Learning to Lead—and Let Go
Back in 2014, Ratchet+Wrench connected with Ken Gamble as he and his son, Jacob, worked on renovating his shop, North Hills Automotive in Greenville, S.C. (ratchetandwrench.com/northhillsauto).
Since then, Gamble has taken a bit of a step back from his involvement with the two-shop operation. He’s cut his work hours in half—a big departure from his past 12-hour workdays.
Gamble feels at ease with his operation; the shops net approximately $3.7 million in annual revenue and that is due in part to Gamble’s vigilance of each shop’s KPIs.
With more than 30 years of experience, Gamble’s deep roots in the industry began with his grandfather opening a shop in 1918. Following in his footsteps, Gamble opened his own shop in 1986. By using lessons learned from his grandfather, Gamble has molded himself into the type of leader that would make his grandfather and father proud. And at 62 years old, Gamble continues to pass that on to his son, who runs the day-to-day operations.
Gamble is still very much involved with the shops. Whether it’s on the business’s website or its social media channels, not only is Gamble’s attention to detail evident, but so too is his desire to appeal to customers as more than just another repair shop.
SHOP STATS: North Hills Automotive Location: East Butler and Augusta, S.C. Size: 12,000–12,600 square feet (East Butler); 4,400 square feet (Augusta) Staff Size: 21–22 Average Monthly Car Count: 1,000 Annual revenue: $3.7 million
My job is to look out the window and see where the industry is heading. Where do we want to go? We want to stay relevant—always.
We feel like our competition is new car dealerships. They are particular about quality, just like us. And, we are careful that our customer is not just another number.
The business is based on relationships and that has been our philosophy for the last 30 years. You can’t service your customer if you don’t know who the customer is. When you come here, you have a name. We work on a first-name basis because we want to win your trust.
I usually get in around 9 a.m. The bulk of my day is spent at our corporate office looking at the daily numbers, KPIs, making projections for the month, giving managers goals to hit and talking to customers and addressing any concerns they may have. We are very process oriented.
I start off by checking bank activity and communicating any questions I have about deposits and debits with our controller, Lauren Canady. She gives me a list of payments she’ll make that day. She then produces the KPI report from the previous day’s business, which I review.
Most days I can run through the KPI checks very quickly because the numbers are very consistent. Each shop’s performance is listed in a tracker or Excel sheet that breaks down each of the measurable KPIs per day and then the weekly total. We also do a combined tally of both shops.
We track net sales, number of vehicles, average ticket, gross profit, shop efficiency, courtesy checks and more. For the first week of April, we had a total of 209 vehicles come in for work and our average ticket for both shops combined was $380.72.
Every number must pass what I call the “reasonability-ness” test. If I see a number that is out of range I focus my attention on that category. For example, if our warranty work (for which we have a lifetime parts and labor guarantee) was unusually high one day, I ask for the details behind the number and find out why we had a high number. I ask whether it was due to a failed part, a technician error or some other cause.
We also have a 21-point employee handbook in place for handling the vehicle maintenance process. Our handbook models the 21 steps our staff needs to take to make sure customers and vehicles are handled correctly throughout the repair process. By having something like this in place, any time there is an issue, we can go back to that step where we faltered and correct the problem. It’s part of our company culture now and it works well for us.
I stay at my desk for the most part. I take coffee breaks, though. During the afternoon, I set aside time to focus on social media and emails that come from the website.
I check our social media accounts and review ad performance, answer messages from customers and decide if additional ads should run, create content and photos/videos to use. We have more than 2,200 collective Facebook likes for both stores. What really matters to me is how many people are actually engaging in the content and interacting with it.
I try to get out into the shops and take pictures of maybe an engine, something with an obvious problem, and then I post it on Facebook. This type of post requires a response from the reader. Social media is more about awareness. My job through social media is to show people what goes on in the shops every day. This is the face you deal with at the counter.
My other son, Rob, is currently studying business marketing at the University of South Carolina, so once he graduates, I will put him in charge of the shops’ social media and marketing efforts. Another aspect of the business that Rob will need to look after is maintaining the sports sponsorships we have for our local schools, which helps build relationships with the community.
I also write articles for our website. On our website, there is a Q&A portion known as “The Driving Line.” Customers can go there, use #AskKen to ask me questions, and I will respond. This segment of our website was derived from a radio show I used to do where people would call in and ask me a number of questions regarding auto maintenance.
Intertwined with monitoring social media, I take phone calls, visit customers in the lobby to say hello and thank them for coming in. While I take coffee breaks, I stroll through the shop visiting techs and managers, boosting morale with small talk. I like to stay closely connected to the techs and managers. The problems they face working on cars and with customers are sometimes the least of their worries, so keeping up with their family life is an important part of leadership. They know they can come to me anytime and talk. The rest of the day is spent returning emails, writing for our website, reviewing capital improvement needs and assigning tasks to management.
I also work on putting out any fires, customer problems or shop issues. If there is a problem, we will take care of it before it leaves the shop. We rarely have any customers that I need to speak to personally because my staff follows our processes so well. When your staff trusts the system, they will adapt to it that much more easily. Following the process ensures that everything is done correctly. And, with these processes in place, you will make both your staff and company more profitable.
I’m not afraid to do anything I ask others to do. For me, in a leadership role, I have to go out of my way to make sure I treat people the way I want to be treated. I’m not a hard-nosed sergeant barking orders. I’ll go the extra mile for any of my employees.
You lead by example. Respect other people and they will respect you. Try not to let anyone down. Try to be consistent every day.
I always tell my staff, “You can’t get fired for making a mistake, but you can get fired for lying.” Integrity is the name of the game. I expect our technicians to be transparent with our managers and I expect managers to be open with me, too.
I end my day around 2:30–3 p.m. I decided that after all these years of working almost 12-hour days, it was time to spend more quality time with my wife. I’m even looking into transitioning our shops to a cloud-based system, so I can work from home when I want to.
Ever since the early days of ownership I have found that much more can be accomplished if I am a good delegator of responsibility. That’s the key. I must trust the people that I have assembled around me to do what I’ve asked them to do. That way all I should have to do is follow up on what they are doing, hold them accountable and watch the machine run. Accountability is the biggest piece of that pie.
Meeting regularly, whether in person or virtually, and insisting on daily reporting keeps everyone on their toes and their assigned tasks top of mind. The more I have delegated, the less I’ve had to do myself. I’m at the point where it only takes a minute or two for me to review each person’s daily activity and contribution to the company.