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The 2014 All-Star Awards

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Excellence in auto service is achieved every day, by professionals in positions spanning the industry. They keep the nation’s vehicles on the road, provide customers with an exceptional experience, manage profitable operations, and move the industry forward with innovative ideas and collaboration. They are selfless, skilled, passionate about their trade, and an inspiration to others.

These professionals deserve to be recognized, which is why we launched the Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Awards last year. We called for nominations in five categories: executive, management, shop worker, administrative support and wild card (open to any industry pro who doesn’t fit in the other categories). You responded in force, and built upon that performance this year. 

Narrowing the impressive field of candidates, each thoughtfully nominated, was no easy task. But there is no doubt that the five individuals featured here deserve the honor. Meet the 2014 Ratchet+Wrench All-Stars.  

 

Pushing Forward, Giving Back

Frank Palange​

Owner, V&F Auto Inc., Agawam, Mass.

BEYOND FIXING CARS: Frank Palange runs a progressive, efficient shop, but he’s also focused on giving back to his community through charitable initiatives. Photo by Brian Sullivan

She was surprised when her father, Frank Palange, came into the shop that day. But there he was: his arm in a sling, only a day removed from rotator cuff surgery, Palange sauntered into V&F Auto as if it were any other day at the Agawam, Mass., shop he founded with his father 26 years ago.

“He just wanted to make sure we were all set,” says Palange’s daughter, Nicole, the business’s operations and marketing director. “He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known.”

That determination and dedication are two reasons Nicole says her father was able to help build V&F into a three-segment auto business (they also have a separate parts store and auto sales location) that is on pace to top $1.8 million in service revenue alone in 2014. The nine-person shop has a 25 percent net operating profit margin and has experienced steady and substantial growth during what has been a downtime in its local market.

That’s what makes V&F stand out. 

What makes Palange this year’s R+W All-Star Award winner as the nation’s top auto service executive goes far beyond the balance sheet and income statement. Palange is an innovative, forward-thinking business owner focused not only on bettering the lives of those he employs, but also on making his New England community a better place for his customers.

Let’s start with the innovative part: Palange is dedicated to training and education, both for himself and his team. He participates in management training and has worked with the Automotive Training Institute (ATI) for years. He provides training for his team through various organizations, including ATI, ASE, Snap-On, Parson Emission and ATG seminars.

His “looking-forward approach,” as his daughter puts it, led to the shop adopting electronic inspection sheets using tablet computers. Technicians can take photos and videos of vehicle issues and send them directly to customers to explain the vehicle’s needs. It’s helped to streamline processes and allow staff to focus more on the actual repairs and customer interactions rather than paperwork and communication breakdowns.

That’s where we get into what Palange is most proud of in his business.

“We’ve always been focused on morals,” he says. “This is a family operation, and our main focus has always been ‘Do unto others as you would want done unto you.’ That guides everything we do.”

Palange founded Keep Education Rolling 10 years ago as a way for his shop to give back to local schools. Customers who “opt” into the program have 2 percent of their ticket donated to Agawam Public Schools. That 2 percent comes out of the shop’s revenue, not out of add-on charges to customers. It’s helped to purchase items such as computers and instruments for the high school’s band.

The shop is also involved with Toys for Tots and regularly donates refurbished vehicles to military veterans. Palange is the chair of the planning board for the Town of West Springfield and has been the director of the local chamber of commerce.

In 2009, ATI gave Palange its annual Humanitarian of the Year Award, choosing him from the thousands of shops it works with. 

To his team and his daughter, though, they see the day-in, day-out dedication firsthand—like offering a helping hand when he only has one to offer following shoulder surgery.

“My dad has not only taught me about business but about life,” Nicole says. “His outlook on life and his morals are what helped shape me into the person I am today. I only hope I can be half as successful as my dad one day.”

 

Runner Up: Executive
Mark Smith
Owner, Midas Auto Service Experts, Richmond, Va.

Mark Smith isn’t your average franchisee—not when he owns four Midas locations in the Richmond, Va., area, all of which have net profit margins above 20 percent. Three of those locations were on the verge of bankruptcy when Smith took them over.
He also works with local food banks (he donates a bag of food for every state inspection the shop sells) and holds an annual blood drive. He works with local schools and other community organizations, and helps to better the industry through his mentoring in the Midas Dealers Association.

“He challenges me, pushes me and inspires me to be a better person, better owner and  a better member of the community,” says Randy Lucyk, a fellow Midas franchisee.

 

Diverse Leadership

Craig Noel

General manager, Sun Automotive, three locations in western Oregon

MAXIMUM THROUGHPUT: In three years, Craig Noel has dramatically improved operations at Sun Automotive by adjusting staff and processes. Photo by Joshua Rainey

Through a 20-year career that’s included stops with a transmission shop, Ford Motor Company and, now, as general manager of the Sun Automotive, Craig Noel has held most of the positions he now supervises at the three-shop, western Oregon repair business. 

With a relentless focus on upgrading systems, building a better team, and using his experience to dramatically improve efficiency, Noel transformed the operation into a growing business, with annual sales at the flagship location exceeding $1 million.

His transformational results, combined with his truly unique professionalism and dedication, elevate Noel to a shop manager of the highest caliber. 

In his three-year tenure, Noel has delivered spectacular metrics. Sales at the flagship Springfield location rose by more than 70 percent, and exceeded $1 million for the first time in 2013. Company-wide, annual sales hit $2.1 million in 2013 and are projected to hit $2.4 million in 2014. 

Monthly sales that once hovered between $75,000 and $80,000 at the main store now routinely exceed $90,000, with a best-ever monthly tally of $150,000 in April 2014—with a 63 percent gross profit margin. New customers and average repair orders are also up significantly.

Gross sales increased 23.6 percent, gross profit jumped 8.7 percent, and the shop logged 9.7 percent more billed hours and has seen a nearly 25 percent increase in new customers. 

“Craig has been instrumental in raising the bar for our industry by his determination to provide a quality experience to every one of our customers,” says Sun Automotive President Mike Buckridge, who nominated Noel. “A high tide floats all boats and, whenever one shop or one person excels at making our industry look better, we are all better for it. We need more Craigs in our industry.”

First on his list to transform the business was right-sizing the staff to improve efficiency, increase monthly car count and fully utilize all of the shop’s square footage. That required adding a service advisor and two technicians, among other changes. 

Drawing from his experience as a master technician, he drastically expanded and revised the inspection process from a 30-point paper-based checklist to a 72-point cloud-based inspection that’s arranged in a logical order to speed the physical process. 

“A lot of my decision-making comes from being a technician,” he says. “I was a pretty efficient technician, so wasted steps were something that were pretty obvious. I look at how the company runs in the same fashion: What specifically in the office is the advisor doing that’s going to slow up paperwork from A to B to C?”

With that additional vehicle information discovered during the newly thorough inspections, Noel’s staff focuses on prioritizing everything for customers in an effort to look out for their best interests while helping them understand how their vehicle is functioning. 

“I focus a lot on making sure that they know all of the information so they can make the proper decision,” Noel says. “Making sure all the information from the inspection is relayed to the customer and then documented within our system so we can track it and monitor it—and all of our stores function the same way.”

After the main shop’s head count was expanded, Noel assessed strengths tests throughout the company to find out everyone’s aptitudes and weaknesses, as well as ways to improve communication at all three locations. 

The information gleaned from the personality tests led to a few terminations, but ultimately, positive changes in the hiring process and daily improvements in internal communication throughout the Sun Automotive network. 

“I was trying … to figure out both how they’re going to operate individually and how they’re going to operate together as a team,” he says. “If the team’s not functioning, then you’re only as strong as your weakest link.” 

Within four years, Noel plans to purchase the company from Buckridge, a change that will mean little more than transferring any financial risk fully onto his own plate. 

“I love helping people and helping employees, so that part of it has been a wonderful transition,” Noel says. “This is exactly what I’ve wanted to do.”


Runner Up: Management
Adrian Jaramillo

Service Manager/Advisor, 3A Automotive Service, Phoenix

After starting at 3A in 2010 as an assistant service advisor, Jaramillo quickly made an outsized impact by going beyond his job duties and turning customers into fanatics. His exceptional service, and willingness to tell a positive story about the benefits of independent repair shops, have lead to a rush of hundreds of reviews on Google, Yelp, Angie’s List and YP.com pages.

In his role as service advisor, he writes more than $100,000 in service per month, with a gross profit margin exceeding 58 percent. Last year, the company exceeded $1.4 million in sales with a five-technician staff.

 

True Customer Care

Travis Royer

​Lead Technician, Toledo Auto Care, Toledo, Ohio

PURPOSEFUL WORK: Travis Royer is a selfless tech who prides himself on improving the lives of others. Photo by Holly Omlor

Several months ago, Travis Royer came to his boss with a problem. The lead technician at Toledo Auto Care in Toledo, Ohio, Royer had an issue he couldn’t get out of his head.  

“He came to me and asked if he could come in on Saturday to help out a woman he knew from his church,” says Gary Pontious Jr., the shop’s co-owner and manager. 

The woman had a strut broken on her Saturn—not to mention six foster kids at home and a family budget lacking the means to pay for a full repair. Seeing someone in need, Royer offered his help, and asked Pontious for his in using the shop to get the job done quicker. 

“I just wanted to help her and her family have some safe transportation,” Royer says.

Pontious didn’t hesitate, not for Royer. 

“Maybe if you didn’t know him, it might be surprising,” Pontious says, “but, that just sums up the type of person he is. 

“When we can help someone out, we’re going to do the best we can to do that, and it’s amazing to have someone like [Royer] who thinks the same way. He’s very selfless.”

Other things that might surprise those who don’t know Royer? His nearly 150 percent daily efficiency rate, 90-plus percent productivity, and a customer satisfaction index (CSI) score of above 97 percent on his jobs. He has a comeback rate well below 1 percent. Since Royer came to Toledo Auto Care in 2007, annual shop revenues are up 55 percent.

Add those numbers up, and it’s clear as to why Royer is an R+W All-Star Award winner, but his value for his shop goes far beyond simple KPIs. 

Despite being just 30 years old, Pontious says Royer is already a leader and a mentor among the shop’s six-technician team.

“He does a great job working alongside anyone who’s new to the shop, maybe sacrificing a bit of his own [efficiency] to help them get up to speed,” Pontious says. “He sets a great example.”

For his part, Royer shrugs off the praise. Like many, he says his 11-year career in auto service started with a love for cars, and it slowly took shape with his desire to help people get back on track with their daily lives through the repairs he performs. 

While Pontious is quick to point out Royer’s ability to outperform his weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly goals—goals Pontious says are “set with very high standards”—Royer says he’s more proud of his strong CSI scores.

The shop uses three different services to measure CSI on jobs, and links each one back to the technician who performed the work. One source is a survey left on a mirror-hang with the tech’s photo and name on it. Rarely does Royer’s work not receive glowing scores, Pontious says, and he can’t remember the last comeback Royer had.

“He’s a very good communicator,” Pontious says. “When he does his diagnosis, he does a great job of spelling out what he found, as far as the problem the customer came in for, what needs to be done, and how it needs to be done. That’s one of the things that makes him a top tech.”

An ASE Master-level and Honda-certified tech, Royer has invested nearly $50,000 in his tool set over the years and regularly completes additional, high-level training. He’s “committed” to performing at his peak, Pontious says, and is driven to helping the shop do the same.

He’s also a committed family man (he’s married with two kids) and is heavily involved with local events for the Wounded Warrior Project.

While he has aspirations of someday opening up a business of his own, Royer is content in his current role—a role Pontious describes as “helping everyone around him.” 

“That’s the reason I enjoy it so much,” Royer says of the service he provides customers—and fellow parishioners. “I love what I do.”

 

Runner Up: Shop Worker
Tyson Duerrich
Technician, Carfix, Garner, N.C.

Duerrich is Carfix’s go-to tech who is “comfortable working on almost anything,” says owner Mike Allen. On the day Allen nominated Duerrich for this award, Duerrich had a 1946 Willys, a 2005 Honda Odyssey, and a 1997 Ford Ranger on his dispatch list.

He regularly produces more than 60 hours per week (150 percent efficiency), and has a comeback rate below 1 percent.

“Tyson has had a great influence on our shop culture and attitude,” Allen says. “All of the guys work together. … This atmosphere starts with our ‘leader’ (Duerrich) and trickles down to everyone.”

 

Inspiring Customer Service

Cathy Whetstone

Customer service representative, Mighty Auto Pro, Medina, Ohio

STICK TO THE SCRIPT: Cathy Whetstone has taught best practices for phone interactions to shops across the country. Her phone etiquette and scripts ensure every customer is treated the same. Photo by Cameron Dunbar

Cathy Whetstone of Mighty Auto Pro in Medina, Ohio, understands the significance of her job as customer service representative. It’s not just answering phones, but building relationships with the customer base, a task that the shop’s marketing director says makes Whetstone’s role the most important in the building. 

By using exceptional communication skills, Whetstone has mastered her job and worked to share her techniques with others in the industry, elevating her far beyond the role of a typical customer service representative. 

“She understands when the phone rings that it’s about the person first, and that there’s a process to make the phone ring,” said Leigh Anne Best, marketing director at Mighty Auto Pro. “She is very protective of how that phone is answered, that the phone scripts are down to a T. When a client calls in, there is nothing left to happenstance—every question is answered in a certain way [and] it doesn’t sound scripted.”

Whetstone created detailed phone scripts for the shop, which are evidenced by the friendly and efficient manner all calls are handled. She learned the ins and outs of phone scripting through a previous job with a telephone company, and has applied that knowledge to ensuring that everyone who calls Mighty Auto Pro is treated with kindness and respect, as well as asked the proper questions to uncover their exact needs.

Her scripts have received attention from outside Mighty Auto Pro’s customer base, as other shops have tapped her skills to help create their own scripts. Through one-on-one workshops and industry seminars, Whetstone has taught shops from coast to coast about the importance and benefits of establishing best practices for customer interactions. 

“It’s not just the scripting or the words you say, it’s the tone and the inflection and how you say them,” she says. “If somebody says, ‘I need brakes on my car,’ you can say, ‘Why do you think you need brakes on your car?’ or you can say, ‘If you don’t mind me asking, why would you think you need brakes on your car?’ It’s not just the words; it’s how you say the words.”

She adds that scripting helps a business establish consistency to make sure that every person is treated the same way every time they call or visit the business. 

Scripting is only part of the customer service equation at Mighty Auto Pro. Whetstone applies her deep-rooted empathy in every conversation she has, whether it’s with a coworker or a new customer.

“I’ve never met a stranger,” she says of her personal style. “My grandparents taught me early on that every person you meet is a potential friend. Treat people the way they want to be treated, not necessarily the way you want to be treated. … Always treat someone with kindness and respect, and be forgiving, because you don’t know what challenges somebody is facing in their own personal life.”

In late 2012, Whetstone faced her own challenge after being diagnosed with breast cancer. During treatment, her coworkers would help her with daily duties, and watch out to make sure she wasn’t pushing herself too hard. 

The staff also organized a golf outing with clients and coworkers that raised $14,000 to assist with Whetstone’s medical expenses.

“The outpouring of support by our clients was a genuine reflection of her caring,” Best says. “It is nothing to see Cathy playing bingo with clients on her time off, helping them with grocery shopping, visiting them in nursing homes, delivering meals to shut-ins during the holidays, and of course, it wouldn’t be Cathy if she wasn’t delivering horse manure to some of our clients for their gardens.”

Runner Up: Administrative Support
Jacquie Hower
Director of Operations and Community Outreach, Zimmerman’s Automotive Service, Mechanicsburg, Pa.

As the third generation of the Zimmerman/Walter family that owns Zimmerman’s Automotive, Hower grew up in the business and has done everything from oil changes to running the front office. Her current position involves managing front office staff, payroll, daily finances and community involvement. Beyond her everyday duties, she has taught several Career Day classes in area schools, held numerous Girl and Boy Scout badge seminars, and held numerous Ladies Car Care Clinics, among others.

“Jacquie has a love for the automotive aftermarket industry, and is a very key employee to our business here at Zimmerman’s,” says shop owner Judy Zimmerman.

 

Bringing the Industry Together

Sheri Hamilton

Executive Director ASA-Midwest, Kansas City, Mo.

BRINGING THE INDUSTRY TOGETHER: Sheri Hamilton has built one of the strongest industry associations in the country, and a training and expo event to match. Photo by Grant Meeks

“How does she do it?” 

That’s what the numerous industry professionals who nominated Sheri Hamilton for a Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Award wanted to know. 

Hamilton’s pursuit to connect and bring the industry together is tireless: She has grown a small, seven-county Automotive Service Association (ASA) affiliate in Kansas City into ASA-Midwest, a six-state association that serves Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In her role as executive director of ASA-Midwest, Hamilton continues to provide some of the best continuous training, networking, support and chapter meetings to each of the affiliate associations and tirelessly travels to help develop new chapters for ASA-Midwest. 

On top of that, Hamilton is also the driving force behind the growth of VISION Hi-Tech Training & Expo, ASA-Midwest’s annual flagship event. Under her leadership, VISION has transformed from a small, 300-attendee gathering to an event that drew more than 3,000 industry professionals to Kansas City in 2014. To say that the event has been well received is an understatement:

“She has quite literally set the bar for all automotive training conferences and expos in North America,” says Matt Fanslow, a technician at Riverside Automotive in Red Wing, Minn., who nominated Hamilton. “Ask any attendee, any vendor or any instructor about VISION, and you will get a pause as they attempt to put into words how well run and how successful this event is. More often than not, they will simply respond, ‘It is the best.’ For lack of a better analogy, she has effectively created the automotive repair technician’s Mecca.”

Creating that Mecca, backed by a quickly growing and engaged association of shop owners, is why Hamilton is this year’s wild card winner. 

How does she do it? Hamilton says it starts with a genuine love for the industry.

“I grew up in the industry. My parents owned an automotive repair facility,” she says. “I understand the challenges these shop owners face because I lived it day in and day out with my parents. And I saw when they got involved in ASA the difference that it made in their business. I saw the joy it brought to my parents being involved in these lifelong friendships. I want to make sure that opportunity exists for every shop owner out there.”

That was Hamilton’s main goal when she became executive director of ASA-Kansas City nearly 21 years ago. At the time, she was the first full-time employee at the completely volunteer-run organization.

Hamilton relied on her past event management, graphic design and paralegal experience to take over all programs, chapter meetings, and communications for the organization. She wrote her own job description, put together a budget and began creating newsletters, shop owner support groups, and mentoring programs for the Kansas City members.

That’s when the inquiries started coming. Chapters from across the state wanted to join the newly reinvigorated program. ASA-Kansas City soon became ASA-Missouri/Kansas, and ultimately ASA-Midwest. 

At the same time, Hamilton made a push to grow VISION. Thanks to grassroots marketing tactics and an unwavering goal of providing quality training without the sales pitch, Hamilton has grown the event’s education offerings from 12 classes to more than 100 training courses, with 1,500 attendees over the event’s four days.

“I’m very connected to the industry and it goes back to that emotional connection, that this is what put food on my family’s table for many years,” she says. “If I can help bring this industry together and bring shop owners together to share ideas, resources; to network; to understand that they’re not in this industry alone, then I feel I’ve succeeded.”


Runner Up: Wild Card
John Wafler
Facilitator, RLO Training Inc., Renton, Wash.

Summarizing the achievements of John Wafler is no easy task. Through coaching hundreds of shops as a facilitator with RLO Training, Wafler has helped shops grow their customer base, triple their revenue, save their business from the brink of closing and evolve as leaders and shop owners.

As Brian Bates, owner of Eagle Automotive Service in Littleton, Colo., puts it: “In one sentence, John is inspiring, wise, insightful, considered to be a friend by everyone who works with him, and very dedicated to helping shop owners maximize their potential.”

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