Learning to Become a Shop Leader

Feb. 25, 2011
Molly Brodeur does her homework as she prepares to take over her father’s shop.

When she was four years old, Molly Brodeur told her father, Al Brodeur, that she was quite capable of walking to preschool by herself, thank you very much. Al Brodeur, the owner of Al Brodeur’s Auto Body Inc. in Marlborough, Mass., remembers the day clearly. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’” He laughs. “I’d let her walk in [the school] and then I would follow her and watch her go down the hall all by herself. Molly’s always been very independent and very confident.”

It was that kind of bravado that convinced Al Brodeur he wanted to be in business with his now-grown daughter. In October 2006, he asked Molly Brodeur to leave a successful career in radio and join him at his collision center with the understanding that she would take it over when he retired. Although she had no previous experience in the industry, Molly Brodeur has made waves as chief operating officer of the shop, pushing for updated technology and marketing techniques, and cultivating close employee relationships.

And Al Brodeur couldn’t be happier with how his daughter has learned the ropes of the industry, and brought that education into the family-owned shop.

Overcoming the Family Business Stigma

Molly Brodeur never expected to find herself at the helm of a body shop. Although her father started the company in 1970, she says he wasn’t the type of person that brought work home. “He’s owned this shop for my whole life, but he didn’t spend a whole lot of time in our family life really talking about the business,” she says.

“When I look at my employees, I don’t just see their faces—I see their wives, their kids. If they need some time to attend one of their kid’s concerts at school or if they want to leave early to go to a football game, we are accommodating of that.”
– Molly Brodeur

After college Molly Brodeur got into radio and was working at WBZ NewsRadio, a large Boston station, when her father approached her about taking over the business. She initially had misgivings. “I told him I needed to think about it,” she says. Mostly, she worried the partnership might ruin her family’s close ties. “It was the whole family business stigma,” she says. “I wondered, ‘Is this going to affect our relationship?’” But the timing seemed right. A series of life circumstances—her husband was laid off; she faced a grinding commute to work the late shift at the station; the couple had a young child—convinced her to take the plunge.

Though Molly Brodeur worried about many things, the health of the business wasn’t one of them. The shop was in good shape, though it needed updating, says Al Brodeur. The 6,500-square-foot store operated at a solid profit, employing eight technicians and servicing 50 to 60 cars a month. But Al Brodeur wanted to start loosening his ties to daily operations, and thought his daughter was the perfect person to take the reins. “I’m getting older, and I encouraged her to take the business over,” he says.

Collision Repair 101

With her strong personality and drive, Molly Brodeur had a lot of natural attributes that would serve her well in taking over her dad’s shop. But she needed to study up on the business aspect of running a shop, as well as learn about the industry. Here’s how Molly Brodeur got ready to work in the industry:

Going Back To School. Molly Brodeur cemented her commitment to the career change by enrolling in a local college to earn her business administration degree, with a concentration in management. “My father knew that getting this degree was only going to put me in a better position to take his shop to the next level,” she says, “so he was very accommodating to my schedule. I think he was pleased that I was taking it so seriously.”

Studying Up On The Laws. The learning curve was steep when it came to all the different regulations and institutions Molly Brodeur would have to deal with. “I really had a lot to learn when I came here,” she says. “Because it is such an insurance-driven industry, I had to learn all of the regulations and laws in Massachusetts, and get myself familiar with the appraisers, the insurance companies, and the processes.”

Getting To Know People. Molly Brodeur knew that one sure way to learn things fast was to meet people who had the knowledge she needed. To do this, she began attending association meetings with her father. “My father’s always been very active in the industry, so I started tagging along to those meetings with him,” she says. “And over time, my relationships with other shop owners began to mature and grow.”

Although she was often the only woman in the room at association meetings, once she proved that she cared about the business, she was warmly welcomed, she says. No one paid much attention to her gender; most of the old-timers were much more interested in her age (she’s 36). “A lot of these guys have been doing this their whole life and they’re getting tired and starting to think about the next chapter of their lives,” she says. “They don’t see many young people coming into this industry. So to see me—they were pretty happy about it, honestly. And they were really willing to get me as involved as I wanted to be.”

On The Job

Since she came on board at the shop in 2006, Molly Brodeur has been working hard to add value to the business. A few of her focus areas: green technology, including waterborne paint; a new management system; fresh marketing initiatives; and employee retention. Here’s how she’s ratcheted up the quality:

Bringing in a new management system to ease the transition to waterborne paint—and help shop management. The shop went with the ProfitNet management system from DuPont, their paint provider for waterborne technology. “Going green was a big thing for us in 2010,” Molly Brodeur says of the transition to waterborne. About the new management system she says, “It’s allowing us to do things we weren’t doing before. In the long term, it will increase touch time and reduce cycle time. Being able to measure every step of the repair process has allowed us to examine our deficiencies and strengths.” While they’ve been pleased with the shop’s cycle time, they’re now in a position to decrease that number even more through the use of the parts management module and allowing the technicians more access to repair order information. “We’re already seeing it beginning to improve, and I only see that getting better as we get used to the system,” she says.

Using her media background to bring marketing savvy to the shop. Molly Brodeur boosted local advertising when she joined the business. In honor of their 40th anniversary in business, she increased advertising by 15 percent—focusing on additional online presence, radio ads, sponsorship opportunities and increased print ads—and distributed their first-ever direct mail newsletter to 2,000 of their customers. She’s beefed up their Web presence, creating a whole new website and starting a Facebook page. She’s also experimenting with special offers on the website, like a $40 coupon to celebrate the shop’s 40th anniversary. “I thought it would drive a little bit of traffic to the site,” she says about the coupon. “A website is great, but if no one goes to it, it’s not really serving a purpose. We have had a number of people print the coupon at home and bring it in when they come in to have the work done.” She plans to start a blog on the website soon.

Going to unusual lengths to keep employees happy. The shop has an impressive track record when it comes to retention: five of the eight technicians have been with the company for more than 15 years. The shop is competitive on wages and benefits, but goes beyond that to keep employees satisfied. How? Molly Brodeur starts by being mindful of the lives her employees have outside the office. “When I look at my employees, I don’t just see their faces—I see their wives, their kids,” she says. “If they need some time to attend one of their kid’s concerts at school or if they want to leave early to go to a football game, we are accommodating of that.”

And it’s not just the parents that benefit. One of their technicians is an avid outdoorsman, and during the two-week bow-hunting season, Molly Brodeur rearranges his schedule so he can hunt in the morning before coming in for his shift. “When he comes to work, he’s happy and excited because he got to do what he wants to do,” she says. “It makes him a very productive employee for us.”

Generation Change

Molly Brodeur is now running the shop’s day-to-day operations, though her father is still actively involved. “I sort of think of it as my show now,” she says. “But I’m respectful of the fact that my dad is still very much here. He hasn’t retired yet, and with me expanding my family [Molly Brodeur had twins in February], he’s not going to be leaving anytime soon.”

Revenue has been steady over the last three or four years, hovering around $1.6 million, a number Molly Brodeur is pleased with, given the state of the economy. “We’d like to see some growth, but when you look around the country and what’s happened, we feel very lucky that we’ve been able to maintain our sales,” she says.

Al Brodeur recently turned 60, and has no plans to retire in the near future, but says he enjoys having more freedom to travel and take time off.

“At this point, he’s comfortable with me making decisions for the shop,” Molly Brodeur says. She oversees all of the operations, but checks in with her father when certain issues arise. “My father’s got the technical experience,” she says. “He was a bodyman first. Any time I’m thinking about making a change having to do with anything technical or product-related, I certainly want his input in that process. He has information that I don’t have. I’m coming at it more from a business perspective than a user perspective.”

Whatever path Molly Brodeur decides to take the family business down—the shop’s next move might be to add mechanical to its repertoire—Al Brodeur is confident in the abilities of his now-grown schoolgirl.

“I was brought up in the old school and she’s in the new school,” says Al Brodeur. “She has done an awesome job in bringing things into the 21st century.”

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