10 Steps Toward Work-Life Balance

Dec. 1, 2011
Management consultant Peter Barron Stark shares his top strategies for achieving work-life balance, and busy shops weigh in with their own efforts.

Creating a symbiotic relationship between work and the rest of a life can be a challenge, to say the least, especially in a small repair facility that is dependent on the owner’s regular involvement.

When there’s money to be made, backing away from the daily grind can feel impossible—and some operators are perfectly happy (or perfectly resigned) to that kind of lifestyle. There is no universal definition of work-life-balance; it could be described as finding a way to accomplish your goals both at work and at home while maintaining an overall sense of happiness. WorkLifeBalance.com, a company that offers training and support programs on the subject, describes work-life balance as “achievement and enjoyment every day, both on and off the job.”

No matter how you describe work-life balance, one thing is clear: If you can’t find a balance between work and life that works for you, the stress of that situation can lead to slumping business performance, conflicts at home and numerous other issues.

That’s why management consultant Peter Barron Stark has worked with Fix Auto, ABRA Auto Body & Glass and other collision repair companies on this very issue. Stark, president of Peter Barron Stark Companies, has spent two decades helping organizations build stronger work cultures.

FenderBender talked with Stark about his top tips for achieving work-life-balance in the collision repair industry, and we also spoke to a few busy shop operators who have used some of those strategies to their advantage.

Starks’ Strategies

1. Have a vision

“The No. 1 thing for shop operators is they’ve got to have a vision that they want a different life,” Stark says.

He uses a jigsaw puzzle as an analogy—you always know what you’re building because the picture is on the box. If a shop operator can’t set goals and isn’t clear about where they want to be in the future, nothing will change, Stark says. Developing the vision will help a shop plan changes to make it a reality.

2. Focus on results, not activities.

Shop operators need to view all of their daily activities in the context of the greater result, Stark says. For example, some operators might take pride in responding quickly to every email, he says, but those operators are really just responding to an activity, and not focusing on results.

Simply staying busy, whether it’s through email or other nominal tasks, can create a temporary, but false, sense of accomplishment, he says. At the end of the day, operators need to look at what they did to move their business forward and accomplish their goals.

3. Get organized the night before.

“This is a really important part of having a good next day,” Stark says.

This applies to any position in the shop, he says. Laying out a game plan for the next day, and performing tasks in order, will help ensure jobs get done on time. Prioritize what needs to be accomplished, so time isn’t wasted on less crucial tasks.

“You’ll sleep better at night,” Stark says. “If you don’t organize for the next day, you’ll start thinking of all the things that didn’t get done.”

4. Build in a margin.

If you schedule your day with no time between meetings, or you tell customers their cars will be done before you can actually finish them, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Creating a margin of time that allows for travel, or a long meeting, will help you keep things on track. So will telling customers that their vehicles will be ready later than you actually anticipate. If you say a car will be ready by 3 p.m. and it’s actually done at noon, you’re a hero in the customer’s eyes. Stark says to under-promise and over-deliver.

5. Learn to feel confident about saying no.

It’s not easy to turn away business, but sometimes a job is just too much, or it’s not the type of work the shop does. Restoration projects are a good example; they might sound appealing, but are rarely worth the time and money your staff invests.

Stark says to stick to your goals. Only take on work that is going to help you achieve your vision. This also goes for jobs you do take on—if a customer asks for the work to be done in an unreasonable amount of time, do not overpromise. It will only create problems down the line.

6. Hire the right people.

“If you don’t have the right people, you will have much added stress in your life,” Stark says.

Hiring employees you can trust to get the job done to your expectations and those of your customers will reduce your workload and relieve stress. Without the right people, you’ll feel as though you can never leave your shop.

7. Buy tickets.

Instead of dreaming of a vacation sometime in the distant future, Stark encourages shop operators to buy tickets and make a commitment to something outside of work. If tickets are purchased, odds are that you will plan whatever needs to be done at your shop to make the trip happen. You can even commit to small outings, such as a baseball game, in this way.

“Just by doing that, it will force you to have work-life balance,” Stark says.

8. Respect employee personal time.

If you email or call employees after business hours, they will feel an obligation to respond to you, or to start working on whatever task you are referring to, Stark says. Not respecting your staff’s personal time can throw off their work-life-balance, leading to unhappy employees and poorer work quality.

9. Start focusing on relationships.

With everything that goes into running a successful shop, developing strong relationships with your staff—and sometimes family, friends and others in your life—sometimes falls by the wayside. Once the shop is humming and your life is more organized, taking time to build relationships will only strengthen your success and happiness both at work and home, Stark says.

10. Celebrate your successes.

When you make progress toward your goals, acknowledge it, and recognize the people who helped get you there. Celebrating successes will help boost your morale and that of your colleagues and others in your life.

It’s one thing to give advice for improving work-life balance. Actually implementing that advice can be a bit more challenging. To show it can be done, we found three busy shop operators who have successfully used some of the tips Stark suggested, along with some of their own. Here’s a look into the real work-life-balance tactics of those operators:

Adam Gorsuch of Casey’s Collision Center 

Roberta Ferrara of Budd’s Auto Body

Bob and Kathleen Crivello of Mammoth Spring Collision LLC


Casey’s Collision Center

Owner: Adam Gorsuch Annual Revenue: $550,000
Location: Waukegan, Ill. Cars Per Month: 50
Square Footage: 1,800 Employees: 3

When Adam Gorsuch took over his father-in-law’s shop 30 years ago, he was 20 and eager to make money however he could.

“Originally, I was on the fast track for a heart attack,” he says. “I was trying to be rich by the time I was 30.”

He has since realized that his successful little business provides him with exactly what he needs in terms of happiness in both work and family life.

“That became my motivator, just to be happy,” Gorsuch says. “It lets me leave on time, and I watched my kids grow up instead of working. I made the right choice for me, by staying small and concentrating on personal life and making that my reason to go to work.”

It took him a while to reach this epiphany, though. He did by:

• Making a great hire. Gorsuch hired technician Robert Wisniewski when Wisniewski was just 16. He is now 40 and has proven to be an incredibly talented, reliable technician. The shop owner calls Wisniewski his “lifeline to a life,” because he can be trusted with anything.

• Leaving work at work. When Gorusch hits the freeway after work, he leaves all of his issues of the day at the shop. “I used to come home and I’d rant to my poor wife about a car or customer,” he says. “That would just extend my work day and make me continue to have a crappy day.”

Budd’s Auto Body

Owner: Roberta Ferrara Annual Revenue: $1.5 million
Location: Cedar Grove, N.J. Cars Per Month:  45–60
Square Footage: 5,800 Employees: 10

Roberta Ferrara took over her husband’s business after he died unexpectedly 12 years ago. “I had the chance to either take over business or turn it over,” she says.

Ferrara, now 63, had no experience in collision repair, so she went to school at night to learn the trade and ran the business during the day. She was extraordinarily busy, but she has since managed to run a successful shop while maintaining a life outside work by:

• Building trust. The staff at Budd’s Auto Body knew Ferrara, but they also knew she didn’t have a background in the business. She had to prove through her commitment to coursework and involvement in the business every day that she was serious about the shop’s success. Only then could she comfortably step back and know that her staff would get the job done.

• Setting goals. Ferrara set specific financial and operational goals for the shop when she started. She says she paid her dues working around-the-clock to reach those goals, but knew that she could have more time for herself when they were met and the shop was running smoothly without her. Now she works a regular 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday schedule.

• Finding a hobby. Golf is Ferrara’s release_notes. When she’s on the golf course, she can relax and forget about the stresses of the day. She took up golf as an outlet for the stresses of her collision repair career.

Mammoth Spring Collision Center LLC

Owner: Bob & Kathleen Crivello Annual Revenue: $500,000
Location: Thayer, Mo. Cars Per Month: 30
Square Footage: 5,000* Employees: 3

*Recently completed a 1,500 square-foot addition

Running a shop as husband and wife can sometimes strain both the business and personal relationship, but many operators, such as Kathleen and Bob Crivello, find ways to make it work.

“We don’t always keep sanity, I have to admit,” Kathleen Crivello says. “It’s stressful. We try to tell each other we love each other as often as we can.”

She says these strategies have also helped maintain the partnership:

• Learn to say no. The Crivellos have built alliances with other local shops and specialty companies, such as glass companies. If a job comes in that they just can’t take on, they refer it elsewhere. Those relationships go both directions, so Mammoth Spring Collision Center also benefits from referrals.

• Treat employees like family. The Crivellos often make dinner for their staff and make a point to spend time with them outside of the shop. Building strong relationships with staff has helped build a circle of trust among employees.

• Develop a vision. Kathleen Crivello says the company just expanded and everything is going according to the plans she and her husband laid out for the business. They hope to be able to step back and have more time for themselves when the revamped shop is done and everything is running without their direct involvement.

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