Back from the Brink

March 1, 2012
Trubilt Collision Center was struggling with employee theft and had hit a sales plateau. Then Jerry Salter brought on his son and daughter full time. Now the family-run business is growing again, thanks to more efficient processes and new initiatives.

Jerry Salter spent his childhood around cars.

His parents sold snowmobiles, boats and motorcycles in Eau Claire, Wis., and owned a gas station. As an adult, he became a car dealer service manager and director, and in 1997 bought Trubilt Collision Center in Eau Claire with his wife.

But owning a business wasn’t as easy as it sounded. All of the details—Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements, taxes, quarterly reports—posed some challenges. Most challenging were human resources issues, such as the parts manager who stole parts for years, even before Jerry arrived as owner. Then there was the office manager who falsified payroll records. By late 2008, Jerry says he was almost ready to quit the business.

Then he realized what new dynamics and assets his children could bring to the shop. They had worked there in their teens, and as they got older and graduated from college, they realized they could help out the family business and be part of it for years to come. Jerry’s daughter, Amy Wolfe, is now accounts and marketing manager; she joined full time in March 2009. His son, Luke Salter, joined full time in June 2010 as fixed operations coordinator; his job includes working on shop processes, as well as working with employees on the shop floor.

Revenue has grown from $1.5 million to nearly $2 million since the family additions and the crew has begun a lean journey, working with DuPont to improve repair processes. They participate in community boards, started hosting regular employee meetings, and even changed their brand from Trubilt Auto Body to Trubilt Collision Center to stand out from the competition.

Wolfe says she and her brother were not magic wands, but as a team they have worked hard—and the work is paying off.

“We’ve challenged our employees to change,” she says. “We’re constantly looking at ways to change things, [and] do things more efficiently.”

Family Management

When talks of their children coming on board began, Jerry’s wife was against it. She wanted to celebrate Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries without talk about the shop. But “we’ve all had the same agenda, [the] same passion for customers,” Jerry says.

Their dynamics and skills work well together, he says. He and Wolfe have the same social-butterfly personality, while Luke is more focused and detail-oriented.

In Jerry’s experience, it was tough to find the right managers. Bringing on his family has helped eliminate that problem. Jerry’s wife is a member of the board of directors, which consists of the family. They meet three to four times per year.

“It’s not always roses … but there [are] a lot of good benefits,” Jerry says.

Improvement Strategies

A number of improvements have been made to the business during the last two years, from the office to the shop.

Here are several of the strategies the family has implemented to increase efficiency, improve customer service, and boost the shop's reputation:

Launching lean. Trubilt began working with DuPont in 2009. The paint company helped with a lot of processes, including lean implementation. The shop now performs complete teardowns, mirror-matches parts, and writes a thorough repair plan. Jerry says blueprinting eliminated their biggest bottleneck: The last 24 hours of the repair. Often a tech would discover busted clips or misplaced parts during that time, which delayed vehicle delivery.

Monitoring material usage. Luke says the shop installed employee cabinets, and now no one fritters away time looking for materials. This also allows managers to monitor material usage and waste for each employee.

Moving files online. Jerry used to employ two workers in payables/receivables. Then he began using an online management system, and all files went online.  The need for the employees’ work dissolved, as the new system saved a lot of time. Now Wolfe spends 30 hours a week doing office work that two 40-hour employees used to do.

Getting involved in the community. Community involvement has always been a cornerstone of Jerry’s business. He and his wife have worked at the local food shelf and the Special Olympics, and Jerry is active with the technical college, where he finds many employees. He’s involved in Boy Scouts and is president of the auto body association in his area. He’s also involved with the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce.

When Luke and Wolfe came on as managers, they knew they wanted to be as involved as their dad. So they’re each members of the local young professionals group through the chamber. Wolfe is also a chamber ambassador and goes to business after-hours events. They’re involved in a number of other groups and initiatives, which helps raise awareness of their business and boost their reputation.

Continued Growth

The business that began in 1949 with two repair stalls today has 21 stalls, two prep booths, one paint booth, and a smaller paint booth for parts.

As a management team, the family talks every day about everything from cars in the shop to marketing initiatives. And at least two times per year, the entire company meets to talk about financial information, morale, equipment wish lists and more. This helps with employee buy-in.

The changes not only led to a better business, but also to the longest vacation of Jerry’s life: Three weeks. “I got back and I didn’t have a desk full of junk,” he says.

Salter and his family plan to continue to grow and improve the business for years to come.

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