Managing the Unexpected
Just before opening a second location, Brent Wells lost his top manager. Could he expand with leadership in limbo?
GOING FOR GROWTH: Brent Wells, owner of Denver-based Autotailor, spent years planning for a second location, but he wasn’t prepared for the challenge of losing his top manager at a critical time. Photos by Crystal Allen
Brent Wells patiently planned expanding for years, waiting for the perfect situation to present itself. He wanted the right location, and he wanted the right building; he wanted everything to be just right.
And when he found that—at an old gas-station-style three-bay shop in Greeley, Colo., about 55 miles north of his original shop, Autotailor, in Denver—Wells felt like everything had fallen into place.
“It was exactly what we were looking for,” he says. “We had our eye on the property for a while, and finally pulled the trigger and purchased it.”
This was in early 2011, and while plans were set to open the second shop in July, Wells was thrown a curve ball: His service advisor of eight years, the employee he would lean on to run the Denver location while Wells opened the new shop, was moving out East for family reasons.
“It was definitely a big concern, just because there are already so many headaches with opening a new shop,” Wells says. “Now all of a sudden I have to worry about how I’m going to keep my first shop running how I want it.
“My goal was to have the Denver shop running as smooth as possible, so I could spend my time up north (at the new location). I didn’t know how I was going to do that.”
THE BACKSTORY: Born for the Job
Wells, 47, always seemed destined to own his own shop. In fact, he started his first repair business when he was 10, fixing up old bicycles and selling them to other kids in his neighborhood.
“I was always kind of an odd child,” Wells says with a laugh. “I think I knew fairly young that it was never a question of whether I would own my own shop or not but just when I’d be ready to do it.”
With his wife, Tina, as his business partner and $5,000 worth of personal savings, Wells started Autotailor at a 1,900-square-foot facility in 1993. They were able to buy the building after 18 months, and besides a slight expansion from two bays to three shortly after, the shop has remained pretty much the same.
About six years ago, Wells and his wife moved just outside Greeley. They wanted their two daughters to grow up in a small town, and the timing seemed right.
From that point on, Wells says he was keeping his eye on real estate opportunities in the area to open a second shop. Then, they found the spot in Greeley.
“The biggest difference in opening the second shop compared to the first is that the overhead was going to be much higher,” Wells says. “We weren’t content on finding an old location and growing small.
“We were already established in Denver. We had to work hard to build the reputation and build the procedures, and we had a fairly green shop. We really were trying to duplicate that. We wanted to be that type of facility the day we opened.”
Wells had a current employee in line to run each shop. One was a longtime technician, who had worked in the Denver location for 15 years and would head up the Greeley facility. The other was his service manager, who would hold down the fort in Denver.
It was when Wells and his wife were set to open the new shop in July of 2011 that they were hit with the bad news. On top of the added costs and mounting pressure, their once stable business in Denver was now in jeopardy.
THE OPTIONS: Reality Check
“We didn’t have many options,” Wells says. “We run a small shop, usually just one service advisor and two technicians. All of our long-term employees were technicians, so that makes it hard to promote from within. Our techs are very good at what they do, and we don’t want to change that.”
And with Wells’ own responsibility to the new shop, not to mention managing the overall operations of both businesses, taking over the day-to-day duties in Denver didn’t seem to be a viable long-term option.
“We knew from the get-go we had to hire someone new,” Wells says. “The main problem is finding the right person.”
THE DECISION: It’s All About Personality
Wells has a simple philosophy in his hiring: “As with any business, it’s critical that you find the right personality, a personality that fits with your business and how you want it to run.”
Wells says that was his main focus when the hiring process began. The actual tasks of the job (writing service orders, customer service, answering phones, making sales, etc.) were things he felt he could teach the new employee through training.
“It’s really important, especially at a small shop, to find the people that fit,” Wells says. “It really will make a difference in the way work flows, the way it’s sold, the way a customer perceives the work. It’s all about their personality”
Finding that right person is easier said that done, though.
“It was nerve-racking, especially before I started interviewing, it was a huge concern,” Wells says. “I knew what that position would entail and how important it would be and how hard it is to find good people.
“We wound up getting very fortunate.”
He found his new service advisor through word of mouth, rather than any of the ads he placed for the job. It took only a couple of interviews to realize that this person, Sherry Varner, was a perfect fit. Varner had more than 10 years of experience in the industry, although she had never worked in a service advisor role.
“The personality of our business is a little bit more low-key,” Wells says. “We really work on relationships of our customers. We know a lot of our customers on a first-name basis; we’ve been with them for years.
“To bring somebody in that’s high-pressure, that really isn’t our style.
We needed somebody who can offer great customer service, but also someone that’s low-key and isn’t going to be pushy and just provides those professional options. That’s what we got with bringing her in.”
THE AFTERMATH: Shifting Priorities
With the new service advisor in place, the Denver shop stabilized and Wells could concentrate again on growth. Even with only three bays, the Denver facility works on roughly 150 cars each month and pulls in more than $600,000 in annual revenue under Varner’s watch. Greeley isn’t at that level yet, but Wells hopes to get it there soon, especially now that his focus can shift north.
The key, Wells says, was getting the right people in the right positions to make it work. Once that was done, Autotailor could work on what it does best.
“Like the name suggests, we try to tailor everything we do to our customers and their needs for their own cars,” he says. “Each owner is different, and their needs for their cars are different.”
The same philosophy applies to working on a business.
“We all have different needs,” Wells says, “but it’s about finding what works best for you and your shop. You need to make sure your employees mesh with what you’re all about. You need to have that personality represented in everything you do.”
THE TAKEAWAY: Letting go
Most business owners tend to be control freaks, Wells admits, and it can be incredibly hard to relinquish control of a business to an employee.
“My hope is that it’ll make me a better business owner, though,” Wells says.
In preparing to have someone else run the day-to-day operations of the Denver location, Wells needed to make sure everything was in place for his employees to be successful without him around as much. Even with finding his new service advisor, Wells needed to ensure he fine-tuned all the shop’s procedures and that his employees had everything they needed to do their jobs effectively.
“They can’t be waiting around for decisions (from me), if I’m going to be up north (in Greeley),” Wells says. “I have to make sure I have everything set to run as smoothly as possible.
“I think I’m still in that learning stage, and I still have a ton to learn, but no question, I think in another six months or two years down the road, I think I’ll be a lot better business owner because I’ve done this.”
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