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How I Work | Walt Eger

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Walt Eger wouldn’t call himself a natural at what he does, but he certainly picks things up quickly. He first started working on cars at 8 years old on his family’s farm in upstate New York.

More than 50 years later, Eger runs one of the most successful independent shops in Maryland, winning the Automotive Training Institute’s Shop of the Year Award two years running. His days are filled with community work, education and, most importantly, making sure everyone in his shop—from his employees to his customers—get the attention they need.

When I first worked in a shop, I was going seven days a week, from 5 p.m. into the early morning at this little BP gas station near Fort Meade in Maryland. I would do all the mechanical work, pump gas and clean up the shop after the owner went home. I was in the army then, and I worked a lot of hours.

I don’t have to do that anymore. Each day, I get into the office at about 8 a.m. I leave at 5:30 p.m. I work only four days a week. I take about eight vacations a year—that sounds funny to say, but I do. I do a lot of missionary work. I go overseas a lot.

It took a long time to get to this point, and I’ve been very blessed to get here. I’m 64 years old and in perfect health. Heck, I could outwork half my men if I wanted—I don’t want to, of course, though. I leave that to them.

Now, I just work on the business aspects of things. When I get to my office each day, my office manager has a report sitting on my desk for me. She puts together all of the previous day’s work orders and receipts, and I take some time to go over those. I’m really looking for one thing: efficiency. That’s what matters most.

“I want the best people possible, and we’ve been lucky that we have people lined up wanting to work here.”
—Walt Eger, owner, Walt Eger’s Service Center

And we’re an efficient shop; we’re at about 135–140 percent productivity in the shop. My guys are great. They’re the backbone of the company, and my job is to make sure they are always busy.

Really our shop is known for two things. The first is that we’re not cheap; we’re probably one of the most expensive in town. But the other thing we’re known for is honesty and integrity. People trust us. That’s why we’re always busy.

So, each morning when I’m going over the receipts, if there are any problems, I’ll give that customer a call and figure it out. We also write a lot of thank-you notes to all of our customers—just little gestures to show that we care.

Stuff like that goes a long way. We opened in 1987, but I have a number of customers who’ve been with me for more than 30 years. At this point, they’re all kind of like family.

On an average day, I spend most of my mornings doing things like that—calling customers, writing those thank-you notes, going over some numbers and answering emails.

People ask me all the time how my shop runs so effectively when I’m not here. I think it’s like anything else: If you’re on a ship, that thing’s not going anywhere if you don’t have a rudder, right? You have to give directions. All of my people know exactly what they’re supposed to do.

We have written descriptions for each job. I have a copy in my office. They have a copy in their toolbox. We don’t want any of those situations where someone goes, “Well, that’s not my job.”

We expect a lot out of them, and we reward them for it. They get good benefits, great working conditions, and I pay for all their education. We’ve spent a lot of money on equipment and training over the years. If my guys feel they need something to do their jobs more efficiently, we get it done.

I want the best people possible, and we’ve been lucky that we have people lined up wanting to work here. It definitely wasn’t always like that, but now I have a stack of resumes from people who want a job.

My afternoons are spent mostly managing my staff and interacting with customers. I’ll walk through the shop and see how everything’s going. It’s not to look over their shoulders but to make sure they don’t need anything.

Like a lot of owners, I’m the fix-it guy in the shop. I try to make sure everyone in my shop has all the tools and knowledge they need. We spend probably $15-20,000 every year on training. It pays off. I really trust my guys to do the work they need to.

After walking through the shop, I’ll spend a good amount of time up in the front office area, helping out with customers.

I have a really great service writer, and part of our trust with customers is that I’ll give my service writer $1,000 for each customer to fix a problem. It doesn’t matter what it is, if that’s what it takes to get the customer back in here again, he has the go-ahead to do it.

The way I see it is that, in that lifetime of that relationship with that customer, they are going to spend a lot of money with me.

Our average service order is between $600 and $700. We sell a lot of maintenance, and we need those people coming back.

As the company keeps growing and getting bigger and bigger, I’ve found that this is your child, it’s your baby, it’s something you built. To give up authority or give up control of it is one of the hardest things most owners have to do.

But to grow, and truly grow, and be self-sufficient, that’s what you have to do. If I were to get sick tomorrow, this company would be fine. It wouldn’t go down the tubes. It would still run, it would still make money. It was designed that way.

Yes, I have final authority, and, yes, if I don’t like something it will get crunched, but I let my guys make mistakes, and they’re going to make them. That’s how they learn, and that’s how they grow.

We’re at the point now, where we haven’t quite maxed out our facility yet. The goal is to get to that point. I was talking about expansion with my wife the other day, and she told me if we expand again, she’ll divorce me. I love my wife, and I can’t afford a divorce, so we’re staying in this building.

It’s kind of odd with this line of work, but I spend a lot of time in meetings. Those take up a lot of my afternoons. I work with two high school groups, and I go in and talk with them about the industry and other things. I also do a lot of missionary work through our church. We’ve been going to Ecuador for over 20 years now, building churches and things and just helping out the people down there.

They have us building things and fixing all sorts of stuff. It’s the best way I know how to help. I love it for the simple reason that not everybody is supposed to be a missionary or a preacher or something like that, but I’m good with my hands, and that’s how I can make a difference.

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