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Improving Managerial Leadership

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When Howie Graf took a seat at his first 20 Group meeting, he remembers feeling a little intimidated.

Not because he wasn’t ready to learn, and not because he was new to the auto repair industry—it was because in a room full of shop owners, Graf was the only manager.

“I didn’t have a ton of shop experience,” Graf, service manager of Kumler Collision & Automotive in Lancaster, Ohio, and a 2013 Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Award winner, says. “I wanted to learn everything I didn’t know.”

While many shop owners participate in 20 Groups, leaving managers behind to oversee shop operations, owner Dean DeRolph decided that Graf could glean insight from the discussions as well.

The managerial benefits of his attendance, Graf says, have not only breathed new life into Kumler, but given Graf assurance as a leader as well.

“It was very informative and very eye opening and it instilled a lot of confidence in me,” Graf says. “It really allowed me to grow more, to learn more, to become a better manager all-around.”

Different Shops, Same Problems

20 Groups traditionally bring together a collection of non-competing owners from around the country to discuss practices, experiences, ideas and strategies that have shaped their businesses.

While DeRolph participates in 20 Groups himself, he says there have been great benefits in sending his manager, as well.

“It’s a little unusual,” DeRolph says. “Howie’s the only non-owner there. They just figure out in a hurry that he belongs there because his responsibility at the shop and the ideas he brings to the table.”

One of the great confidence-boosters for Graf, who attends a 20 Group through the Automotive Training Institute, was the realization that Kumler’s problems were reflective of shops from around the country. Graf says that, as a manager, it was extremely beneficial for him to experience this first-hand.

“That, right there, is just the key benefit to managers attending 20 Groups,” Graf says. “It’s one thing to know about a problem faced by shops—it’s another to hear a room full of owners discussing that problem and how they overcome it.”

Be an Active Participant

At the several meetings he has attended, Graf does not shy away from participating, putting himself on a level playing field with the owners. Because he knows the topics of discussion four months ahead of time, Graf has brainstorming sessions with DeRolph to produce ideas and questions for the meetings so he can be an active participant.

Graf also puts together Kumler’s financial numbers, which he compares with other owners at the 20 Group.

“Then there will be a discussion on, ‘Oh, you’re down a little bit here, what are you doing to change that?’ Or, ‘Why is yours so high and mine so low?’

“That, to me, was very intimidating, but also really built a lot of confidence in me, because there’s a certain amount of trust you have to build with people, relationships you have to build with people to be able to openly discuss that kind of stuff.”

The self-assurance built for Graf to the point where he was meeting with owners during breaks, discussing business strategies and bouncing around ideas. This led to lasting relationships that have fed Graf’s growth as a businessman for years.

“Building relationships in there is huge, and communicating with each other throughout the year when you’re not at your 20 Group about what’s going on is a huge benefit to helping you to continue to reach a higher level in your business,” he says.

Dialogue Between Manager and Owner

Graf says that while attending the 20 Group was empowering, his real growth as a manager started when he came back and applied his ideas.

The first thing Graf did when he returned was sit down with DeRolph for an hour and discuss everything he learned at the meeting.

“We will sit down and brainstorm and take notes,” DeRolph says. “In the daily grind, it’s hard to get those opportunities. Right there in moment, right after a [20 Group meeting], you’re ready to go. Nine times out of 10 we come up with a new, better system or approach through discussion.”

Graf says the open dialogue helped him hone in on the important information he gleaned from the meeting and how to apply those ideas back in the shop environment.

“Being a manager, that helped me know that he cared,” Graf says. “That, again, is more of a confidence boost. The more confidence you build in yourself and the people around you, the more successful you’re going to be.”

Apply New Ideas

One of the areas Graf was seeking to improve prior to joining the 20 Group was Kumler’s marketing strategy. With that goal in mind, Graf came back to DeRolph during that post-brainstorming session with a key marketing approach the shop has stuck with for years: a marketing calendar for holidays.

An idea that stemmed from another owner’s concept of handing out roses on Valentine’s Day, Graf says the idea served as a spark of inspiration that led to a full-blown marketing calendar that plans out holiday promotions months ahead of time.

“Maybe you send out a Valentine’s card to a certain percentage of your customers,” Graf says. “Or at Halloween, maybe you offer free pumpkins. Implementing that marketing calendar got started that forward thinking. One of the biggest things was that marketing calendar and realizing we need to prepare for what’s ahead and be prepared to market at that time of the year.”

Empower the Management

Building courage and determination in a manager by allowing him or her to attend a 20 Group is one thing, but continually empowering a manager by applying their ideas from those meetings is the goal. Graf says he came back with new strategies for hiring that Kumler employs to this day.

“I don’t know if you come back with a concrete plan, but you do come back with a whole bunch of information,” Graf says. “And whatever your style is managing your staff or managing your business, that’s how you’re going to implement that information you obtained.”

Graf is, however, careful to implement his ideas slowly. As a manager, his thirst for change isn’t always matched by his employees or his owner.

“I really think it takes some time to come back from something like that, because you come back and you’re all jazzed up, you’re energized, and you have to come back and you have to realize that everybody else wasn’t there,” Graf says. “You have to slow your pace down and slowly implement rather than just changing the world in one day.

“They’ve been in here working away while you’ve been relaxing and getting re-energized, and it’s two different levels of energy when you hit the door on Monday morning.”

Make the Investment

Joining a 20 Group network is an investment: Graf's shop pays a monthly membership fee to join ATI. With that membership, ATI provides the monthly financial tools and covers the cost of joining a 20 Group. It does not, however, cover the cost of traveling to multiple meetings throughout the year.

While some shop owners may not see the point in spending the money to send both management and ownership to 20 Group meetings, DeRolph says that it contributed to new ideas and strategies on two ends of the spectrum for Kumler.

“Any manager would benefit,” DeRolph says. “If you’re put in that position and you think that way, the more you’ll think like an owner, the better manager you’ll be. He thinks like an owner, and that’s what makes him work so well here. It’s an inclusive thing. 

“He understands I have faith in his knowledge. He’ll come back with ideas and he’ll be bring up points of discussion. I’m always learning from him.”

Graf says the money Kumler has invested in his personal growth has not only improved his managerial skills, but also contributed to the continued growth of the business, as ideas from 20 Group meetings from years ago will apply for years to come.

“You’ve got to continue to try different things if you want to grow your business,” Graf says. “I don’t think there’d be anybody who went to a 20 Group and didn’t get something out of it. And when you’ve got multiple people from one business attending? That’s twice the ideas. That’s a win-win.” 

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