Maintaining the Perfect Balance
Ben Nielsen, owner of Ben Nielsen’s Skyline Automotive in Falls Church, Va., says he’s worn pretty much every hat there is to wear when it comes to the mechanical repair industry. At 17, he started sweeping floors at a gas station. He worked his way up as that company grew and eventually became the No. 2 guy at the company before he left to find what many in the industry struggle to strike—a healthy work-life balance.
“I have five kids and I was working 6–7 days per week,” Nielsen says. “It wasn’t working. I wanted to spend more time with my family.”
Nielsen’s solution? Going all in and purchasing his own shop. Investing almost everything you have and purchasing a repair shop isn’t what would pop into one’s minds when thinking of ways to spend more time with his or her loved ones, but Nielsen knew what he needed to do to make it work.
“I focused on my team and building the right culture on day one,” Nielsen says.
Within the first year, the shop’s sales doubled. Since taking ownership, Nielsen has grown the shop from a $1 million-per-year business to a $3 million-per-year business. At this year’s Automotive Training Institute SuperConference, Ben Nielsen’s Skyline Automotive took home three awards, including its second consecutive year for Most Improved Service Sales. In April, Nielsen added a body shop—Charles County Auto Body—to his operation.
I couldn’t do what I do without my wife and co-owner, Erin. She and I are a team. She’s the driving force of the business. In the mornings, I try and wake up early and exercise and then help get the kids on the bus. Sometimes, she’ll go in early—around 7—and I’ll stay and get the kids ready. At the shop, she takes the lead on marketing, advertising and accounting. I focus more on customer relations, workflow and the shop floor.
It’s all about making a daily list of what needs to be accomplished. I literally don’t ever do the same thing two days in a row. It’s exciting. I go from vendor meetings to reviewing insurance to being on the shop floor. I just go with the flow of where the day takes me.
On days that I go to Skyline, I’m typically in the doors between 8 and 9. Since we just purchased the body shop, which is about 35 miles away, there are some days that I don’t go into Skyline at all. On those days, I’m always available by phone or through email. Both locations know that they can always get in touch with me.
I decided to open a body shop because customers were frequently bringing their collision work to us. Since we’re focused on the best customer service possible, we would sublet the work. After a while, we figured we would start looking into our own shop. I believe that with the right vision and culture, we’ll be able to duplicate what we have at Skyline.
The shop is open Monday-Friday from 7-6 and Saturday from 8-4. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I should open the shop on Sundays and that we’d be more profitable that way, but I will never open on Sunday. That is a day that everyone should spend with their family. I’ve also cut back and I don’t work on Saturdays. I’m available and talking to the guys, but I’m not physically at the shop.
I have daily morning huddles with my manager. Those meetings take between 15-20 minutes. We cover all of the work that’s coming and is in progress for the day. He gives me an update on the status of each item and then relays his game plan for how he’s going to get everything done. I don’t like to micromanage. I let my employees know what’s expected of them and then I allow them to make their own decisions, right or wrong.
I’ve got a wonderful crew that’s able to grind out the day-to-day operations. We’ve got specific processes in place for everything, from performing a digital inspection to the vehicle delivery program that we have.
On Tuesday, I have a weekly meeting with my ATI coach. Since we’ve added the body shop, I now also have weekly Wednesday check-ins with my ATI body coach. Working with them has allowed me to be able to do everything that I do and still have time for a personal life.
Between the new shop and Skyline, I don’t have set days where I’m at either one. I go where I’m needed. Since the body shop is brand new, I’ve been there a little more. We just hired a new manager there, so I expect that I won’t be needed there as much. I’ve always clearly laid out job descriptions. This has allowed me to create the team that I need to succeed. When someone is hired, I make it clear what I want our culture to represent. I share what’s expected of them as far as job duties and benchmarks that they need to hit. I’ve even framed the principles that I expect my staff to follow around the shop.
In order to be able to work on and not in your business, you have to create the right kind of culture. In order to do this, you need to understand what everyone in your shop is motivated by and what goals they have. You need to make sure that your plan and their plans work together. We have a very family-oriented culture. We work and we play together. We try to do something together as a team annually—I think paintball is next. I want work-life balance to be important to my staff as well. They know that if they ever need to leave early to go pick up their kids or something like that, they can. I don’t think I’ve ever told someone that they couldn’t take time off. I’m able to do that because I’ve hired people that won’t abuse that.
I’m usually gone for the day around 5. I’ll do follow-up calls with both of my shops on the way home. I also get a report sent to me each day. It has the daily numbers, like cars dropped off, cars picked up and ticket average. Sometimes I’ll check that at home.
SHOP STATS: Ben Nielsen's Skyline Automotive Location: Falls Church, Va. Operator: Ben and Erin Nielsen Average Monthly Car Count: 460 Staff Size: 16 Shop Size: 6,400 sq ft; Annual Revenue: $3.4 million