found a job at a rental car company, but he wasn’t there long.

After just six months at the rental company, Tarr got a call from a USAA Insurance representative who had worked with Tarr during his time at the Chevy dealership. The representative wanted someone who knew the insurance company to get involved with a new body shop partner—Texas Body & Frame.

That call was quickly followed up with an interview invitation from shop owner Bruce Robinson.

Robinson, 57, hired him on the spot. “It was the smartest thing I ever did,” Robinson says. “I got him young and wet around the ears.”
Tarr says he enjoyed the auto industry enough to see a future in it and taking the job was the best decision for his family.

It took Tarr, then 21, several years to learn the ropes and gain the respect of his much older staff. Robinson, who was entrenched in the business, mentored Tarr, training him in all aspects of body shop operations. Now, the once always-present owner has no trouble taking a little time off.

And Tarr has a lot of help around the shop these days from a second manager, Paul Crunk, who is the same age. Crunk, who came on with no automotive background, was hired a few years after Tarr to handle finances, but moved into more of a managerial role as the business grew.

“Since we needed a second manager, we felt that Paul’s lack of automotive knowledge was good, so we could train someone without any preconceived and bad body shop business habits,” Tarr says. “This seems to be the case when you try to hire someone in this business that has experience.”

Tarr and Crunk’s goals for the shop include building on Robinson’s foundation to expand the facility and add more staff. The shop has 17 employees, repairs 140 to 150 cars a month and generates roughly $3 million annually in revenue. It’s a one-shop operation that will likely stay that way.

“Lots of people come through here and say, ‘You should open another facility,’” Tarr says. “In my mind, from a business sense, I’m running this shop at 99 percent capacity, sometimes 100. It’s taken me 10 to 12 years to get this staff here. To cut into my expenses doesn’t make sense.”

10 tips for your success at any age.

In the first decade of their respective careers, shop owner Shayne Hedahl, 31, and shop manager Robert Tarr, 34, rose through the ranks to become successful leaders and shop operators. The lessons they learned and strategies they implemented drew early accolades for the young men, but these tips can be put to good use at any age:

Tarr’s Tips

Invest in technology. “When I see something technological that can help the business, I jump all over it,” Tarr says. He has a generous budget for equipment improvements, and that has helped the shop stay ahead of competitors that resist change. Recent investments include updated computers, a laser measuring system from Chief Velocity Automotive, and the latest management system from Mitchell, which they use to stay in touch with customers via text messages and emails.

Build relationships. Tarr’s mother worked in public relations and he took the communication lessons to heart. He’s relentlessly cheerful and willing to chat with customers, insurers, employees and suppliers. He makes a point to meet people face-to-face whenever possible, carefully paying attention to names and other details he can mention later. He makes his cell phone number available to everyone. Insurers get special attention—he pops into their offices regularly with fruit trays and other goodies. Getting in front of them is crucial, he says. “This business is all about networking and having good relationships with insurers,” he says.

Reward your staff. If a customer is gushing about a paint job, Tarr will bring the painter to the front office to hear the compliments firsthand. If he gets a compliment on a detail job, he’ll give the detailer some extra cash for a Coke or candy bar. He once shelled out $100 cash to a painter who stepped up to fill in for an injured body tech.

Get educated. “You have to have an open mind and want to learn,” Tarr says. He says a lot gets picked up through experience, but he’s taken it upon himself to take I-CAR courses and attend workshops. (See this month's Industry Q+A with I-CAR President and CEO John Van Alstyne for I-CAR’s latest offerings) Learning the roles of everyone in the shop makes management much easier and ensures quality and financial success.

Ask, don’t tell. Even after a dozen years in the shop, Tarr is older than only one tech. So he’s careful when giving orders to an older, more experienced staff. “For me to go out and tell a guy how to fix a car … I got my head handed to me [for that] when I was 21,” he says. His solution is to ask, rather than to tell. And getting to know people personally goes a long way, too. Everyone has their own personality, Tarr says, which means they can’t all be managed in the same way.

Make customer service the top priority. Whether it’s a vehicle owner or an insurance company, Tarr makes sure his customers are happy. If a customer wants a bottle of touch-up paint, he typically throws one in for free. When someone is paying for a big job, he’ll fix little dings at no additional charge. He gives comment cards to each customer and generally finds positive feedback, which he passes to his staff.

For customer comfort, there’s a TV in the lobby, and for customer reassurance, there’s the Good Housekeeping seal on estimates—Texas Body & Frame is the only shop in Lubbock that has earned it. For insurers, Tarr will settle for small losses here and there to maintain relationships. “I don’t necessarily agree with every policy every insurance company has,” he says, “but you can’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

See Hedahl's tips below.

Missionary Man

Shayne Hedahl, 31

Shayne Hedahl was a 20-year-old college kid fresh off a mission trip to Argentina when he took a job painting walls at his uncle’s business, Special Interest Autobody, in Everett, Wash.

That was back in 2000 and though Hedahl didn’t know it then, within the next decade he would work his way to owner of the facility, cut its cycle time in half, and more than double its revenue.

“I did nothing glorious before I bought this company,” Hedahl says about his early days in the shop. “But everything I did, I did my best. My uncle didn’t just give me the company because I’m his nephew.”

Hedahl’s less-than-glorious acts started with the wall painting project and quickly advanced to stocking shelves and greeting customers at a NAPA Auto Parts attached to the shop. He worked at the store full-time while attending the University of Washington for a business degree with a focus on management and finance, which he earned in 2002.

“Pretty soon I got to know the NAPA guys and started doing sales for them,” Hedahl says. “I attribute a lot of my insight into the industry to working on the retail side. I can explain how we begin a color match and customize [from there]. It gave me a basic understanding of how the paint process works.”

In 2003, Hedahl’s uncle sold the NAPA store back to corporate so he could use the space to expand the body shop. Hedahl passed on the opportunity to take a corporate job with NAPA—it didn’t seem like a good fit—instead opting to take on the parts manager position at the repair center.

It took him months to learn the parts process. The shop had no computer management system, so all of the ordering and tracking was done over the phone, with pen and paper. Hedahl recalls sitting in the 800-square-foot parts room surrounded by stacks of paper and as much as $100,000 worth of parts.

“Looking back on it, it just amazes me,” he says. “Now we only order parts for cars that are here [and ready for repair].”

Soon after, the shop let the production manager go, and Hedahl assumed that role as well. The learning curve was slightly less steep because the production manager had been a mentor to Hedahl.

By 2006, Hedahl’s uncle was ready to sell the business and move into semi-retirement. Hedahl, 26 at the time, jumped at the opportunity, scraping together enough savings to make a down payment. He partnered with a senior employee to make the transaction; they each bought 50 percent of the company.

The risk was big, especially since Hedahl was a newlywed and a new homeowner.

“My wife and I were a little bit nervous, but my approach to it was that when we married, we started with absolutely nothing, so if we got into a deal and ended up with nothing, we [already knew what that was like],” Hedahl says.

Now 31, Hedahl oversees all operations of the 15,000-square-foot shop. His business partner has since retired, but still owns half the company. The facility has 21 employees, repairs 175 to 200 cars a month, and averages $3.8 million in annual revenue.

In its first year under new ownership, before the recession caused a slight slump, the shop managed to rake in $4.7 million. That was a whopping $2.7 million increase over its best year before the sale, Hedahl says. He attributes much of the growth to a new DRP relationship with GEICO, which led to the implementation of lean processes.

Now, Hedahl’s eyes are on expansion. He wants to open two new facilities within the next seven years, and he has a couple of markets in mind. But first he wants to make sure the existing shop is able to run itself.

“It feels really good,” Hedahl says. “Even doing a million less in sales [than at our peak,] we’re healthier than we were in the past.”

Help from Hedahl

Take your job seriously. It doesn’t matter what your position is. Do it well, and managers will notice and reward the work. As a shop operator, Hedahl keeps an eye out for management material. “There’s one guy who stands out, and he’s a detailer,” Hedahl says. “So whatever task you’re given in the shop, don’t pooh-pooh your responsibilities. Take them seriously.”

Be honest about your capabilities. Hedahl has never worked as a body tech, and that’s no secret to his employees. He maintains quality in his shop treating his staff well and trusting them to get the job done right.
“He’s respectful,” says Shawn McKenzie, 43, a body tech at the shop. “You run into bosses that jump on you to do stuff; he asks instead.” As an industry veteran, McKenzie admits he occasionally doubts some of the decisions Hedahl makes, but he hasn’t had a problem working for someone more than a decade younger, with little experience in actual repair work. “When he hired me he said, ‘I never did this, and I’m trusting you guys to get it done,’” McKenzie says.

Focus on quality. Hedahl says his shop is committed to using OEM parts, even though it can be costly. He doesn’t recommend all shops do it, but it makes his techs happier, and customers like to be told that the shop is paying extra for a factory part that an insurer won’t cover. “We make about 10 percent on parts rather than 20 to 25 percent,” Hedahl says. “It’s hard to swallow sometimes, but long-term we’re creating a better product for the customer.”

Don’t be afraid to make changes. Hedahl refers to “changes” as “improvements.” The word choice, he says, generally makes transitions easier for everyone. His most significant improvement: implementing lean processes in the shop. “It was a battle at first, but guys are seeing a lot of value in it,” he says. Hedahl first learned about lean in college, but didn’t think seriously about how to implement it in the shop until a GEICO representative came on board to guide the process. One of the most notable new strategies was the introduction of a dedicated teardown area, allowing a car to be disassembled before ordering parts and moving it to the techs. Now instead of ordering parts multiple times, as was the case for many vehicles in the past, parts are ordered correctly the first time and nearly all delays are eliminated. The shop also uses a modern management system (learn about the benefits in "Automating Efficiency"), and each tech has a computer workstation.

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