Running a Shop

R+W All-Star Awards

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If you’ve read Ratchet+Wrench during the last several years, you’ve probably come to recognize this annual issue dedicated to the industry’s most outstanding professionals. Launched in 2013, the Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Awards have increased in popularity year after year, with nominations pouring in from throughout the country. 

The process is simple: candidates fill out a short form sharing their candidate’s most noteworthy business achievements, along with their industry and community impact and anything else that makes them stand out as auto care pros worth recognizing. The editorial team carefully reviews each submission, discusses them ad nauseam, narrows the field to finalists and eventually selects winners, often after some follow-up reporting.

It’s not an easy task, but it is a rewarding one. The nominations are always impressive and serve as a testament to all of the industry’s difference makers striving to advance this trade day in and day out. But in the end, there are always candidates who rise to the top. Though they work in different positions, they all share a few personal attributes: talent, skill, commitment, passion and a drive to improve—not just for themselves, but for their colleagues, customers and the greater industry. 

Congratulations to the 2015 Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Award winners. 

 

Photography by Danielle Bailey

Administrative Support

Stephanie Gutierrez

Communications Coordinator

Victory Auto Service & Glass

Six Locations in Minnesota & Florida

 

A Victory In Rebranding

By Travis Bean

When Stephanie Gutierrez decided to get a second opinion on her vehicle—at 25 years of age with two daughters in tow, she couldn’t afford an $800 bill—she had no idea she’d be meeting her future employer.

“I'll never forget it,” she says. “[The owner Jeff Matt] and the mechanic said, ‘There's nothing wrong with your car. We just had to tighten this one little thing.’ They didn't charge me a cent. And I thought, ‘OK, this is a place I'm taking my vehicle to.’”

And from there, a business relationship with Victory Auto Service & Glass was established, and a friendship grew. Whenever Gutierrez brought in her car, she and Matt—owner of five Victory locations in Minnesota and one in Florida—discussed store operations. Matt was intrigued with her background in communications and regularly asked for her input on the shop’s strategies, culminating with a request for Gutierrez to draft a plan for marketing to women.

And, according to Matt, Victory hasn’t been the same since.

Six months after Gutierrez turned in her report, she was officially employed by the auto care chain as its communications coordinator, in charge of running the company’s social media presence, revamping the company website, updating the store’s customer service approach and completely rebranding the company’s image.

In fact, Matt finds her contributions so critical to the company’s success that he kept her on the payroll after she moved to Lima, Peru, with her family to aid a ministry in charity ventures and work with young girls overcoming addictions and eating disorders. She communicates with Matt daily, offering feedback on marketing strategies and running the company’s social media accounts—which happened to be her very first task when hired at Victory.

“They had a phenomenal reputation and were trusted by their customers—but how do you let other people know that?” Gutierrez asked herself at the time.

The answer was the company’s social media presence. With nothing but a static Facebook page, Gutierrez breathed life into the company’s online persona by providing updates on employees, promoting special offers, giving car care tips and showing Victory’s family-friendly environment.

She then worked with management and the front office staff to push the Facebook page—which now has over 1,500 likes—asking customers to engage with posts and share the company with their friends.

And while the social media upheaval represented a progressive shift, it doesn’t quite match Gutierrez’s next bit of input—and what Matt considers to be key in the company’s future growth.

“When putting the Facebook page together,” Gutierrez says, “I wanted to create a Victory voice: Who are we? What do we sound like? Then, visually, our stores have to match. I wanted people to go to our website and get a feel for what the shop is, and then walk into a shop and think, ‘Yes, this is what I expected. This is what Victory looks like to me.’”

Thus began a major overhaul, outfitting the stores with new furniture and color schemes and finding a cohesive feel that links the company’s logo, storefront, and online presence together.

The benefits went beyond a united branding effort that customers could now recognize as Victory Auto—Gutierrez used the company’s story to win the Minnesota Better Business Integrity Award and the Minnesota Business Ethics Award, which each brought in floods of customers and majorly contributed to the company’s growth.

As Matt says: “The proof is in the pudding.” Since 2010, when Gutierrez was hired, Victory has grown from three to six locations and increased revenue from $1.9 million to $4 million.

And now, 6,000 miles away, Gutierrez is still part of that Victory culture, keeping the business on the cutting edge of marketing, customer service, branding and social media—and talking to Jeff and his employees each and every day.

“I’ve gotten other offers from auto repair shops, but for me the personal contact I get is more important,” she says of Victory. “I’m not passionate about cars—I’m passionate about people. And the way Jeff and his company treat people is what keeps me around.”

 

Photography by John Schlia

Executive

Jerry Elman

Owner

Schoen Place Auto

Rochester, N.Y.

 

Matters of Perception 

By Bryce Evans

Jerry Elman is used to standing out in a crowded room. And that has little to do with the premier repair business he bought and rebuilt (during a recession, mind you). 

Elman, owner of Schoen Place Auto in Rochester, N.Y., was the first male to ever be invited to join the local chapter for the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), and the first to serve on its board. A pioneer in the “female-friendly” shop model, Elman’s business is recognized locally for its dedication to the customer, says Dominic Genova, owner of Genesee Valley Chrysler Dodge Jeep, a dealership in Elman’s market, and for the shop’s ability to show that a repair shop can stand for honesty, integrity and, above all, doing what’s right for the community.

“Jerry takes care of his customers, his employees, and his community,” Genova says. “He is a positive role model and deserves every accolade, award and vote of validation that is possible.”

Here’s one: In 2010, Schoen Place Auto was awarded the Rochester Business Ethics Award—the first auto repair shop ever to do so.

The work he’s done to demonstrate his dedication to improving the perception of the auto service industry earned Elman this year’s Ratchet+Wrench All-Star Executive Award. 

Then, of course, there’s the business he rebuilt. 

Elman worked 26 years for Kodak, before corporate failure and a round of layoffs left him disillusioned and looking to go into business for himself in 2006. A car buff, auto sales was an easy choice for him, and he purchased Schoen Place Auto in 2007.

At the time, the $2 million-per-year business gained roughly two-thirds of its revenue through used vehicle sales; of the rest, about $400,000 came from repair and maintenance work aimed at retaining customers from the sales side.

Then, the economy crashed, and so too did Elman’s business. Schoen Place Auto’s sales were cut in half during his first 12 months in ownership, and Elman was left scrambling.

“It was the worst time to buy a business since 1929,” he says. “And I paid top dollar for it, bought it at its highest. 

“I had to figure out a way to turn it around. A lot of people might’ve just thrown in the towel, but I had an idea for how to fix it.”

He dropped auto sales completely from the company, and focused on repair—albeit, in a much different way than others in his area.

The concept, Elman says, was to build the business by building the shop’s reputation in the community. He wanted his business to be known for its ethics, integrity and focus on serving its market. He liquidated his vehicle inventory, used the cash to move the business into a more repair-oriented facility across town (upgrading from three small bays to five full-service ones), and began the rebranding effort, pegging the company as a “female-friendly shop.”

Elman connected with Ask Patty and earned the organization’s female-friendly certification. He then joined the local chamber and Rotary Club, where he was able to explain his business’s new mission through networking circles. Schoen Place Auto started hosting car care workshops and putting on local community events. 

“I was very engaged in the community,” he says. “And we tried to carry that attitude over in the shop—from the way the shop looked to the way we treated and talked to our customers.”

The shop also focused on a relationship-selling approach to customers, instituting a policy that no job was considered sold until the customer understands what the problem is; the severity of the issue; the possible impact on safety, reliability and drivability; the options for short- and long-term solutions; and a breakdown of the cost.

In 2009, as the shop’s reputation began to build, and Elman was invited to join the NAWBO and later the Rochester Women’s Network. In 2012, he was asked to sit on the NAWBO’s chapter board.

He also is a past president for the Pittsford, N.Y., Rotary Club, and serves on the board for RESOLVE of Greater Rochester, a nonprofit organization dedicated to intervening and preventing domestic violence and sexual abuse of women and girls.

And his business? The changes he made allowed it to take off. In 2013, the shop’s revenue grew 25 percent. It added another 27 percent to sales in 2014. And, this year, Schoen Place Auto is on pace to do more than $800,000 in total sales with three techs and Elman at the front counter.

“Jerry is driven by making a difference in the lives of others in everything he does, personally and professionally,” Genova says. “From day one, Jerry had a vision and plan to transform the culture of a typical repair shop into a culture focused on ethics, competence, quality, fair pricing and superior customer service.” 

 

Photography by Turner Photography

Manager

Alan Decker

Service Manager

Roy’s Quality Car Care

Hagerstown, Md.

 

Soft Interrogation

By Bryce Evans

First some numbers: Since Alan Decker took over as service manager of Roy’s Quality Car Care Inc. in 2001, the average repair order at the shop rose from $186 to just north of $400; the Hagerstown, Md., shop’s labor rate more than doubled from an absurdly low $35; and net profit more than quadrupled, going from a dismal 4 percent to its current level of 18 percent.

But those are just numbers, says Roy Jones, the shop’s owner. The numbers simply represent the results of everything Decker brought to Jones’ once-middling business. 

What it is he brought is the reason Decker is this year’s All-Star Award winner in the management category.  

Decker has “exemplified what it is to be a professional auto service manager,” Jones says. He’s a people person. He’s passionate, caring, intuitive, and focuses on the task at hand—looking for the best outcome for all those involved. He goes above and beyond for his colleagues, and has even lent his expertise to helping one of the shop’s business partners sort through some accounting issues. 

“Any situation, any time, he’s on the top of his game,” Jones says. 

For his part, Decker says he’s simply done what comes most natural to him—and what he’s gleaned from his experience in the military and his finance background from college.

“It’s just about doing the simple things, and doing them well,” Decker says of his approach. “The smallest of things in a business can have huge effects.”

At 19, Decker couldn’t have envisioned his current role. However, as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Army, Decker’s intense role as an interrogator would foreshadow the skillset that makes him so effective today.

“People definitely have their visions of what interrogation is like,” he says. “But there’s also a soft way to interrogate people—asking the right questions, understanding where they’re coming from, what their wants and needs are. Really, it’s understanding people and how to ask the right questions to get what you need from them.”

Decker honed that skill in the Army, and intended to put it to use with a law degree following his discharge. An accounting course changed his mind, though, and finance became Decker’s focus. He wound up at Roy’s Quality Car Care through a suggestion of a friend. He took a service advisor job on a whim, and his impact was felt quickly.

“I’d worked some sales and retail before that,” he says. “But in those jobs, I was dealing with 200 or so customers a day. There’s no way to have a real impact and reach them. With this opportunity at the shop, it would be more like 20 customers a day. That gives you the opportunity to create a bond and a relationship, and make it a personal experience.”

And that’s the approach Decker took.

Jones says Decker was able to connect with his customers in ways that he couldn’t. Decker’s innate ability to use “soft interrogation” tactics to ease the customer’s mind and get to the bottom of each vehicle’s issues led to an instant sales boost.

Then, of course, there were all the operational changes he helped institute. Decker helped overhaul the shop’s marketing and advertising philosophy, moving away from “cheap” oil changes and brake job offers, and looking toward rewarding customers for repeat business (percentage discounts on certain work). The new philosophy even encompassed the shop’s warranty, which was increased to cover two years or 24,000 miles. (It used to be a 30-day, 1,000-mile warranty.)

That simple change upgraded the customer base, and helped the shop begin resetting its pricing structure on parts and labor. Using his accounting background and balancing those financial concepts with industry benchmarks he learned from representing the shop at NAPA training sessions, Decker helped institute a more accurate parts-pricing matrix and increased the shop’s labor rate significantly. 

There was some turnover amidst the changes, but Decker helped hire on and retain new team members who now better fit the company’s culture.

Decker would do anything for his team, Jones says, and, really, he has (he even helped one now-former colleague move out of state when family circumstances forced him to move). More noticeable, though, has been his impact on helping younger staff members grow. He mentored three separate apprentice technicians on their career paths into the military, helping them find roles that would provide training and the potential of a long-standing career in or out of the armed forces.

And, for just one more example of his goodwill: Roy’s Quality Car Care does work with Guardian Interlock, and when Decker noticed inefficiencies in the way the company collects its payments, he went straight to their executive team—with a thorough plan of how the company could save thousands of dollars in man hours every month. 

“It’s not just a job for me,” Decker says. “It’s a way of life. Serving others and helping others has to be the focus. I just try to have that carry over into what I do here each day.”

 

Photography by Benjamin Margalit

Shop Worker

John Sobolewski

Shuttle Driver

Mighty Auto Pro

Medina, Ohio

 

Jack of All Trades 

By Anna Zeck

It’s hard to imagine that the newspaper job ad John Sobolewski responded to merely called for a “shuttle driver and occasional cleaning of cars.”

“It’s evolved into a little more than that,” says Sobolewski.

That’s putting it lightly. In the six years since he accepted the job at Mighty Auto Pro in Medina, Ohio, Sobolewski has added a few more lines to that job description: part-time plumber, electrician, shuttle driver, gardener, fleet maintenance manager and resident organizer.

“John has defined his own role and he wears many, many hats,” says Leigh Anne Best, marketing director and significant other of Mighty Auto Pro owner Bill Hill. “While systems and procedures are critical for any business, we toss the book out when it comes to John. He simply recognizes an area that has a need for improvement and acts on it—old-school, team-leader style.”

Ask Sobolewski how he has managed to do this and the answer is simple: “I just like to stay busy. I don’t like to sit around. I don’t want to waste my time or your money.”

Sobolewski says that mentality was ingrained in him from an early age from his eight older brothers and sisters, who were always motivated people. From his previous work at Western Union to driving vehicles for Hertz, Sobolewski says he always looked for areas for improvements and created solutions for those. 

At Mighty Auto Pro, that began with driving the shuttle bus (which, it should be noted, is often decked out for holidays). Best says that Sobolewski knows the community like the back of his hand and delights in the opportunity to have conversations with the customers and get to know them. 

“When our clients come in and they need a shuttle, if John's not here they are quick to ask where he is, and seem disappointed that they will miss their ride and conversation with John,” she says.

In addition to taking care of the shuttle van, Sobolewski also started taking care of the shop’s eight loaner vehicles—cleaning the interiors, replacing expired tags and washing the exterior. And Sobolewski frequently performs test drives for the technicians.

But that’s not where his accomplishments end. Best says the outside of the building “sparkles” due to Sobolewski’s care and attention. He waters and tends to the 12 hanging flower baskets around the building, prunes trees that were causing blind spots for customers pulling out of the driveway, kills weeds and picks up any garbage. 

Inside the shop, his touches are everywhere. Not a piece of cardboard goes to waste, as Sobolewski ensures that all cardboard is recycled at his church. The attic that was once too crowded to walk through? It’s now in tip-top organizational shape. An old shower in the locker room that wasn’t being used? Sobolewski converted it into shelving to neatly store items. In fact, every shelf in the shop is tidy and all parts and tools are properly labeled thanks to Sobolewski’s eye for detail.

“The list truly goes on and on,” Best says.

There’s virtually no challenge Sobolewski won’t accept. When the shop wanted to mount a traffic light in the shop to signal monthly productivity goals, Sobolewski accepted the challenge and wired and mounted the light with separate switches for red, yellow and green.

When the shop’s numerous community award plaques were starting to look cluttered, Sobolewski had a company cut a piece of blue acrylic, had the shop’s logo put at the top and installed it in the front office, where the shop can now velcro mount the plaques and rotate the years when needed.

“I just want to keep my day as busy as possible,” he says. “When I met with Bill and Leigh Anne about the job, I said earlier in the conversation, I do look for things to do and it might not be in my job description.”

“We truly have been blessed to have him,” says Best. “John is one of a kind and they just don’t make ‘em like him anymore!”

 

Photography by Eric Draht

Wild Card

John Wafler

Facilitator & Instructor

RLO Training

Renton, Wash.

 

Taking Shops to the Next Level

By Travis Bean

After working as a technician for years, John Manelas decided to open his own shop. He rented the space, bought the equipment, printed some business cards and started his company. Then his business started to grow, and he wanted to expand—but he didn’t know where to start.

“I didn’t know how to lead,” he says. “My technicians were bleeding me dry. I couldn’t manage them at all. I had no idea what to do.”

He had no idea, that is, until he met John Wafler.

“This is where most small businesses fail,” Wafler says, “that transition from sole proprietor and being the only person in business to actually creating a proper business model with employees, processes, systems, benchmarks, and an understanding of the numbers.”

It’s a story Wafler, facilitator and instructor at RLO Training, has heard time and time again, and his ability to help shop owners overcome their biggest struggles was reflected in a hoard of All-Star Award nominations, all iterating the same sentiment:

“He personally took my business which was struggling and losing money and turned it into a business I can be proud of.”

“I wouldn't be in business today without John's guidance.”

“He saved my business.”

Oh, and then there’s Manelas’ nomination:

“[He was] instrumental in taking me from $550,000 in sales in a single location to $5 million in sales with four locations in five years.”

Wafler has spent the last 15 years bringing independent shop owners like Manelas together through RLO’s Bottom-Line Impact Groups, allowing owners to not only relate their business struggles, but also learn from one another on how to improve their own shops.

 “When they join the group, they feel like they’re drinking from the fire hose at full blast,” he says. “My job is to mediate that flow coming out of the hose. Too much can overwhelm them—not enough, they can lose hope or interest.”

Wafler doesn’t allow his group meetings to get bogged down with socializing and chatty participants. The group needs to be focused on the task at hand and taking each shop to the next level, and everyone needs to be involved in the discussion.

“You don’t come to my meeting and expect to sit and hide and not say anything,” he says. “I’ll put you in the discussion and make sure you’re paying attention and understanding. If they’re not engaged, they’re not helping themselves or fellow group members. Everybody needs to feel like they’re part of something that’s helping them, supporting them, helping them move forward.”

Wafler gathers information about each shop, but also expects participants to come fully prepared to participate, knowing their shop statistics and processes inside and out. Through those meetings, each shop owner develops a list of goals to follow through on, creating “an element of accountability” for the next meeting, Wafler says.

“They almost act like a board of directors, with fellow shop owners monitoring what you’re doing,” he says. “They’re making a lot of the same commitments you’re making.” 

Wafler doesn’t do everything alone, however—he’s part of a small team at RLO that’s been creating change at small- and medium-sized independent repair shops for over two decades. Headed by ex-shop owner Dan Gilley, the company has collected data from its groups over the years to track what processes and changes make the biggest differences at shops.

“It’s the culture, the environment we’ve created that has sustained us for over 20 years now,” Wafler says. “If I was just a coach working independently with shop owners, I don’t think that we would be nearly as successful as we are now, creating that peer group environment and culture of moving forward and continuous improvement that we foster.”

 

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