Leadership Shop Culture How to Lead

Becoming a Leader

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SHOP STATS: BA Auto Care  Location: Columbia, Md.  Operator: Brian England  Average Monthly Car Count: 312  Staff Size: 14  Shop Size: 14,000 square feet Annual Revenue: $2.4 million  

Becoming a leader in your shop doesn’t mean you have to be the shop’s owner. No, a leader can be anyone in a shop that others look up to for guidance, and moving into that position takes time and training in itself. And, as Ben McMillen stepped into the role of BA Auto Care’s (in Columbia, Md.) new shop foreman, he made sure to take what he learned from his mentor to become one on his own, and learn what his mentor did that he thought he could do even better.

As told to Abby Patterson

I wanted to actually learn. My senior year of high school, I worked at a gas station; all I did was change oil and clean floors. After high school, I attended Lincoln Tech, but I quit halfway through because I wasn’t learning anything. When I left, I was still interested in working with cars, so I looked at working for different dealerships and independent repair shops in town to learn from.

I came into BA Auto Care three times before I got a job; they just weren’t hiring when I’d come in. By the third time, however, they decided to bring me on and create a whole new apprenticeship position just for me. After a few months working in the summer, they officially brought me on board full time.

After a couple of months in the bays, I wanted to learn even more, so I asked the owner how I could move forward. The owner then set me up with a mentor, Dan Hopkins, the shop foreman. He was at the shop for 25 years and for the last 10 years that he was here, I worked underneath him.

I think one thing he was very good at was explaining things. He was patient and if you weren’t sure of something, he would say to put it to the side and focus on other things, then we’d come back to it; he didn’t rush into things or jump to conclusions. Every time I thought I screwed up, I was able to go to him and he would help me fix it, letting me know what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. I feel like I didn’t have to hide anything from him. I truly could go to him for anything, negative or positive.

He also wanted me to learn on my own. At the time, I was taking night classes through a local community college. I would go into work the next day and tell him what I learned, and he would relate his topics for the day to what I had just learned in class the night prior.

The biggest thing I learned from Dan was looking at different ways to approach jobs. After a car left, we kept talking about that same car or incident and looked at different ways to approach that job. Doing it so many times over and over, I look at different ways to tackle a job before I begin working on the car. 

Dan retired roughly nine or 10 years ago. It took some time to move into his role. There was another guy who took over his role at first, but he moved shortly after and left the shop. I was then asked to be the shop foreman in 2014.

I teach the same principles to my techs as he taught me. Since moving into the shop foreman position, I’ve been paired up with some of the younger kids that want to become technicians in the future. I’ve shown them the same procedures, encouraged them to read coursework, learn industry knowledge from books, and take what they have learned from class to apply it in the shop; just like my mentor did with me. All in all, I’m teaching them to look at different ways of approaching jobs. I think you have to be, especially in the independent shops, very creative with how you approach them. We can’t always afford all of the special tools it takes to do the special jobs.

I’m a little more open with communication than my mentor was. If you make a mistake, I want my techs to come and tell me. Dan never told me to come straight to him, but I wanted to be straightforward with my techs and tell them they’re not going to learn unless they are able to come to me with issues. If I tell them how to do something 15 times, they need to know that they can’t sit there and not say anything. I understand that it’s difficult to try and remember every detail, so it’s better to have more questions than not.

Last year, for example, we had two new techs and I worked with them closely for the first couple of weeks, then slowly stepped away so they’d come and ask me questions, either because they weren’t familiar with the car, didn’t have the tools, or didn’t know what tools to use.

I try to help people when they need help; I don’t try to force myself on them. When I do, I’ll go over and try to understand why they are doing it a certain way. I don’t try to make them do it the way I do it.

What I started doing in the beginning after I was hired was, when they started hiring young apprentices and they would come to me with questions, I would show them how I would find that answer myself versus just giving them the answer right away.

For example, if someone is asking me for help, I take them to the computer and show them how to look up the procedures on how to do it, and explain how to do it exactly how the procedure suggests and just make sure to point out some of the ways I’ve noticed on how to approach it; little tips of mine. After I show them how I do it, I walk away to let them do it on their own.

I think the hardest thing, still, is having patience. When I give them instructions on a job to do, like taking something apart, for example, I tell them to come and see me when they have it all taken apart. Sometimes, it may take them four to five times longer than I’d like it to. I can’t just be on top of them and do it for them, otherwise they won’t learn. And, most of the time, they go a lot further along than I told them to. I ask them to come and get me because sometimes they skip small steps when they don’t. I then have to explain to them that we have precise procedures on how to do this and why coming to me prevents them having to start over.

For example, I’ve had someone take apart a car and then try to put it back together and it doesn’t work, so now when they ask certain questions, I try to figure out how they got to that point so they ask me the right questions. I have them take me through what they did from the start, and I soon find out we end up somewhere completely different from the original question they asked me.

A Typical Day in the Life

Ben McMillen, shop foreman for BA Auto Care in Columbia, Md., breaks down his typical day.

5:30-6 a.m.    Wake up

7 a.m.               Arrive at the shop

8 a.m.               Discuss workload for the day with office

9 a.m.               Work on cars, assign tasks to technicians

12 p.m.            Lunch

1 p.m.               Work on cars, check in on mentees and assist when needed

4:30 p.m.         Stay until all cars are road-tested, check to see if help is needed

5 p.m.                Leave shop

6:30 p.m.          Make dinner

7 p.m                  Relax

10 p.m.               Bed

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