Mentorship, Family Style

May 1, 2023
What two shop owners learned growing up in the industry and how they pay it forward.

There are some lessons in business you can tell someone, or perhaps demonstrate, but not exactly “teach.” Some things can only be learned through experience, and it may take years for the mentee to understand what the mentor was really talking about. 

Vito Depalo Jr. is one of the “sons” in Depalo and Sons Auto Body on Long Island. He says that while growing up in the shop that his grandfather started more than a half-century ago, they were always hands-on in learning the business. But the biggest takeaway didn’t come from turning a wrench, it was a lesson about what the No. 1 priority is in any body shop.

“I think the biggest thing my dad taught me was the customer is the main priority of the business,” says Depalo. “Customer needs to be satisfied, satisfaction to a customer goes a long way. And 52 years in this business, I can tell you, I can walk into town right now and say my name in front of 20 people and 15 people are going to say, ‘The best body shop.’” 

For owners like Depalo, they’ve been entrusted with not only a business, but a legacy. Anyone in collision repair can likely point to people that have helped them along the way. It could be a particularly dynamic instructor or an employer that first identified their talent. But Depalo and others like him had their fathers and/or grandfathers as mentors—and being entrusted with a legacy means passing that legacy on. 

Changing the Way it’s Been Done 

Doug Martin talks glowingly about his father, who started Martin’s Body Shop in Ramsey, Indiana, in 1971. But that was a lifetime ago in collision repair, and what was good for a business then isn’t necessarily enough to sustain it today. Being a mentee means learning the ropes but also turning around and taking the next steps one day. 

“That was then, and what we've seen for our growth has been hey, that's not going to work for us, if we're looking at just being the same all the time,” says Martin. “So we realized, I realized, that what we needed to do was change things up.” 

Some things simply couldn’t be anticipated when Depalo and Martin’s fathers were running things in the 1970s. There weren’t Google reviews affecting the willingness of the customer to choose their shop, something Depalo takes very seriously now. There weren’t the same paint processes with base coats, clear coats, enamels and lacquers.  

Martin was the one tasked with polishing vehicles back in his early days, even though that wasn’t something required if all the shop did was repaint a fender. But Martin’s father felt it was something of value to give to the customer. That same principle applies today to Martin’s Body Shop, which opened a second location under Martin’s guidance in 2020. 

“It was always instilled in us, not just me, but the rest of the team of go the extra mile, take it to the next level to give that quality job,” says Martin. 

Depalo says that change wasn’t one of the strong points of his father, who took over one of two locations after his father passed away and ran that shop himself for three decades. Adapting and staying ahead of trends has been one of his top priorities since taking over the business with his two brothers. 

“This is all about changing with the times, my dad wasn't a big person to changing, we were,” says Depalo. “So we went ahead and changed. You know, we want that philosophy of change, and change with the times and learn something every day, you learn something every new every day so you have to change with the times. And people are still stuck in that stone age, they don't want to change.” 

Being in Charge 

Martin recalls other mentors growing up in addition to his father. Some of them are very easy to remember as they have worked at the shop for his entire life. The shop was already 14 years old when Martin was born and he grew up working summers alongside some of the technicians who would one day be his employees. 

“The guys in the body shop, too, were like, I wouldn't say older brothers, quite a bit older, but almost like uncles to me that now are people that I not only look up to, but you get to still work with every day because they still work with us. So that's kind of cool as well,” says Martin. 

That also means those same people that helped teach him are now still there to teach other new employees. Martin cited an old saying, “You’ve got to mentor the mentor.” Part of the training process is giving those shop leaders the tools they need bring technicians along in their careers and help them grow. 

“It's, OK, how do we get him from here to here and working collaboratively through the whole company to make that happen,” says Martin. “It's not really just a one size fits all, it's, this technician might be really good at metal repair, but he's not good at something else. … So, we will just work together as a team and help provide them the tools necessary for them to thrive.” 

Depalo is just one of the sons working in the business today, but they each took different paths to running the business. It was their father’s intent that they all learn all aspects of the business, but they all had different strengths. One took up painting, one took up body work and one took up framework. That gave Depalo the confidence that not only could he work on a car, he could actually run the business too.  

“My dad always said you need to know this because in business you have to learn both sides,” Depalo says. “You can't just stay stagnant one side.” 

As shop leaders now themselves, both Depalo and Martin feel strongly about the power of education and training for the next generation. That starts with still being learners themselves. Martin cited being a part of 20 Groups and attending events like the FenderBender Management Conference as places to share ideas and ways of doing things. That’s a continuation of the need to always be changing and innovating. 

“It's really just about having that mindset that it's not, oh well, you know, we're going to bring in this next generation and do the same thing we've always done, right,” says Martin. “It's that mindset, it's got to be, hey, we've got to put forth all the efforts necessary to take each individual to the next level.” 

One of the realities of being an owner, especially with multiple locations, is that it’s nearly impossible to spend time with each employee every day. So, both owners have processes in action so that their shops serve as a place of mentorship even if they’re not physically there. At Depalo and Sons they give performance standards and have check-ins every three months. 

And those reviews cover not only job performance but also are a time to check in with the employee personally. Providing flexibility and giving employees enough time to attend to their personal lives is becoming an in-demand perk for any job seeker. 

“You have to make sure that they understand that family is something too, it's very important that we make sure we emphasize that,” says Depalo. “It's not always about being at work. Sometimes you have to do family things that are going to make your family stronger.” 

Leaving Their Own Legacies 

The subject of family comes up in a few ways when speaking to Depalo. The shop’s motto is that if a repaired car isn’t safe enough for their family to ride in, then it isn’t safe for the customer. But whether a fourth generation of Depalo takes over the reins one day remains to be seen.  

“I hope the shop’s still standing after I retire, and I can hand it off to a family member with the same last name and make it go another generation is what I'm looking maybe to happen,” says Depalo. “Don't think it will, but if I was to go ahead and sell, what would I want? Somebody just to follow the same business tactic that we have, what we do for customers, how we satisfy customers and make that maybe not that name but still have that same business.” 

Martin too still has plenty of years left before considering the shop’s future. He’s focused for now on continuing to grow the business and also growing the quality of the business. And that’s something that can be enhanced by continuing a legacy of mentorship. 

“This is me stealing a phrase from somebody that I know well, but not just having an open door policy, but an open air policy,” says Martin. “You know, people talk about open door policies all the time. But it's the doors open and come say what you want, but it's not really heard. So, we try to really just listen to our team.  

“… Who better to give us feedback on what we need to do better than our technicians? And if we really, really want to mentor and grow people, we have to listen to our technicians, whether it be someone that's been with us for 38 years or for 38 days.” 

About the Author

Todd Kortemeier

Todd Kortemeier is former editor of FenderBender magazine.

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