“Company culture” is one of the many buzzwords that continues to be tossed around in leadership books, on social media, between owners at networking events, and even within the pages of this publication. Knowing the word and what it means is one thing, but truly being able to take control and successfully shape every element of a shop’s culture is another.
In order to be in control of a business’s culture, systems and processes need to be put into place—from the employee onboarding procedure, to communication and personal development, to a promotional career path plan—all to create an environment where employees want to stay, and others want to be employed. The perfect culture needs to be built, from the ground up, and continually evaluated for ways to improve.
Ratchet+Wrench sat down with four shop owners excelling at executing different culture-building avenues to learn the four keys to building an effective culture with your team.
The Culture Experts
Throughout the following pages, these shop owners will detail how their strategies have helped create an ideal culture and provided necessary tools to build the culture of their dreams.
John Beebe, owner of Bellingham Automotive and Burlington Automotive in Washington
Having an intense onboarding process ensures Houska hires the right fit to build trust and give his staff the reigns to grow from there.
Dennis Houska, owner of Houska Automotive in Fort Collins, Colo.
Houska and his team have been able to execute a comprehensive shop system that provides strong career paths for employees.
Amy Mattinat, owner of Auto Craftsman in Montpelier, Vt.
Mattinat has perfected how her shop communicates through education, open dialogue, and frequent meetings.
Bob Parra, owner of Parra Car Care in Euless and North Richland Hills, Texas
Parra makes sure a support system is in place both inside and outside of his shop’s walls to show compassion.
Key No. 1: Find the Right Team
A bad hire can ruin an entire culture.
Ask any shop owner what their biggest struggle is and, chances are, they’ll say the technician shortage. In fact, 60 percent of survey respondents agreed. It can be tough to find people to fill open positions. But, in order to build the culture you want, you have to hire the right people for the job.
John Beebe says a healthy culture starts with finding and onboarding the right people (See Sidebar: An Onboarding Outline). Beebe’s wife is a life coach, and her influence has helped him with his staff, coaching them on how to survive in an environment that may not be healthy. That’s why Beebe has an arduous onboarding process to weed out the candidates that aren’t a good fit for the job and those that want to commit to a healthy environment.
Identify the right fit for your shop.
When looking for new staff, Beebe says to know what you want out of an employee. For him, he wants professionalism, competence, and someone who is all around right to work with.
First, the applicant has to have a resume. This is where most technicians fall short. This tells Beebe if he or she is even qualified for the job and shows he or she isn’t stubborn when it comes to updating it. After taking a look at his or her qualifications, Beebe then conducts a phone interview with the applicant, like most other jobs will do. From there, he meets the applicant at a coffee shop to get to know him or her a little more in person in a casual, comfortable setting.
“Sometimes I know within one or two minutes if they are going to be a right fit or not,” says Beebe.
That fit depends from shop to shop, but, for Beebe, it’s all about attitude.
Make sure everyone is on the same page.
After Beebe believes the candidate is a good fit, he doesn’t just hire him or her right away. Instead, he recruits staff to carry out the rest of the interview process. The staff looks over all of the material Beebe has provided, and then conducts an in-person interview. While Beebe sits in on the interview, he’s not the one asking all of the questions.
Within a few months of hiring them, Beebe starts asking employees their opinion on matters involving the workplace. He puts his trust in them and he knows they will do the same in return.
“So many people’s ideas are squelched because the owner’s attitude is, ‘it’s my way or the highway.’ You’re not going to find that here,” he says. “Lifetime employees do not do well in that type of environment.”
Never stop looking.
If your staff load is full, that doesn’t mean you should quit looking for ‘superstar’ employees, as Beebe puts it. He says your next best employee could even be outside of the industry.
“When I wanted someone, the people I wanted were not available, and when I was full, applications started pouring in,” Beebe says. “It’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open.”
Even if a potential recruit isn’t ready to take a new job, simply making that connection opens the door for the future. You may never work together, but the possibility is always in the cards.
Key No. 2: Unify the Team
A good culture requires a strong and supportive leader.
In the 2019 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey, direct involvement (where the leader gets his or her hands dirty on the shop floor) was the most popular type of leadership style, with 36 percent of respondents saying it was their style. However, it was not the style that posted the best KPIs overall; in fact, it had some of the lowest overall with only 16 percent reporting efficiency over 100 percent and 23 percent with productivity above 90 percent.
Visionary leadership, where leaders focus on the bigger picture and inspire their teams to succeed, was the choice of 28 percent of the respondents and posted better results. 42 percent reported efficiency over 100 percent and 46 percent with productivity above 90 percent.
It’s hard to say which leadership style is best, but what’s undeniable is that strong, effective leadership will lead to a good culture.
Amy Mattinat, owner of Auto Craftsman in Montpelier, Vt., knows just how important a good leader is because she started her rise to the top from the bottom.
In 1995, Mattinat started her journey in the auto repair industry as a bookkeeper at Auto Craftsmen. Eventually, she climbed the ranks to service advisor, then partner, and in 2009, she became the sole owner.
Through Mattinat’s experience with industry involvement, training, and space within Women in Auto Care (a female-focused and-led organization now through the Auto Care Association), she has been able to put a strong, determined focus on the culture of her shop—which Mattinat believes is the key to being successful and attracting top talent.
“I believe that with the current crisis of the technician shortage, it is going to be the shops that have the best culture that are going to survive,” she says. “You have to have a great culture that your existing technicians are buying into, for others to want to join.”
The same level of attention and investment that is placed on customer retention needs to be placed on employee retention. And for Mattinat, the root of all shop culture comes from the tricky, yet necessary, practice of strong and thoughtful communication. Here are her tips for effective communication.
Value your team’s input.
Years ago, when Mattinat took business classes, she heard the way people talked about running their business, and it was like a dictatorship. Even today, she reads posts from shop owners on forums complaining they have problems with employees walking out or arriving late.
These types of issues could all be solved through communication and a team atmosphere, Mattinat explains.
“As shop owners, we have to be leaders, and part of leadership is being a good communicator,” she says.
A lot of employees, especially technicians, will not share personal information, even more so if they don’t think the shop owner cares. It is up to the owner to ask questions in order to understand issues within the shop.
“Just stop and pause and ask questions. Don't assume anything, and if you talk to your staff like people, and they understand that you actually care, they will share with you,” Mattinat explains. “It totally changes everything, takes the angst out of the air, and other people will then rise to the occasion to help out.”
Talk everything out.
Every Wednesday, you will find the staff of Auto Craftsmen meeting around a table eating lunch together as a team. Although it doesn’t have to be a key point of conversation anymore, a large focus of these lunch meetings used to be focused on Mattinat teaching the art of communication. She would review something that went wrong in the shop, figure out why it could have happened, and then bring it up to the team during lunch for everyone to talk through.
A lot of the times in a case of miscommunication, an issue could arise simply because of one word.
“People have different definitions for the same word, so you have to be very mindful and strategic and really think about your word choice,” Mattinat says. “If you are wondering what a staff member meant by something—because your definition means one thing—you ask all the questions until you understand.”
There are a lot of different people involved in a single job at auto repair shops, and the baton could get passed from customer, to CSR, to service advisor, to technician and it may go back and forth. Because of that, it is vital to keep communication strong throughout.
Beyond verbal communication, documentation is also important at Auto Craftsmen. Mattinat stresses that job orders and invoices be written so thoroughly that they would hold up in a court of law, in order to enhance understanding between moving parts.
Continue to communicate successes.
A large part of communication is communicating successes to staff, which Mattinat says should be done on a regular basis and often.
For example, if a technician finds something wrong with a vehicle that could have been dangerous, say to them, “Oh my gosh, you just changed this person’s life; you are a superstar!”
Try and praise employees in front of customers and other staff members as well, Mattinat says.
Celebrations for accomplishments don’t have to be huge, but it is important to think about the individual being celebrated, and what they would like. It’s about finding out what the staff member would enjoy and looking for a way to provide that and communicate appreciation.
Key No. 3: Develop the Team
Offering personal and career growth to both apprentices and staff will bring your business to new heights.
Houska Automotive is an example of a culture that rewards loyalty. Any employee that has been at the Fort Collins, Colo., shop for 20 years gets sent on a vacation of their choice—be it Alaska, the Dominican Republic, or even a Carribean Cruise. The business also owns a beautiful townhouse in a large ski area past the shop where employees can bring their families, friends, or each other to celebrate a job well done.
Although these perks are incredible and help to build a positive culture for the 50-plus members of staff at the 28-bay, three-building shop, what truly brings in talent are the incredible growth opportunities the business has to offer—from a comprehensive apprenticeship program, to personal and industry in-house training, to large promotion opportunities.
Training is essential to employee development and a major component for success, which can be demonstrated from the Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey.
36 percent of survey respondents said that members of their team went to training once per quarter. 37 percent of that group had technician efficiency of 100 percent or higher, and 14 percent had technician productivity at 100 percent or higher. Compare that to those that reported nevering having staff attend training and the correlation is clear. Only 5 percent had a technician efficiency percentage above 100 percent, with none of them hitting above 120. For productivity, none of the respondents reported a percentage above 90 with a large percentage of these respondents reporting not tracking productivity or efficiency at all.
Many offer some support when it comes to training, however, only 3 percent spend 11–15 percent of total sales for training and 27 percent report not having a training budget.
With the demand for qualified technicians at an all-time high, carving out a growth plan and providing resources to reach the top at Houska has been essential to maintain quality employees and cultivate a positive culture.
“We all spend so much time together, [it’s] not like we go out and try to build a culture. We want to have a good time being together and take care of customers, and have fun while there,” says Houska.
Have a program in place.
When a young individual comes to Houska to learn the trade, he or she usually begins his or her time at the shop in the tire, oil, and lube building, where it is pretty easy to determine which young people have mechanical aptitude. From there, those who show potential can be moved into the business’s apprenticeship program, which has been an evolving portion of the business for the last eight years.
The length of the program varies from person to person, he says. One of the most recent techs to go through the shop’s program took roughly two years to complete, and is now a line tech.
The apprentice spending two to three months with different master technicians within the business.
“Each tech has their own expertise; we have techs that work on nothing but European cars or diesels, so it gives them a real well-rounded view,” Houska says.
The shop also has the tech take the ASE test, with the goal of becoming a master tech upon completion.
If the apprentice finishes the program and works for the company for a few years, they are able to keep the tools and toolbox that were offered to them at the beginning of the program. Houska says the $13,000 starter kit works as an incentive to get the promising young technician to stay within the industry.
Create a space for education.
In continuing the theme of encouraging the staff and apprentices’ growth, Houska Automotive offers in-house training in the business’ designated education room. Houska says they offer tons of different classes throughout the year, and invite a facilitator to come in and teach the class.
“We have training going on all the time, and we expect everyone in the company to be in some kind of training, [whether it be] business owner training, advisor update classes, or tire classes on what’s coming out,” says Houska.
The shop also offers classes outside of the automotive field—such as finances or communication—to encourage personal development as well.
Provide them with opportunities.
Because of the business' strong culture, a majority of Houska’s employees have been with him for years. With three different sections of the business going on at once, and over 50 positions, furthering one’s career path is available to everyone.
When a new position at the shop is open, the staff are normally aware of it, Houska says, and they will let him know they are interested and apply for the position along with those outside of the shop.
A fairly young oil change technician has been able to move his way to becoming the manager of the tire, oil, and lube building. Other recent promoted staff members include oil change team members that are now advisors within the business.
Key No. 4: Support the Team
Ensure your staff is taken care of so they can take care of you.
In order for your staff to appreciate the culture, they need to feel like they are appreciated. Part of that can be shown through benefits and pay. There are different ways to pay technicians—from flat rate to salary plus commission.
Finding what works best for your employees is one way to enrich their lives. Twenty-eight percent, the majority of Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey respondents, pay technicians flat rate, followed by hourly plus commission at 22 percent and hourly at 20 percent. The most popular benefit that was offered was training reimbursement at 68 percent, followed closely by health insurance at 66 percent. Find what your employees value and build a pay structure and benefits package around that.
Bob Parra, owner of Parra Car Care in Euless and North Richland Hills, Texas, not only believes in enriching the lives of his employees within his walls, but also makes sure they are taken care of in their everyday lives.
“Our culture is built on a strong supportive environment for our employees. They are family, we care about their lives and their futures,” Parra says.
Reward good work.
Parra has found that a lot of shops out there are only give and take. You do this for me, and I’ll do this for you. But, he explains, it should be like that. Becoming more helpful and less disagreeable is what wins the hearts and minds of your employees.
Parra never wants his employee’s work to go unnoticed, and constantly stresses “reward, reward, reward” for their hard work. To reward his employees, he takes them out to lunch, posts his admiration on Facebook for clients to see, or just simply has a one-on-one talk to let his employees know they are doing a good job. Parra even has a stack of gas cards lying around to give out when he notices a job well done.
“I find you reward people for the simple things,” says Parra. “They notice we are making an investment in their success and their marketability.”
Support their interests.
Not only should this support be in the workplace, but it should be outside of work, too. For Parra, this means supporting their interests and supporting them to have a positive impact on the community. Many employees will come to Parra to support their events. Whether it’s giving out cars to a family in need, helping community centers, or reviewing their stories for people who are in need, Parra is always willing to invest in their cause.
“Just the excitement you see from them when you know the business is willing to support it,” he says. “We place great value and importance on our team, and without them, we can't accomplish anything.”
Be there when they need it.
Life happens, and Parra creates a culture that supports them when life gets tough. He says it’s about having an understanding of the employee and understanding the best way to communicate to their personality. Parra said he’s had 250-pound men come in to his office and break down, all because an owner was willing to listen to what was going on at home.
“It’s all about softening your approach while being firm and being direct, but being a good listener and being able to absorb,” he says. “If someone gets off track, we value that employee enough to help them get back on track. We don't consider people as being disposable.”
To be a better boss, he believes owners need to spend time learning about themselves, who their employees are, and learning about the direction everyone wants to go as a whole. If someone is working against that goal, Parra sits them down and instead of pushing aggression their way, he asks them how he can get them back on track.
“If they believe in the vision, they let the whole world know about it,” he says.