Charting the Course
Diane Larson had a simple choice for her shop: adjust and push it forward, or simply let it die. It was 2008, just after Larson’s husband and business partner of more than 20 years had passed away.
Larson’s Service Inc. had been a mainstay in the Peabody, Mass., area since it opened in 1986. But Larson was now faced with the task of running the shop on her own at a time when the country’s economy—and the automotive industry, for that matter—was in great flux.
“You couldn’t be just a mom-and-pop shop and survive anymore,” she says. “You had to position yourself as a modern business, and you had to know how to really market and learn to be an employer, learn to train and hire people.”
Skip ahead five years: Larson’s Service has grown substantially by every measure—revenue, car count, staff, etc.—and Larson has positioned herself as a true leader in the industry (she serves on the Automotive Service Association’s (ASA) national mechanical division operations committee).
But during that five-year period in which her business lingered between uncertainty and success, Larson says she spent her time doing pretty much one thing: hitting the books.
Always a proponent of education, Larson turned to formal management training to save her business. She earned an Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM) designation from the Automotive Management Institute, and she’s nearly completed a similar degree with the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association’s University of the Aftermarket.
The truth is, Larson says, there are nearly limitless opportunities for shop operators to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to running a modern repair business. And that doesn’t necessarily mean completing full-on degrees.
“You just have to get off the island of your shop and do it,” Larson says.
Learning to Learn
It’s strange, opines Bill Moss, owner of EuroService Automotive Inc. in Warrenton, Vt., that so many shop owners are eager to push staff into technical training but ignore the education necessary to fulfill their own roles effectively. Moss admittedly was part of that group until he stumbled into the offerings at various trade shows that eventually led to his own AAM designation.
“A problem is that when you’re in that environment of owning a shop, you don’t know what you don’t know—and you don’t know where to seek it out,” he says.
Ratchet+Wrench polled Moss, Larson and a slew of other shop owners to find just that: the top places for shop operators to look for affordable, convenient and worthwhile management education.
The Automotive Management Institute (AMIonline.org)
Moss describes AMI as a “big clearing house” for industry education.
“And I say that in a positive way,” he says. “The courses they offer cover all aspects of managing a shop.”
Although AMI offers its AAM designation to those that complete the qualifying credits—and it has some other certification options, as well—classes can be taken simply on an as-interested basis.
AMI’s courses focuses on five areas of study: marketing and sales, operations and service, management and administration, financial management, and personnel management. Courses can be taken in person (ranging from 90 minutes to five days in length) or through self-study options.
If your schedule allows, Larson suggests the in-person options, as they offer a chance for true interaction and networking with both classmates and the instructors.
Those instructors include some of the industry’s top leaders—current and former shop owners, business consultants and coaches, and many representatives from some of the most highly regarded training organizations in the country, such as Elite Worldwide, the Automotive Training Institute, RLO Training, and Management Success!, among many others.
The University of the Aftermarket (northwood.edu/aftermarket)
The University of the Aftermarket is run through Northwood University and its faculty, and it offers a number of different educational options for all members of the automotive aftermarket industry. The programs are tailored toward a student’s particular segment of the industry.
There is a bachelor’s degree in automotive aftermarket management, an only-of-its-kind Aftermarket Executive MBA (master of business administration), and a cohort program in which companies or groups of professionals can earn various MBA degrees together through Norwood’s DeVos Graduate School.
There are also other continuing education and certification options. One of those includes Norwood’s Leadership 2.0 conference, which Larson attended last year.
“It was an incredible experience,” she says. “You’re grouped with various leaders from all segments of the aftermarket … and it really teaches you the leadership and planning skills needed to operate a business.”
Courses can be taken online or in person at Norwood’s three campuses in Michigan, Florida and Texas, as well as at various trade shows and events.
Dale Carnegie Training (Dalecarnegie.com)
Although not directly industry-related, many shop owners have pointed R+W to Dale Carnegie Training as an educational outlet that completely revolutionized their leadership abilities.
Overall, the program revolves around leadership training, although there is plenty of skill-specific training available as well. That includes courses focused on skills such as sales, customer communication, and giving presentations, among others.
Dale Carnegie offers everything from single-day seminars to full-on certification programs that can be taken in person, online or through mobile devices.
Colleges and Online Learning
One option that’s often overlooked for business owners, Moss says, is taking individual classes from local schools in your shop’s area. There are hundreds of business courses offered at any community college, and taking a class in, say, finance or accounting, can be a great way to gain that direct knowledge without the pressure or time commitment of working through a program.
The same can be done through any of a number of online university programs.
And then there are options such as Coursera. Coursera (coursera.org) is an organization that partners with some of the country’s most prestigious universities to offer free college courses online. You can take an economics class from Columbia University, a course on business strategy from the University of Virginia, or a financial accounting course from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Course availability is time sensitive, and they can be anywhere from four to 12 weeks long. Coursera does not provide credits for completed coursework.
Follow the Leader: A Fresh Perspective
At work each day, Taylor Hill, 27, has a not-so-subtle reminder of what she’s working toward in her career.
Although Hill struggles to come up with an official title for her role at Larson’s Service (“I kind of do a little bit of everything,” she says), Larson simply calls her “an owner in training.”
“That’s my goal,” says Hill, who dreams of opening her own shop in the near future. “And that’s why I’m [at Larson’s Service]—to learn from Diane.”
Despite always having a passion for auto repair, Hill had stayed away from the industry until a few years ago when she read about Larson and her work as a female shop owner. It’s what inspired her to call Larson for advice on a career path—and it’s what led to her job at the shop.
Now, Hill is doing her best to learn from Larson, and one of Larson’s qualities has certainly rubbed off on her: a passion for education.
Hill is currently working toward her AAM designation with AMI, and takes any and every business management training course or seminar that she can.
“It’s so important,” Hill says of formal education. “These courses give you the information you need to be able to manage—and not just people, but manage the right numbers that keep the business profitable. Without the right training, you’re just guessing.”