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Strength in Numbers

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Bob Buchheit didn’t like what he saw. As a technician, he stood by watching his owners poorly handle both customers and employees, all the while—at least, so he thought—piling up money on the labor he and the other techs did.

He thought he could do better.

He knew how to fix cars, and he knew how to treat people. It wasn’t until after opening his own shop that he realized what he didn’t know: everything else.

“I think I was like most techs who start their own business in that I thought the owner just sits there and gets rich,” he says. “When I started my shop, I remember feeling overwhelmed. I had two employees, but I didn’t know how to manage them. I was actually making a decent profit, but I had no idea how I was doing it, or why.

“After a couple of years, I realized something: I wasn’t a businessman. I needed help.”

That was nearly 20 years ago. Today, Buchheit’s Columbia, Mo., shop, All-Star Automotive, generates $1.3 million in annual revenue and is what industry consultant Gary Gunn considers to be one of the best-run shops he works with.

And, Buchheit says, he owes it all to joining a 20 Group, or network of peers, roughly 12 years ago.

“I think a lot of independent shops take ‘being independent’ too literally,” he says. “Too many independents think they have to be independent. I’ve gotten a lot of help from some really great people, and that’s why I’m where I am today.”

Joining a professional network like a 20 Group—and effectively leveraging its benefits—can teach shop owners the critical skills needed to run their businesses effectively. Leadership, management, business sense—they learn it from each other and the group’s facilitator, often an industry consultant with ownership experience.

“There’s no silver bullet in our business that kills all your problems,” says Gunn, who’s run 20 Groups for the last 17 years. “You have to be able to build a foundation for repeatable success in your business. We don’t give Band-Aids, because Band-Aids come loose; they fall off. We give surgery, and we offer transformation.”

Growing Leaders

Dan Gilley signed up with Bottom Line Impact Groups (BLIG), one of the original mechanical 20 Groups anywhere, in 1995. He noticed that all the other shops he looked at as industry leaders and models of efficiency were working with various groups. He wanted his shop to have the same advantages.

“Once I got in (the group), that’s when I realized that all these shops didn’t start out where they were, they used to be in the same position I was,” Gilley says. “The Bottom Line Impact Groups helped them become those leaders, and that’s where I wanted to get to.”

Was Gilley happy with his decision? Well, it’s now 17 years later, and Gilley is still involved—as a trainer. After selling his shop in 2000, he took an offer to come onboard at RLO Training from the company’s founder, the late Bob O’Connor. Gilley now serves as president of RLO and facilitator for its BLIG.
For those unfamiliar with BLIG, 20 Groups or any other type of professional network, Gilley describes it very simply: “It’s a safe environment for people to share financial information, learn from each other and have peers who can give them input and ideas for their business.”

“The challenge as independent shop owners is that we can sometimes be on an island, and we’re not hearing from other people in our industry,” Gilley says.  “Any shop owner who is wanting to grow, either personally or professionally, should be involved in some sort of peer group or a 20 Group.”

Many professional groups offer different features for their members, but most tend to focus on finance, business operations, leadership and management, as well as individual issues of members.

Gunn, who runs his groups through his company Turnaround Tours, also helps members create a thorough business plan, a document that serves as a shop’s how-to book.

“It makes their business duplicate-able,” Gunn says. “It really takes them to a different stratosphere, because it documents everything that they do: the systems, the phones, this is how we make an estimate, this is how we hire people, this is how we staff, this is who we’re looking for. It really creates a strategic plan for their business.”

Maximizing the Experience

The overall goal for each group, Gunn says, is to give shop owners all the tools needed to run their business successfully—and give them their own, personal “board of directors” to bounce ideas off of from time to time.

“I believe it forms a fraternity of like-minded business people who aren’t competitors,” Gunn says. “We encourage communication between the meetings, we have webinars between the meetings, we have monthly composites, financial comparisons, and we meet three times a year in person.

“It’s a great way to compare business to business. Where else are you going to find that?”

Deciding if it’s a right fit for you, Gunn says, is about commitment level. Are you willing to go to the meetings? Are you willing to help other shops, let them help you? And a lot of it comes down to whether or not you can leave “your ego in the hall,” as Gunn put it.

“People are going to pose tough questions to you, they’re going to make you think about things you don’t want to think about,” Gilley adds. “But, what I find is that when your initial reaction to something is ‘No,’ then it’s probably the thing you needed to hear the most.”

Gunn and Gilley agree that getting the most out of the experience should be the goal for each member. For the process to be effective, it’s all about being open.

“You have to be willing to tell the truth—good or bad, ugly or pretty,” Gunn says. “You can’t paint a picture that’s good or happy in your business. You have to lay your flaws on the table, and you have to bear your soul and maybe admit you’re lost and don’t know what you’re doing. If you can do that, you’ll be just fine.”

Success Takes Time

Gunn says it can be frustrating for some owners who join the group and expect overnight success. People are always looking for an answer, and they want it yesterday, he says.

But there is no “Shop Owning for Dummies,” Gunn says, and throwing Band-Aids over problems won’t fix anything long-term.

“It’s like joining a gym, after the first week you look the same,” Gunn says. “But if you keep doing it and going back over and over, you will change, your body will change. You have to stay with it.”

That’s why Gunn has members of his groups, who have participated for more than 15 years. Gilley himself is evidence of the benefits of being in a group for the long haul.

“The funny thing is, a lot of the shops that have been in it for a long time and are perceived as being very successful benefit as much or more than the new shops,” he says. “They know how the process works, and they know the importance of learning from each other.”

Buchheit is another example of that.

When he first joined Gunn’s group, his shop was generating less than $400,000 in annual revenue. Now, well over the $1 million per year mark, Buchheit says he is considering expansion and continually looking for financial growth.

When Buchheit looks at his shop, he likes what he sees, and, he says, he owes it to his group experience.

“You can be in a different market, have different weather patterns and different peak seasons, but people are people, and whatever problems you have, the solutions are the same shop to shop, no matter where you are,” he says. “It’s tough to do everything by yourself, and by having those other guys and their experiences—those experiences from all over the country—it’s critical.”

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