2013 All-Star Awards

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In just a little more than a year serving the auto service industry, the staff at Ratchet+Wrench has had the opportunity to meet hundreds of remarkable professionals spanning all facets of the trade.

What we’ve learned in that time is that there is an overwhelming abundance of talented, committed individuals in this industry who are driven to continually improve not only their own businesses, but also the auto service profession as a whole. We’ve heard their career stories; the many challenges they’ve faced and the strategies they embraced to overcome them. There are so many inspirational people working in auto service that we decided to put together an annual awards program to recognize them.  

This is the first year of the Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Awards, developed to honor outstanding professionals in five categories: executive, management, shop staff, administrative staff, and wild card (open to anyone who doesn’t fit in the other segments). We opened up nominations to the industry and they flooded in over the course of a couple of months. After thoroughly vetting roughly 120 candidates, the Ratchet+Wrench editorial team chose the following five individuals as the first winners of this prestigious award.

 

Shop Owner Award

 

Bill Hill

Owner, Mighty Auto Pro, Medina, Ohio

It’s All About the People

Basically, it was a report card—a list of 10 or so aspects of Bill Hill’s Medina, Ohio, repair shop, Mighty Auto Pro; each item had a grade next to it.

After paying for a repair, the customer, who owns restaurants in the area and uses a similar checklist to critique his own businesses, had simply asked Hill if he could share the self-made survey with him.

CULTURE CRAFTER: Bill Hill has developed a staff that prides itself on continuous improvement. Photo by Scott Galvin

“Everything he had on there, he had a mark saying, ‘Wow’ next to it,” Hill remembers. “Customer service—wow. Calling the dealership to check on his warranties—wow. And he made comments on how great everything looked on the inside.

“It was not only really flattering and humbling to have another business owner tell me this, but it was also just great to get to know how a customer looks at us.”

Customers, like this restaurant owner, don’t know about the business’s success, Hill says. They don’t know how Mighty Auto Pro has more than quadrupled its sales over the last decade to just north of $2 million in annual revenue. They don’t know about the industry marketing awards the shop has won, or Hill’s internal emphasis on training and continuing education for his staff.

“The only thing they know is what they see when they come through the door,” Hill says. “It’s about how we treat them, how we take care of them when they’re in here. That’s what we’re all about.”

And that’s the foundation that Hill has built his career on.

He bought Mighty Auto Pro in 1998 after more than 30 years working in gas stations, dealerships and tire shops. Some of those businesses were well run, he says, and some weren’t. But all of them helped teach him one important lesson that he took with him into ownership: Every business, regardless of the industry, is about the people, both customers and employees.

His focus, says Leigh Anne Best, the shop’s human resources manager, is always on his staff first. It’s one of the reasons Hill instituted a mandatory training policy: Each member of his staff must complete a minimum of 40 hours of continuing education each year, all of which is paid for by the shop. It can be job-specific technical training, or it can be seemingly random.

“It builds a culture of people wanting to do better and be better at what they do,” Hill says.

And he’s never had any problems with it. In 2012, the least amount of training hours a staff member completed was just above 60. The highest was 98.

Meanwhile, Hill keeps the shop heavily involved in its community. He and his staff have organized a number of fundraising drives at the shop, for years running a month-long campaign to donate a percentage of sales on brake work to a local children’s medical center. And when a staff member was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago, the shop hosted a golf outing to cover her medical and recovery expenses. Hill and his staff now run a Brakes for Breasts campaign every year that’s grown to include 27 shops in 17 states.

All of it, Hill says, has helped lead to a higher level of service for the customers, and a higher quality repair for the vehicles.

The shop has increased sales every year since Hill took it over, without expanding in physical size. The building is 10,000 square feet, and Hill has 16 bays and 13 employees. When the shop cracked $2 million in 2012, he already started eyeing a bigger goal: $2.5 million.

“When you have a great team that works together like ours, and works as efficiently as ours, you can really make big strides,” he says.

—Bryce Evans

 

 

Howie Graf

Service Manager, Kumler Automotive, Lancaster, Ohio

Never Stop Improving

Communication—that’s the key, says Howie Graf.

Graf, who’s served as the service manager of Kumler Automotive in Lancaster, Ohio, since 2000, says that the reasons shops—or businesses in general, really—fail isn’t because of the mistakes they make. It’s a shop’s failure to recover from a mistake that can cripple it.

AN OPEN EAR: Howie Graf says the many improvements he’s made at Kumler Automotive are the result of listening to staff and customers. Photo by Dave Saunders

“Sooner or later, someone is going to screw up,” Graf, 47, says matter-of-factly. “Whether it’s the manager—and I’ve screwed up plenty—or the owner or a technician or someone at the counter, it doesn’t matter. The only way to be prepared and to get through any mistake in the shop is to always have open communication. That’s the only way to build trust, and trust is what keeps employees following your lead when you, or anyone in the shop, makes mistakes.”

And that’s the philosophy that has helped Graf lead Kumler’s service department (the business also has a collision segment) through a number of significant, and successful, changes in the past decade, all of which have helped the shop better serve customers, says owner Dean DeRolph.

Graf came to Kumler in 1997 after a number of years working on golf course machinery. He started out by managing Kumler’s $2 million-a-year parts department, and after three years, DeRolph promoted him to service manager due to his “integrity and management ability.”

Graf took courses through the Automotive Management Institute (AMI) and the Automotive Training Institute (ATI), and began participating in an ATI 20 Group.

“Even taking over as service manager, I still didn’t have a ton of shop experience,” he says. “I wanted to learn everything I didn’t know.”

Again, this is where the communication comes in. Graf makes it a point to keep open dialogue with his employees and the shop’s customers to ensure that everyone is satisfied with the repair process. He’s always open to new ideas, and ready to adapt to new methods and systems that can improve the shop’s quality of work.

Graf redesigned the shop floor, moving around lifts, work stations and tools, to allow for better workflow and overall efficiency. He worked to improve the shop’s waiting area, adding amenities like free Wi-Fi and snacks for customers. He turned an old storage room into a technician office to allow his staff to have a quiet space to work through problems on vehicles or to complete training.

But Graf is quick to point out that all of these changes—and many others not mentioned—weren’t done by him alone. It’s impossible to run a successful business, he says, without a great staff. It’s impossible to become a good leader or manager without a support system.

“Without being open to taking classes and joining a 20 Group and listening to my own staff and customers, it’s impossible to ever improve,” he says. “It’s so easy to get into a mindset that you’re on your own little island in the shop, but there are so many people out there who have similar problems or issues that can help you along. It’s so important to get that perspective, to be open to the ideas, and be able to communicate them.”

—Bryce Evans

 

Shop Staff Award

 

Kenneth Carlson

Lead Technician, Midas Hillsboro, Hillsboro, Ore.

Getting It Right the First Time

Kenneth Carlson has never been much for guesswork.

“Our job isn’t to guess,” he says. “It’s not worth doing if you’re not going to do it right. We are professionals; we’re supposed to be able to do it right the first time.”

Carlson’s dedication to finding the root of the problem purposefully, not by trial and error, has not only contributed to his success as lead technician at Midas Hillsboro in Hillsboro, Ore., but also as a master of diagnostics.

PROBLEM SOLVER: Kenneth Carlson is a meticulous technician who has single-handedly reduced comebacks at Midas Hillsboro in Hillsboro, Ore. Photo by Tim Denison

“I’m overly meticulous,” Carlson says. “I don’t guess ever.”

According to shop owner and nominator Vahid Eshraghi, “meticulous” is an understatement. Eshraghi says Carlson’s careful diagnostics process has single-handedly reduced the shop’s rate of comeback customers.

“He doesn’t just throw parts at the problem with the hope of fixing it,” Eshraghi says.

Instead, Carlson uses a process of elimination, meaning he first identifies the general source of the problem, and then outlines every possible cause of that problem. He then carefully works through each potential cause until he zeroes in on the primary source of the issue.

Carlson says he’s always been process oriented; in fact, it’s what drew him to car repair as a teenager.

“I liked the fact that they came in broken and left fixed. They left better off than when they came in,” he says.

Tinkering with cars as a 13-year-old motorhead quickly turned into a more serious pursuit, leading to a five-year apprenticeship at a local shop while he worked toward his ASE certification, before landing at Midas Hillsboro.

Eshraghi says Carlson has unknowingly adopted the famous Japanese cause-and-effect fishbone diagram, commonly used in product design and quality defect prevention.

Besides staking his claim as a diagnostics expert, Carlson also oversees the service, maintenance, diagnostics and repairs for Midas Hillsboro. True to form, he’s taken the guesswork out of all of those procedures too. 

Several changes of owners had left the shop cluttered and unorganized, so much so that Carlson says it was difficult to work.

“Years of not putting stuff away meant the shop was basically one big storage area,” he says.

Carlson was tired of the inefficiencies and productivity losses the clutter was causing, and began using his own time to reorganize the shop. He worked through the mess, creating designated spaces for the most commonly used items and sending rarely used tools and equipment to storage.

The reorganization has not only increased floor space and efficiency, but it has also made the shop floor safer for employees.

“It’s really helped everyone and made it a much better place to work,” Eshraghi says.

—Anna Zeck

 

Administrative Staff Award

 

Laura Martin

Office Administrator, Menke’s Auto Repair, Newburgh, Ind.

Beyond the Call of Duty

There’s a reason Laura Martin is more commonly known as “Laura QuickBooks” around the offices of Menke’s Auto Repair in Newburgh, Ind. Since joining the company, Martin has established herself not only as a wiz with the accounting software, but also as a proactive office administrator who is eager to take on anything.

“She just loves a challenge,” says Barb Menke, who co-owns Menke’s Auto Repair with husband Vernie Menke. “She was such a blessing walking through the door.”

OVERACHIEVER: Laura Martin isn’t your typical office administrator, having helped Menke’s Auto Repair with marketing initiatives and interior design. Photo by Chris Campbell

After coming on board in 2009, Martin quickly mastered all of Menke’s accounting and payroll duties, accounts payable and receivables, as well as ensuring the shop is compliant with the latest state and federal regulations.

“I’m kind of a rule follower, so I always want to make sure we’re on track,” Martin says.

But simply paying the bills on time wasn’t enough for Martin. Instead, she started to streamline processes and develop new forms to help Vernie Menke analyze costs and keep track of maintenance history.

Among those forms include a core and returned parts form, which Vernie Menke says helps the shop track its parts more efficiently, a labor cost analysis form that he uses to see how the shop is doing at the end of every week, a net profit form, and a service history form, which records each vehicle’s maintenance history as the customer comes back in for service or repairs.

“Vernie likes to keep track of their maintenance records,” Martin says. “He was doing it all on loose leaf paper before, and now he just plugs all of those numbers into my forms.”

But that’s not the only way that Martin has helped the shop’s finances. A master of connections, Martin recognized a marketing opportunity with the local high school’s marching band boosters, who were looking for donations. Martin created a flyer advertising the shop for the band boosters to hand out, which promised that the shop would give back a percentage of sales directly to the band. The shop now has a similar program for the basketball team, and other local organizations have expressed interest.

Martin also turned her attention to the shop’s interior spaces. As fans of the decorating shows on HGTV, Martin and the Menkes started throwing around the idea of redoing the office space at the shop.

“We got ideas from watching those shows and seeing how easy it looked to fix up those spaces,” Martin says.

While the original plan was to paint the office where Martin and the Menkes work, Martin took it one step further: not only did she paint and redecorate, she redecorated the reception, lobby, service area and restrooms, too.

She picked out new paint colors, floor samples, chandeliers for the lobby, fabric covered boards to muffle the echo in the lobby, new towels and paintings for the women’s restroom, and a coffee bar. She also set up a recycling program in the front offices to recycle paper, cardboard and cans, coming in after hours to finish the project.

While Barb Menke says she was bowled over by Martin’s willingness to help, according to Martin, it was all in a day’s work.

“I’m a very practical person,” Martin says. “So when I see something that needs to be done, I try to get it done.”

—Anna Zeck

 

Wild Card Award

 

Jim Murphy

Business Coach, Elite Worldwide Inc./Pro Service, Spokane, Wash.

Taking Shops to the Next Level

Jim Murphy prefers to use only one word when describing himself: coach.

“That’s all I am, and honestly, that’s all I want to be,” he says.

Well, those who’ve worked with him in his 20-plus years as a business coach prefer some other descriptions.

JUST A COACH: Business coach Jim Murphy has made a career out of pushing shops to achieve their goals. Photo by Diane Maehl

Dedicated, professional, knowledgeable, organized, experienced—those from Tim Davidson, president of Chumbley’s Auto Care in Iowa. Doug McAllister, owner of Douglas Automotive in Illinois, adds passionate and skilled to the list. And among the other dozen or so shop owners and operators who nominated Murphy for a Ratchet+Wrench All-Star award, one consensus was clear: Murphy’s knowledge of the industry and passion for business improvement are only surpassed by his loyalty and commitment to his clients.

“He doesn’t do it for the money, because I don’t believe he needs any more of it,” says Maryland shop owner Greg Sholnik. “He does it because he really does like to help us. He is sincere.”

In nearly every position Murphy has held throughout his 30-plus-year career in the repair industry, his work has revolved around shop improvement. After graduating from Oregon State University, Murphy took a position as a service advisor for a Chrysler dealership in Oregon. Pretty quickly, Chrysler took notice of Murphy’s achievements at the front counter and recruited him to work for its corporate service and parts division. The new position put him in a role similar to a business consultant, as he’d travel to various dealerships in the Pacific Northwest and evaluate and work to improve their processes.

“That was the best part of the job for me,” he says. “In my 20s, I learned a ton about how a shop operates and needs to operate. I’d go in and have to find problems and make changes. I really developed a knack for identifying where problems are and finding a path to fix them.”

After opening two repair-related business of his own in his 30s, Murphy jumped back into coaching full time when he worked with Bob O’Connor at RLO Training. Murphy began facilitating the company’s Bottom Line Impact Groups.

In 2007, Murphy partnered with Bob Cooper at Elite Worldwide Inc. to found Pro Service, a select 90-member network of some of the country’s top shops. The network, which operates under the Elite umbrella, is Murphy’s baby. He facilitates all group meetings and conferences, and he works as a personal, one-on-one business coach for each member of the network.

Pro Service offers Murphy a daily challenge that he relishes.

“These are great shops, so it’s about seeing how far and how fast we can go,” he says. “That’s what I love: Working with people who are truly passionate about their businesses and working together to really push the thing to the next level.”

There are plenty of success stories to come out of it, too. In nominating him for the award, one shop owner credited Murphy with helping to triple his business’s size and sales. Murphy doesn’t want the credit, though.

“They’re the ones who have to make the changes and actually run the business,” he says. “I just want to push people to get to where they want to be. I’m just a coach.”

—Bryce Evans

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