How to Plan For Your Next Level Hire

Aug. 5, 2021
A look at when and how top shops are hiring to adapt with and boost business growth.

When it comes to core shop roles like technicians and service advisors, today’s shop owner fully grasps the value of a deep bench. But when hiring for some of the industry’s less common shop roles, the task isn’t as straightforward as filling an empty bay.

As your business grows, when exactly should you bring on a director of operations? Do you really need a formal human resources role? What about a parts manager? Should you hold off on hiring until you open your second or third shop? Or hit $2 million in sales? And once you’ve decided to hire, what should you keep in mind as you begin your hunt for qualified candidates?

Ratchet+Wrench checked in with a leading business coach and some of the country’s top shops to learn when and how they’re staffing for some of the industry’s less common shop positions and the added value those roles bring to the table. 

The Nuts and Bolts 

Don’t rush in. 

First things first: Before shop owners take any concrete steps in the hiring process, Jim Murphy, longtime industry business coach and founder of Elite’s Pro Service Peer Group, stresses taking time to sit down and strategize the specifics of each role. It’s a step he finds many shop owners skip and can be one of the biggest mistakes made right out of the gate. 

“If you’re not taking the time to define those specifics, how can you fully evaluate and  narrow down the best candidate? Skipping that step is the start of a chain reaction that can lead to a wrong hire,” he says. 

Forget the formula.

While shop owners might use a ratio to time the hiring of an additional tech or service advisor, when it comes to hiring for roles like director of operations or a customer service representative “it’s just not that clear-cut,” Murphy says. “That timing really needs to be dictated by what the owner is trying to accomplish.”

Murphy finds the specifics of a less traditional position are often determined by the level of involvement an owner wants to have in the business, with roles being built out to take over tasks an owner no longer wants to cover or isn’t the best fit for. 

Cast a vision.

Murphy also notes it’s not enough to define the tasks a new role will manage. 

“Before you start bringing in candidates you need to define the measurables. How are you going to track their progress? What are the long-term goals they’ll need to reach? What should they have accomplished 90 or 180 days in?”

Defining success for the role well in advance can help purge potential candidates who may not feel up to the challenge and ensures the owner is setting clear expectations early on. 

The Roles  

Director of Operations or General Manager 

Like the position name itself, Murphy has seen shops approach this high-level managerial role (typically defined as a general manager or director of operations) from all angles.

He’s worked with clients who have appointed a GM to manage their only shop, while others have waited until the opening of their eighth to fill the role.

“Really the needs for this position are going to depend on the size of the operation and what you need that person to accomplish in the day to day,” Murphy says. 

For Craig Noel, owner of four Sun Automotive locations in western Oregon, the opening of his fourth shop and growth to nearly $3.2 million in sales prompted his search for a general manager. With three locations and $2 million in revenue, Noel felt comfortable managing on his own, “but when we hit those two big milestones there was a realization I was going to need some help,” he says.

Same goes for Tommy Gaynor, owner of five Gaynor’s Automotive locations in Vancouver, Wash., who filled the company’s GM role before taking full ownership of the operation.

“I was covering three stores pretty well, but at four I was quickly  getting stretched pretty thin,” he says. “It was a natural next step to bring in back-up because I just couldn’t get it all done.”

What to Look For:

Both Gaynor and Noel ultimately hired internal candidates to ensure a cultural fit, but were on the hunt for goal and action-oriented, organized, analytical problem-solvers.

“You’re looking for someone you can trust to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities that’ll keep the operation moving, take in the facts, make decisions, and work under pressure” says Gaynor. 

Noel agrees, noting organic team leadership was also key in selecting an internal candidate. “You need team buy-in at the GM level,” he says. “On a professional team, the coach might technically call the shots, but a team captain is selected by their peers and looked to for guidance. You want to look for the natural team captain.”

Be Sure to Ask:

When interviewing a potential general manager or director of operations “you really want to be testing for their reasoning abilities,” says Murphy “Can they solve practical problems and deal with a variety of variables to come up with solutions quickly? Candidates for this role have a tendency to look great on paper but get tripped up when tested with situational questions.”

Murphy stresses that open-ended questions such as “Tell me about a time you lacked the skills or knowledge to complete a task and how you worked through that,” or “Tell me about a time you were faced with an impossible deadline,” can give key insight on how the candidate would fare with day to day shop decision-making. 

Noel agrees, and draws from real shop scenarios he’s been faced with to expose a candidate’s thought process and see how it might compare with his own. “I’m delegating a lot of big decisions and trusting that GM with sensitive issues so I have to know I’d be comfortable with their approach to those same scenarios.” 

Gaynor also works to expose how a candidate might work under pressure by asking what competitive sports they played growing up. As candidates discuss their experience playing college baseball or four years of varsity high school football, “I’m getting a sense for some of the quick-thinking problem-solving situations they’ve worked through hundreds of times with coaches and teammates,” he says. “Those are skills they can bring to the table when we’ve got to figure out how to get 27 cars out the door by 5 p.m.” The question can also become an opportunity for candidates who didn’t participate in sports to share the unique experiences where they’ve honed their problem solving skills and demonstrate an understanding of how the experience will relate on the job. 

Added ROI:

The addition of a general manager can free up an owner to focus on their goals for the business, but it’s also an opportunity to boost efficiency. “There’s a major ROI in finding someone who can not only handle the day-to-day curveballs, but excels in some of the areas where you might be weakest,” says Murphy.

With the hiring of their general managers, both Gaynor and Noel have been able to step away from the tasks they enjoyed least—and were admittedly not the most productive with. Gaynor is no longer tied to his desk reviewing repairs and responding to Google reviews (tasks he says he had to force himself to do) and Noel has been able to cut out the minutiae of managing the shop’s software systems and internal inventory. “He’s the natural I never was with those tasks and while he’s making sure not one nut or bolt is missed, I’m able to touch base and build business with our clients.”

Employee Relations Manager

You’re not likely to find an employee relations manager in most auto repair shops.

What was originally concepted as a support role for Craig Noel’s in-house accountant slowly took on a new form as he adapted his workflow with the opening of the operation’s fourth shop and realized there were gaps he had yet to fill.

The customized role fits a trend Murphy’s seen more and more of in recent years as shops invest in relationship-focused positions like customer service representative roles.

“Culture is my top priority. I want people to grow and eventually retire with me, and a big part of growing a culture people want to stick with is staying ingrained in the day to day and touching base with each employee” says Noel. “I just couldn’t keep up the momentum.”

In addition to assisting with admin tasks, Noel built out the position to manage conflict resolution as well as employee recognition projects like a monthly internal newsletter to celebrate team wins. 

What to Look For:

Conscious that the role would include several human resource and team-building responsibilities, Noel was in search of a candidate with a communications-focused background, who would ideally bring an understanding of basic principles of psychology or sociology to the role. 

“It sounds like a tall order, but I was looking for the role to be part mediator, so it had to be someone who can get a read on people and connect with them in order to get to the heart of an issue and find solutions,” he says. An outgoing personality and an ability to maintain neutrality through the decision-making process were also key. 

What to Ask:

Noel found an unexpected, but solid match for the role through a series of informal focus groups with his daughter and her fellow college classmates.

Each quarter the group would meet over dinner and Noel would ask for their take on everything from national politics and the social justice movements sweeping the nation, to the way they use and don’t use social media.

“I posed situational questions to the group to see how they’d handle the conflict we were seeing play out in current events when faced with it on a personal level,” he says. “It was a way of exposing genuine answers to the ‘tell me about a time you faced conflict’ questions, but structured as an ongoing dialogue.”

Noel’s ultimate hire, who had been a member of the group and is a recent college grad with a communications degree, stood out for her ability to craft articulate, strategic, and unbiased answers in real time.

Added ROI: 

“You don’t want those newer, more adaptable roles to become a complete catchall, but they can help with additional tasks and projects to get more bang for your buck,” Murphy says. 

Noel’s employee relations manager now oversees and updates the shop’s SOPs, employee manuals and launched an “employee diary” system using Google Docs to log and file notes on employee issues, concerns, achievements, and progress—a tool Noel notes helps management hold the team accountable, has helped boost team performance and made one-on-one check-ins more productive. 

Parts Manager

 When it comes to this niche shop role, Murphy often sees shop owners proceed in one of two ways.

Those who find their ability to grow shop sales has leveled off and their service advisors are spending more and more time hunting down parts, might opt to hire an expeditor to pitch in on parts procurement, help with estimating, and fill in additional gaps wherever needed.

Others, like John Beebe, owner of Washington-based Bellingham Automotive and Burlington Automotive, will invest in a full-fledged parts manager to ensure their service advisors can provide undivided attention to their customers.

“We’re one of the few shops I know that has a parts manager, but when you start bringing in more than $1 million in sales that hunt for parts starts to get pretty distracting,” says Beebe. “I know a lot of owners just look at that as another salary to budget for, but our advisors are easily bringing in an extra $30,000 because they’re able to focus on the customer and the sale.”

What to Look For:

An ideal hire will bring previous dealership, parts distributor, or parts house experience to the role, but Murphy notes candidates from similar sectors where inventory management and an understanding of parts systems are key could be tapped for the role as well. A background in appliance repair could crossover well, and Beebe himself has found quality hires with a background in boating parts.

“You’re looking for someone who can navigate parts acquisition, ordering, receiving, and distribution, that’s also going to be diligent and detail oriented in tracking inventory, correctly identifying every part, and adjusting to make sure the shop is holding the correct profit margin,” says Murphy. “Solid mathematical skills and a natural aptitude for working with percentages, ratios, proportions, logistical variables—those are a must.”

Be Sure to Ask:

Questions that can demonstrate a candidate’s confidence in making decisions and hone in on specific solutions with a wide range of abstract and concrete variables is a top priority Murphy says.

“Questions like ‘Tell me how you’ll set up pricing structures to maximize gross profit on our parts. Tell me how you’ll avoid shrinkage and handle parts security. Tell me about your parts purchasing procedures and how you expect the parts house to perform in that structure? How will you handle deliveries and inventory control?’ will be revealing. The more specifics the better,” he says. 

Added ROI: 

Beebe’s in-house parts managers have not only helped his service advisors reach peak performance, the role has also become a proving ground for potential future service advisors. His general manager and assistant manager both started in parts roles before becoming service advisors and eventually moving into higher-level management positions. 

 He’s also found the role to be a major asset in attracting additional top talent. “Some of the best advisors I have come from backgrounds where they could depend on that aid from a parts person,” he says. “Being able to guarantee that level of support helped us stand out from the competition and win over some of our best performers so it’s been a role that’s boosted business and kept on giving.”

About the Author

Megan Gosch

Megan Gosch is the associate editor of Ratchet+Wrench, where she produces content and oversees production of the publication.

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