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Best of the Best: Top-of-the-Line Manager

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Rissy Sutherland, one of the country’s most renowned operators, travels the U.S. meeting, teaching, consulting and even learning from some of the top automotive repair businesses in the industry. Each month in Best of the Best, Sutherland will share the her biggest takeaways, highlighting industry best practices and successful operational strategies that any shop can implement.

I had my first visit to Service Street in Marietta, Ga., about 10 years ago. I was talking to Greg Sands, founder of the Service Street franchise network, and he was telling me about the location and what it was doing. I heard amazing car counts, revenues and, most amazingly, that gross profit was above 60 percent at the time. I told him I had to see it to believe it! So, he said come on down.

What I saw and experienced completely changed my model on running shops, advertising, customer service and so much more. This was the start of a lifelong friendship.

Ten years later, I was back in Atlanta to speak at an event. I called up Greg and Scott Darnell, the operating owner of Service Street, to ask if I could come back in for a visit. They had an open-door policy as they always do, but this time neither of them were in town. However, they invited me to meet with their general manager who operates the day-to-day aspects of the shop.  

(A quick note: Scott in and of himself should be a future column, as he is an amazing business man. He operates automotive shops in three states, all at impressive numbers. Even more amazingly is that if you call any of his shops, the first thing the staff attributes success back to is that they have an engaged owner who not only knows every aspect of each of his shops but cares about them as well!)

So on a beautiful Friday morning in Georgia, I pulled into Service Street again to be greeted by Kevin Kesterson, the GM. Immediately, the entire staff had the same hospitality and welcoming environment that I came to see the last time (all under the daily eyes of the Kevin). When I reviewed the numbers for the location prior to my visit, I found that car count, revenue and GP were still growing. I couldn’t wait to dive in and learn more about this team.


General Manager—Not from the Auto Industry

People ask me all the time, “What makes the best general manager?” I have visited over 500 shops in my career and I have seen the best and the worst. In my humble opinion the best managers I have ever seen have a natural sales ability and charisma; they’re customer service oriented; they have a positive, can-do attitude and a drive to succeed.

In that description, you will see nothing about automotive knowledge. Now, don’t get me wrong: There needs to be an aptitude for learning automotive skills, but it’s not a requirement. I can teach skills. I can’t teach caring, charisma and attitude.

Kevin graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a B.S in culinary arts and business management. He began working his way up in the restaurant industry with Marriott, Brio Tuscan Grill, and Longhorn Steakhouse for 15 years, the final 10 years serving as general manager. Kevin seized an opportunity to take his managerial and sales skills in the restaurant industry and transition those over to the automotive industry. This allowed him to expand his knowledge, have steady hours, come home to dinner with his family, work in a recession-proof business, have more opportunities for success and work with some amazing people.

Kevin learned all the basics that he needed to know regarding automotive by being trained by his own team to do inspections, test drives and find those critical safety and maintenance items. Every day continues to be a learning experience for the entire team because all managers will role-play the show and sell at the car with the technician before they ever bring the customer out to the car. Even more fun is that technicians and other team members give the obvious objections that the customer will have.

This really serves many purposes:

  1. The team continues to learn together daily. This expands everyone’s knowledge and creates an open line of communication.
  2. They can tell their customer that the manager and the technician reviewed the vehicle together, which builds the customer’s confidence.
  3. It prepares the technician and manager to be more prepared than the customer and fully confident to handle all questions. It’s a winning concept!


No. 1 Tip for Success

Kevin feels that to be successful in this industry the quality of service (i.e., providing genuine hospitality) is key. Every customer walking into your shop is a possible lifelong customer, and for that reason alone, going above and beyond to wow each customer is vital to the long-term success of a shop.

For Service Street, the real aspect that leads to them achieving that wow factor for their customers is their speed of service. This shows the customer that when they come into the shop, they are our priority, they are important to us, their time is important to us, and we will get that car pulled around ASAP (even before you finished checking them in!) and get back to them in a goal of 10 minutes or less to review safety or maintenance needs. That is truly WOWING THE CUSTOMER.


Kevin’s View of the Automotive Future

Kevin sees great things happening now and in the future for his shop and the automotive industry. He told me that “automotive is very like the restaurant industries in that cars are an absolute necessity, almost as important as food. With the rising demand to keep vehicles as long as possible, the opportunity to gain the trust and lifelong relationships with customers is more important than ever.” However, he understands that his facilities must be true “yes companies” because today’s customers have choices and they have limited time. So, when they need service we better say, “Is now a good time?” He’s found that if his team doesn’t take that customer right at that moment, then someone else will!


The Team

What impacted me the most on my first visit and again on this visit is the positive attitude, smiling faces and team communication overall at the shop. When I asked Kevin what was one critical aspect to the success of the shop, he said it  was “having an engaged owner that cares about the shop and the team has been critical. He calls me every day to review the day ahead, he’s always there when I need him and if I call him with a need for shop improvement, it’s implemented or put into place without hesitation.” The second aspect was having a team that worked together on a daily basis, enjoyed what they did, were proud of what they were creating and drove that team atmosphere home.

Finally, the third aspect Kevin noted was that he believes that “honesty and integrity are what makes a good team. In our industry, we generally have an uphill battle earning a new customers trust as people are not as knowledgeable about the needs of their cars and therefore placing all of their trust in you as the ‘car doctors’ to keep them healthy and on the road for the long haul is vital.”


Training Critical for Success

Both Kevin and Scott’s philosophy is that they are only as good as the people around them. Therefore, they surround themselves with quality, educated technicians and general service techs.

The team spends time training and developing each other every day. It never stops and Kevin says, “Don’t allow yourself to become comfortable. Drive yourself and team to always get better as there is always room for improvement.” All GS techs train with an A-tech on each car that comes in to do inspections and repairs. The team will review each car together prior to selling any job to the customer. And at least once per day, each person will yell out, “Ring, ring!” so that they are role playing those phone skills every day. Trust me … they can come up with some doozies!


Keeping that Car Count Up

Straight from Kevin: “It’s a combination of many things. First and foremost, it’s the targeted marketing with direct mail. We do this on a never fail consistent basis. We know it works and its target to our ideal customer base. Next, it’s being a ‘yes company’ so that when a customer comes in or calls we always say, ‘Yes now is a good time.’ The other two key items is the ‘wow’ customer service and hospitality of speed of service and treating our customers with the hospitality that we would want our own family members to be treated with!”


Lessons Learned

Kevin said there have been too many lessons to count but, “I would say the biggest lesson I have learned so far is that you will never have this industry mastered. This industry offers countless opportunities to grow and develop talents and knowledge daily. There are daily opportunities to share knowledge and tips with one another creating an atmosphere of constant development that quickly becomes infectious creating an atmosphere of healthy competition. That’s what makes me love my team, Service Street and the industry as a whole.”

SHOP STATS: Service Street Location: Marietta, Ga.  Operating Owner: Scott Darnell  General Manager: Kevin Kesterson  Bays:  Staff Size: 3-4 A techs, 3 GS Techs, 3 Service Managers  Average Monthly Car Count: 380-410  Annual revenue: $1.4+ million

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