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Leading Through Tragedy

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When Lauren Dennison, owner of Springdale Automotive Centers in Louisville, Ky., got a call from Jeff Skitz, the brother of her shop foreman Scott Skitz, Dennison knew something was wrong. 

Jeff never calls, unless there’s bad news. And on that Saturday, it was the worst news Dennison could imagine. Scott passed away in his sleep the night before from a heart attack. 

Dennison couldn’t believe it. Just a couple days before, Scott was in the shop, cooking for the staff, something he loved to do. He’d been with the shop for 21 years and was the backbone of the business and a family member in the eyes of many of his colleagues. 

Suddenly, Dennison not only had to grieve the loss of a close friend, but had to pick up the pieces at the shop. 

It may not be the death of an employee, but over the course of running a business, most shop owners will encounter some sort of tragedy within their community. Dennison and Chad Shelton, Springdale Automotive’s marketing and promotions manager share how they guided their shop through the loss of Scott.


Get the group together.

Dennison: When I heard the news, it was complete and utter shock. My husband and I called the entire staff individually from a Panera parking lot and as we headed home. Once we got home, we got everybody together at our house. We wanted to help each other get through this and it really helped a lot of us to gather as a group when it first happened. It’s easier to get through something like this when you keep everybody together. I think that’s the best thing we could have done.

We ended up, over the whole weekend, hosting family of Scottie’s, co-workers and friends. All kinds of people coming from the woodwork. His family was so appreciative that we did that. It just allowed us all to grieve. Looking back, it was so important to have the time with the entire staff. Scottie meant so much to us all, and it wouldn’t have been right not to grieve together. 

Then we talked as a group and ended up going back to work on Monday, but we closed the shop on Friday so the entire staff could go to the funeral visitation. 

Shelton: Everyone grieved their own way, but being together definitely helped. He just left such an impact on everybody. We told jokes and stories and recounted old memories. We didn’t force anyone to come but they all showed up. We got everyone involved. Scottie’s family came and they were so appreciative as well. 

Remember. Don’t hide. 

Dennison: Scottie was such an important part of our shop. We had to honor him. We created a banner that hangs from the shop rafters. His shop technician photo is still hung up. His brother donated all his tools and toolbox to the company for a future technician. Our supplier, Advance Auto Parts, even sent us a teddy bear and pillow with his uniform sewn onto it.

I knew after everyone got over the initial shock of it all, we had a remembrance to celebrate his life.

Shelton: We put together a slideshow. I’m in charge of all social media, marketing and advertising and Scotte was my go-to-guy on social media. So I had tons of photographs and footage to work with. I’d recommend doing that. You never know when something like this might happen. Don’t take the days for granted. Take pictures, try to remember the good times.

Dennison: It’s been a priority for us to keep Scottie’s presence with us. Just seeing his pictures and plaques, it just reminds me of why it’s important to keep going. It’s almost like I don’t want to let him down so we work harder. We want him to look down and be proud. If anyone loses an employee, I recommend this. 

Recover and plan. 

Dennison: With four shops, we were in a unique position to stay afloat. I can’t imagine if we didn’t have the multiple shops we had.  I felt like I lost a part of my security blanket with Scottie gone. I thought I could lean on that forever. 

But we were really lucky because we have another technician, Brent, who is probably the closest to Scottie out of everybody in our company. He stepped up and took charge and turned stuff out. He’s been working that way all year. He’s done everything he can to get the shop organized and pull the pieces back together. If we didn’t have Brent, I don’t know what we’d do. 

Shelton: I think what we learned from it is that we needed to have checklists and processes for everything in the shop. There wasn’t a day that went by that something would break and Scottie would fix it. 

So it was difficult after he was gone, because we had to figure out what to do. Make sure there’s multiple people with knowledge of passwords, several copies of keys and processes mapped out. Create a succession plan for leadership, too. Scottie was our leader, and although we had Brent, we were lucky. 

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