For Brent Maier, like so many body shop operators, the last few years have been focused on staying up-to-date on proper repair procedures, and properly documenting his work.
At times, it can be a bit overwhelming and time-consuming. But Maier—a third-generation shop operator and the current president of Charlie’s Auto Body in Lynden, Wash.—feels more confident about tackling such challenges after he decided to get an Associate’s Degree a few years back. After all, that schooling provided Maier with key insight on how to lead a business, as noted in a 2018 FenderBender article (fenderbender.com/CustomersFirst).
These days, Maier says, it’s imperative to never stop learning as a shop leader. He became convinced of that after he got a two-year degree at Washington’s Whatcom Community College and soon helped more than double Charlie’s Auto Body’s sales.
“It’s the most vital thing you can do in this position, with the way the industry has changed the last few years,” Maier says. “If you don’t continuously learn, someone else is going to be doing more and doing better than you. You need to teach your team that, and try to instill the same mentality into them—that we all need to continue learning.
“You can’t just do things the same way you’ve always done it.”
That said, Maier knows it’s not always easy for busy shop leaders to find time for training or coursework. When he got his associates degree a few years back, the process was aided by the fact his father let him work in a part-time estimator’s role, with a work schedule that catered to his coursework. Finding time for industry education requires a few careful steps, Maier says, like those listed below.
Get guidance from industry veterans.
Maier takes pride in working for a facility that his grandfather once owned, as well as the fact the shop brings in $2.5 million in annual revenue while boasting a 98 percent CSI score. And one key factor that sent the younger Maier on his path toward his current role as a shop leader is listening to advice from longtime collision repairers.
Because of that, he suggests that all young collision repairers consider joining industry organizations like 20 Groups, for the valuable insight they can provide.
“I’ve learned a lot through performance groups like 20 Groups,” says Maier, who currently helps lead a staff of 14 at his family’s Washington shop, “because you work with other business owners, and you can bounce ideas off one another. They can open your eyes to issues they have that maybe you didn’t think about. It’s one more set of eyes looking out for you.
“Learning where to find (collision repair) information can be hard. But, being in those groups, they throw things at you to learn and read about. You just take things one class at a time, and then you come out of it better, and know a little more than somebody else does about certain topics.”
In order to take Maier’s industry knowledge to the next level—thus allowing him to improve in areas like sales, organization, and vendor relations—he initially needed to take a step back and take on a part-time role. As a result, some of his work at Charlie’s Auto Body had to be spread out among other staff members, as Maier began his time as a community college student.
Any inconvenience to the staff paid off in the long run, as Maier eventually used his schooling to become a more confident leader.
In order to take additional training or course work, shop leaders may “have to invest in more office support,” Maier notes, “like a part-time estimator or production manager, or a CSR that can help keep some of the burden off of you if you need to take a class during the day. (But), at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with additional admin staff; it’s helping you delegate work.
“If you’re a shop owner, it might sound scary, but you’re going to have to invest in some more (staff). You can definitely do it, but you might have to double invest in not only schooling, but also invest a bit of additional” help.
Plan to set time aside.
During Maier’s two-year stint at Whatcom Community College, he carefully carved out sections of his day and dedicated them to coursework or homework. It was a somewhat tumultuous and stressful time, but that Associate’s Degree proved well worth it in the end.
It was a balancing act, he recalls, but the biggest key was simply attempting to be flexible and tackle scheduling challenges as they arose.
“Obviously, it’s a big investment (in time) for anyone, especially if you’re working full-time,” Maier says of industry education. “But, if you can come away with a few big-picture ideas, it’s going to really give you some inspiration to grow your business.”