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How I Did It

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How I Did It: Leading the Operation

Bruce Howes quickly realized that as his shop grew, his “solar system” management mentality was not tenable. He grew up in family businesses, first watching his grandfather and then his father, use that strategy—with all functions of the business circling them as the owners. And Howes followed in their footsteps, initially, serving as the focal point for his shop in New York.

But with a move to Maine, a fresh start, and a rapidly growing business, Howes overhauled his approach with Atlantic Motorcar Center in Wiscasset.

“We’ve built our business very laterally. I’m definitely the owner but I have managers for each department and they are all empowered to make decisions,” Howes says.

He wanted a different philosophy, and says the operational change was a “lifestyle decision.”

“At the end of the day, you really need to design your business so you can work five days per week to have a healthy life balance,” Howes says. “If you can’t do that, you need to change your paradigm—how you operate. You need to get people in there and get people to delegate.”


Make maps that anyone can follow.

One of the large operational changes Howes has made in running his businesses over the years, was a strategy that he took from large corporations. His inspiration came from the franchise business model of operations manuals. Howes says the idea of these manuals is to be able to take them anywhere within the regional area and be able to replicate the business, which he says is his goal.  

“You don't build a business around people—people are your most valuable asset—but you build a business around processes,” Howes says.     

 Atlantic Motorcar Center uses process maps, which he says are similar to SOPs, but follow more of a recipe structure.

“An SOP would say, ‘Don't turn off the lights until it’s dark outside,’ but that doesn't give a lot of information,” Howes says. “A process map is like a recipe, and tells you the initial purpose of the map.”

Howes gives the example of a process map on how employees should call customers for a follow-up. The map includes the reason why the call should be made, the people responsible for making the call, the supplies needed, an overview of the process and then the exact steps.

This allows for Howes—or any of his staff members—to be out and still have someone step in and follow the process maps to complete their tasks.

“We even have a process map of how to make a process map,” Howes says.

This is because each team member is responsible for his or her own maps. The documents are shared on Google Drive, and accessible to those who need it. The maps are dynamic and not static, explains Howes, so as processes change, the maps can be easily changed and updated along with it.  


Encourage the right team.

Having a strong team is critical to Howes’ success, and he says the best way to do that is by properly motivating, training and encouraging employees.

“I don't think we [as an industry] pay enough attention to valuing our employees, training our employees, and investing in our employees,” he says. “Our most valuable capital is human capital.”

If you fix the employees, you fix the customers, Howes says.   

He makes sure to walk out and say “hello” to every employee each morning to make sure they feel valued. He also has each staff member sign a code of conduct about how they will behave to one another, as well as customers.

When bringing on a new employee, Howes gets his team involved by having key members join in to help make decisions. On the third step of the Atlantic Motorcar Center interview process, select employees will meet with the potential candidate to speak with them or grab lunch. Howes says he included this in his interview process because it makes his employees feel more invested in the decision, and valued. Candidates also tend to let their guards down more around people they view as peers, and share things they normally wouldn't to Howes or the shop’s general manager.


Set a training plan.

Employees need to be trained properly in order for a shop to be operational during the leave of an owner. To make the training process as in-depth as possible, and to add to retention, Howes has created a 30-, 60- and 90-day training plan.

Each of the steps of the training process includes a goal sheet with what the employee needs to accomplish during the set timeframe.

For example, Howes includes some simple operational checkboxes for the 30-day goal sheet, like learning the email system, how to use Google Drive, how to do a vehicle inspection, where the forms are in the shop and how to use some of the diagnostic tools. The employee then sits down with Howes to discuss progress. Anything the individual didn’t complete in the 30-day goal sheet gets rolled onto the 60-day sheet.

“By the time they get to 90 days, they should be fully spun up and operational,” Howes says.

Howes adjusts the employee’s payment to where they are in their training process. The first 30 days the employee is on an hourly rate. After that and up to 60 days, he or she is on hourly plus performance, and after 90 days, he or she is reliant on straight performance.

You want to invest in these people, you want to train them up and you want to help them to succeed, Howes says.

“I worked hard because I grew up in a family business, and I saw my father and my grandfather working 24/7, missing ball games and things like that, so I worked hard to try to build a business that didn't run like a solar system,” he says.

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