Cropper: You Can Step Away

March 30, 2021
The pandemic gave me the opportunity to get some distance from my shops. You should give it a try.

We all know it’s too easy to commit yourself to your business and never look back. 

It’s not uncommon for shop owners to work 50-hour weeks or longer, and to put off vacations for what some would call unreasonable stretches of time. I remember reading in a recent Jason Boggs column about a shop owner who took decades to take his first vacation.

It’s so easy to get caught up in operations that it seems like stepping back, or taking time away, or just being less engaged is impossible. You can fire off a 10-item list of things that could slip through the cracks if you aren’t around—you trust your team, but there’s nothing wrong with sticking around to be a backstop, right?

Among the many things the past 12 months have taught us, it’s that not everything is set in stone when it comes to running a body shop. Need to meet customers face to face? Not anymore. Will you be seeing any insurance adjusters in your shop anytime soon? Not likely. 

So, after this year of doing everything at a distance, why couldn’t you operate your shop from a distance,  at least for a little while? 

Flying Away

We live a dark, nasty winter in the state of Alaska. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, in Anchorage clocks in at just under five and a half hours of sunlight. 

I know a lot of folks were dreading this past winter that’s now receding in the rearview mirror—many lived 2020 in winter-like isolation, locked down because of the pandemic.

It was with the start of a new locked-down school year looming that my wife proposed ducking out of Alaska and heading somewhere a lot different, for a different kind of winter. She and the kids were going to Mexico.

All their normal winter responsibilities could be taken care of with a wireless connection, so they were headed south. The only remaining question was if I was going to go with them.

As a business owner, 2020 was tough. I’ve gone through some national crises before, but in terms of holding on, day in and day out, it was mentally the toughest year of my life, just because there was so much unknown.

So what of skipping out on winter and heading to Mexico? Could I still oversee my business and do what I’d need to do? Would my shops still thrive? 

Changed Expectations

It turned out the answer to the two questions above was a resounding “Yes.”

From mid-October through November, I was probably at my shops all of five days. 

That didn’t mean I wasn’t engaged, and it definitely doesn’t mean that I wasn’t ready to hop a flight back north at the drop of a hat. I just never needed to—everything was smooth while I was gone. I think it’s possible a lot of my staff never knew I wasn’t there.

While there was plenty of time with my family, during the day, everybody had something to do, so I had time to work. 

I’d pack in numerous conference or zoom calls by 3 p.m. each day, remembering how just a few years ago everybody was all about meeting face to face. Now, people are used to the last year not having any face-to-face interactions.

Because of the environment we’re in, I never felt like I was letting anybody down.

Mental Clarity

Here’s to hoping we never have another year like 2020, though the experience of stepping away for winter has changed my outlook moving forward.

It really opened my eyes to the fact that you can do other things and not have to be on site. I never thought I’d be able to do it, and I don’t really know if I’ll be able to do it again.

That said, I think I will be able to travel in the future and do a mixed work/pleasure trip, just because I’ve learned how to balance it and make it work. I never skipped a beat while I was away—there was nothing I ever let slack or slide.

I’ve had a couple employees pitch me about working from home, and while my own experience has, like I said, opened my eyes, I’m not sure I can have an accounting department that doesn’t come into the office.

I do know that, after my toughest year yet, I needed a reset. I got away, and frankly, beyond letting me de-stress, it also let my team do what they’re paid to do, what they’re hired to do, without the interference that some owners can give.

 I don’t have to be there, but I do have to give my staff support when they need it. Getting to the point where you can step away is good for you, the owner, and it can be good for your employees, too.

The whole experience brought me some mental clarity. It’s a totally different world we’re in, and my time away got my wheels turning again.