Lehman's Garage is on a winning track with competence, integrity

Jan. 1, 2020
Lehman's improvement initiatives include coaching, critiques and a long-time practice of engaging secret shoppers to evaluate the repair experience.

Working at a Minnesota car dealer's body shop during high school first put Darrell Amberson in the driver's seat on his way to a fulfilling and distinguished career.

If you follow the funny-car circuit, you may recall seeing Amberson peeling out from the starting line behind the wheel of his nitro-burning Ambition during his stint as a professional drag racer. He earned a No. 3 ranking in points by the International Hot Rod Association in the 1989 season.

"I'd put on a good show and do a nice burnout," he says, noting he ran in other classes as well.

But the allure of the quarter-mile soon became a collection of trophies and pleasant memories as married life led him to decide it was time to return to the collision repair business.

At A Glance

The concept of ambition wasn't completely left behind, however, because Amberson signed on with Lehman's Garage in Minneapolis. As president of the full-service auto repair shop that has grown to include six locations, he embarked on a path of leadership within the body shop industry. Amberson, who's set to become chairman of the Automotive Service Association (ASA) in May, has excelled at pursuing excellence and encouraging others to do the same.

"As a leader, you want your people to be as competent as they can be," he says, citing the importance of ongoing education and training.

Lehman's employees consistently are presented with initiatives to better the business and themselves through an array of classes and consultations conducted by industry experts. Frequent sessions improve each aspect of the company, from sales to estimating to production to accounts receivable.

"A personal buy-in from all employees causes them to reach their goals," Amberson says.

(IMAGE/LEHAMN'S GARAGE)

Lehman's improvement initiatives include coaching, critiques and a longtime practice of engaging secret shoppers to evaluate the repair experience from the customer's view. Membership in a Dupont 20 Group also has helped.

"Our shop managers are talented and far more capable than they've been in the past," Amberson says.

(IMAGE/LEHAMN'S GARAGE)

Word-of-mouth referral is the primary method for recruiting new employees. Lehman's also places advertisements on industry websites and Craig's List when necessary. And because Amberson serves on the advisory committee of a local technical college, there's a lot of interaction with instructors who serve as reliable resources for selecting the best students for the shop's internship program.

Once hired, employees tend to stick around because of decent pay and benefits, steady oversight from management, and opportunities for advancement and personal growth.

What it offers

Operationally, Lehman's automotive services include:

  • collision and mechanical repairs for vehicle owners and fleets;
  • paintless dent removal;
  • glass replacement;
  • car rentals;
  • towing;
  • lease-return cleanups; and
  • a one-day, bumper-repair option for minor dings and scrapes.

Mechanical repairs are an important element to the business.

"They allow us to have more control of our work because we almost eliminate subletting," Amberson says. "It's a different type of business in which workloads fluctuate at a different rate than collision. Our service departments are an integral part of the collision repair process as a separate income source for retail work."

And yet mechanical service is a different marketing proposition.

"Marketing collision repair is like marketing a funeral home: No one is interested until they have a need," Amberson says. "Most customers have a need for mechanical repair at least two to four times a year."

Continuous improvement

Amberson and his employees continue to work on lean production on the body shop side of the business.

"We have a long way to go to be truly lean," he says. "It has taken awhile to get the staff to embrace the philosophy, but we've seen positive results. We have different initiatives and solutions in our different shops, and we share results. We're having fun, getting better and growing as a result."

Lehman's improvement also is achieved through the principles of 5S – sorting, straightening, systematic cleaning, standardizing and sustaining, plus safety, security and satisfaction. It's practiced along with the Kaizan philosophy, which involves seeking continuous improvement and change in a company's processes. All employees are included in discussions and decisions while being solicited to identify constraints and other issues impacting the pace on the shop floor. In December 2010, waterborne paint was implemented and five of the six shops have made the conversion.

Sending a message

Citing national challenges such as overcapacity, gaining market share, maintaining profitability and seeking smooth relationships with insurance carriers, there's no shortage of competent collision repair providers in the Twin Cities region, Amberson says.

"We have a great deal of good competition in our area," he says. "There are many shops that do a good job of training, staffing and equipping themselves. Many participate in industry events to educate themselves and improve."

Leveraging social media and other advertising avenues to promote Lehman's technical expertise and customer service, the company has won several civic honors, including the 2010 Better Business Bureau Integrity Award.

"We put a lot of effort into the entry after we were nominated," Amberson says. "There was a lot of media exposure as a result, and we believed this was a successful marketing initiative. It also sent a wonderful message to our staff and business partners."

About 85 percent of Lehman's collision work involves an insurance claim, with most of the jobs coming through the 20-plus direct repair program affiliations. A pattern of frequent interaction with insurers combined with a focus on the company's key profit indicators aids in furthering fairness during negotiations. The estimators are empowered to resolve most disagreements. Amberson becomes involved only in the more significant discussions and decisions.

The company history – it has been around since 1917 – also is a benefit. Established by Lawrence Lehman on the same lot in South Minneapolis where company headquarters are located, it initially began with blacksmith work and mechanical repairs. As a result of two checking accounts being lost to bank closures following the stock market crash of 1929, Lehman's son, Fred, had to quit school and work.

Amberson recalls Fred Lehman telling the story about how they had to stack a pile of coal on the shop's floor and set it on fire to heat a cast iron grill for welding. They went home after lighting it and returned the next day to do the welding.

It was Fred who developed an interest in collision repair and sought out the training, introducing the service in the 1930s. The late Dick Cossette purchased the company in 1969, and ownership has remained in the Cossette family since. He died in 2002.

CEO Karen Cossette had an active role in planning the design of Lehman's new headquarters building on the same site as Lawrence Lehman's first venture. Cossette worked with city officials to present a vintage look reminiscent of the old structure and capture the desired classic, upscale atmosphere of the neighborhood while meeting modern codes.

The 20,000-sq.-ft. facility, which is energy efficient and customer friendly, is equipped with innovative heating and lighting technology that's augmented by strategic placement of windows. The interior contains a sophisticated management system in the paint booth and prep station to maximize speed and reduce energy consumption.

Becoming a resource

Amberson joined Lehman's in 1989 when it was time to settle down and put the brakes on a barnstorming drag racing career. He was hired by Dick Cossette to help manage operations and facilitate the sale of the company. The purchase deal fell through, and Cossette decided to keep the business as a resource for his family. He also kept Amberson.

"Dick was happy with my work," says Amberson, who has great admiration for his deceased friend and mentor. "Dick cultivated my talents. He was a great listener and coach. He was also an excellent planner as evidenced by a smooth transition of leadership. Despite dealing with what was a terminal cancer for six years, he maintained a positive attitude and was an inspiration."

Amberson's extensive ASA affiliation evolved through Cossette.

"When Dick was ill, I decided to maintain some of his presence and involvement in industry associations and activities," he says. "He introduced me to people, and after that, it was up to me. However, he was there to talk to when needed."

That involvement has caused Amberson to challenge himself and grow.

"I've gained many incredible relationships," he says. "I've been presented with opportunities I wouldn't have imagined when I started in the industry. It has helped our company in many ways, particularly through important relationships and recognition. You can speak up about issues, even controversial ones. If you do it with diplomacy and integrity, most people will respect you more for it, even if they don't agree. One of the most important aspects of our lives is our presence. It's our legacy."

Amberson's duties with the ASA and Lehman's complement each other because industry involvement motivates him.

"When you're motivated, you work harder, faster and smarter," he says. "Finding time for industry involvement can be challenging, and Lehman's has to come first. Often, I put in more hours, and my daily duties require catch-up when I return."