Escape Velocity

June 2, 2022

How Stellar Autoworks went from failure to launch to out of this world.

Tim Swiontkowski let go of six employees in six weeks during the first quarter of  2020. That left him with no technicians, no service writer, and no customer service representative. He alone would fill those roles in what he called “a disruption of the whole operation.”

‘I Didn’t Hire the Right People'

By his own admission, Swiontkowsi spent a decade hiring the wrong people. He built a company on the wrong people. He created company culture on the wrong people. And the wrong people stunted the growth of Stellar Autoworks—starting with himself.

“Well, basically, I didn't know how to hire the right people,” Swiontkowsi says, citing an almost eenie, meenie, miney, mo hiring approach. “I was excited anytime a resume came through Indeed. It was kind of like, ‘I guess I'll choose this one’ … ‘You're alive, perfect’ … ‘You're pretty good at this, you can do this.’”

With his shop floundering, Swiontkowsi stumbled upon the book “Rocket Fuel” by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters, which helped him to identify and lean into his leadership style (hint: he’s a visionary). He also joined coaching groups, though he’d discover many didn’t deliver measurable results needed to improve his shop.

“I definitely learned a lot; it got me where I needed to be at the time. That's probably the best way to put it. It was more of an outfit for taking struggling shops from almost closing their doors to making it almost right. It wasn't quite working for me; it wasn't what I needed,” he says.

Leaning into His Strengths

There’s an old saying ascribed to Lao Tsu that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That can happen anywhere, even on a TechNet-sponsored Mediterranean cruise prior to the pandemic. That’s where Swiontkowsi met Greg Bunch of Transformers Institute.

“I cornered him at the top of a stairwell,” Swiontkowsi recalls. “I don’t remember where I originally heard of him, but he was doing a presentation on the cruise. And then I heard him speak, and he sounded like he had things figured out.”

Bunch paired Swiontkowski with Transformer’s Institute Business Consultant Frank Scandura, a fellow shop owner, and 40-plus-year industry veteran. Under Scandura’s coaching, Swionkowski made strides in going from technician to entrepreneur. And once Swionkowski learned to get out of his own way, the light bulb went off.

“It was always me being the manager. Everybody was going to me for everything and being with Transformers and reading “Rocket Fuel” made me realize I am a visionary. I'm great at leading people, so that's what I set out to do—hire people to do the job better than me, and get out of their way,” he says.

Scandura, who was a technician before owning his shop, says learning to lead your shop means hiring the right people and trusting them to do their jobs.

“I had to learn to stop being a tech and be a people person. [I had to learn] how to connect with people to build that rapport, to build that trust. I had to learn how to be a business owner. And when a good business owner is willing to look in the mirror and admit, ‘I'm not the best person for the job, so I need to hire people and not be intimidated because they're better than me, smarter than me, and can outsell me, or outperform me in the shop, Those are the people I need to help me succeed. Tim saw that was instrumental in his being able to just hire the right hire people,” Scandura says.

The Rebuild

All coached up but without employees to lead, Swiontkowski spent days and nights in the shop servicing a steady stream of cars.

“I got myself a Ring doorbell, so I knew when the mailman got here and when parts got here. I had a mobile workstation with a computer, and I had my phone,” he says.

The encouragement of his family kept him focused on getting the business ready for its next phase.

“I knew I would get through this,” Swiontkowski says. “The auto industry isn’t going anywhere, but we’ve got to adapt. There were some late nights, and some nights my wife and kids would bring me fast food and we’d eat in the shop. I got hugs and off they went. It was hard, but I was doing this for my family, ultimately.”

He continued to work with Scandura through Transformers Institute. One program in particular, “Taking the Hill,” helped him to dial into the vision he needed to have to endure weeks of working alone during the pandemic.

“The whole premise of the program was do not crawl under a rock and hide because that's what everybody told you to do,” says Scandura. “And we put things in place like, continue your marketing, continue recruiting, where do you need to cut back, do you have to cut back? Transformer put the message out: Don't hide—move forward. Never give up.”

By summer 2020, Swiontkowski was ready to rebuild his business using the tools he learned while working with Transformers Institute. This time, there would be no plucking resumes from Indeed and filling the shop with warm bodies. Swiontkowski would start from the top down—building leaders in key positions first. Those people were Jason Lent, service manager; Garrett Setterstrom, foreman; and Cana Potter, director of hospitality and marketing. Swiontkowski admits to having reservations about Potter at first. Potter, a florist by trade, is the significant other of Setterstrom.

“She just happened to be there, and it was so convenient,” recalls Swiontkowski, the irony not falling deaf on him. “This is my foreman's girlfriend, and there were so many red flags. I told myself I wasn't going to do this. But Cana, luckily, just fell in our laps and has been wonderful. She's really helped develop the director of hospitality and marketing role.”

The Rebrand

With its new leadership team in place and everyone in clearly defined roles, the Stellar team began building a culture and identity, starting with a new logo. That, however, didn’t come without a hiccup.

“I hired a company to do the logo. It was good, but it just didn't feel right. It didn't fit us,” says Swiontkowski.

Realizing he thought of logos in terms of function over flair, he turned the project over to Potter.

 “I could sense [his] excitement, but the logo did not reflect where we thought the business was going,” Potter says.

She hired a new designer and provided precise instructions, which led to the design of the current logo, the star with the “SA” intertwined in its center. 

Defining its (Quirky) Culture

Another centerpiece of Stellar Autoworks' culture is its hiring practices. Potter’s cheeky copywriting sprinkled with sarcastic humor aimed at attracting specific personalities into the shop has replaced boring help wanted ads of old.

“Leading with skillset wasn’t getting me good employees,” admits Swiontkowski. “It leads to creating a toxic environment. Skillset, in the end, is a lesser concern for me than somebody’s attitude and willingness to be trained and to make themselves better.” 

“So, if they’re going to fit our culture, they need to be able to laugh at the same kind of jokes—some 13-year-old boy humor—in our ads and if someone gets a chuckle, they’re probably the right person for of us, but if they think it’s stupid and move on, perfect, they’ve passed the first test.”

Two examples that illustrate the quirkiness of Stellar’s humor can be found in ads for its now-filled hospitality and marketing assistant and a service advisor roles.

“In the [ad] where we hired my assistant, my opening line was ‘I'm a florist working in my husband's auto shop, and I need help making it sexier’ which automatically for people was like, ‘Wait, what?’ And when we hired our new service advisor, I think the title of that one was ‘Talkative listener who has a sense of humor,” Potter says.

Other language within the ads says things like, “We’re Stellar Autoworks, a high-caliber automotive repair shop in Plymouth with a slightly off-beat sense of humor and a wealth of facial hair. Translate for your grandma: ‘They’re mechanics, gram-gram. Really good ones. They’re weird and fun, and they like beards.’”

Putting His People First

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it.” To keep employees working from the heart, Swiontkowski invests in them financially and professionally. He covers100 percent of their benefits and provides weekly paychecks, both rare in any industry today. He also foots the bill to send them to Transformers Institute mastermind groups.

“I'm just trying to support them and leave them the best I can, offer some great benefits, and take care of them so that they continue to do the great job that they were hired to do,” he says.

Setterstrom takes part in a group strictly for shop foremen which allows him to visit other shops and learn from peers in his role.

“I think there's about 15-ish people, other foremen from around the country; different styles, different shops, different demographics,” he says. “We do monthly Zoom meetings where there’s much coaching on how to be a manager. You got to learn how to get your guys to make more money. I've upped my efficiency on how I run things through the shop based on how other people are doing it. It takes a certain type of person to be a shop foreman, and there is a ton of knowledge that comes along with that.”

Giving Power to the Customer

Part of the rebrand of Stellar Autoworks emphasizes putting people first. When a customer enters their care pipeline, here’s what happens:

The initial phone call, online scheduling appointment, or chatbot reaches Lent on his mobile. He determines with the customer how their vehicle will arrive at Stellar—self drop off or concierge pick up. If the latter is chosen, Potter informs the customer of the pickup time windows and plans to have the car picked up and a loaner car left behind if the customer elects to have transportation provided. Photos are taken of the customer’s vehicle and the car is brought to Lent and Setterstrom in the shop.

“We're going to inspect the vehicle and give [the customer] an overall vehicle health picture. That’s presented digitally with pictures, descriptions, and pricing for any recommended service. It’s cloud-based, so I can send a digital link to anybody and that's usually done through text,” Lent says. 

The customer receives a text message with the details of the inspection, complete with notes from the technician, repairs needed, and price estimates. From there, the customer can confirm or decline the work right within the interface. The goal is to give the power back to the customer to allow them to see their options, whether or not the repair areas are of urgent need, or sometimes to determine if the car is worth the repair investment.

“When that inspection goes out, it will be accompanied with a text message or a phone call from me, or our new service writer, and we go over it one item at a time. We want to let you know the health of the vehicle and what is worth fixing. It’s like a doctor making sure the patient is healthy enough for surgery,” says Lent.

They typically complete work within three to four days. Customers can text Lent and ask him about how their vehicle is doing. That’s part of the transparency the shop wants to have with its customers—direct access and comfortability in talking to those responsible for caring for their cars.

“What we want to do is keep the conversation going, not just keep our name in front of people, but have a voice to it, and have somebody that they feel they can call or they can text,” he says.

Even beyond the completed repair, he encourages customers to contact him when needs arise.

“The customer needs to get a hold of us on their schedule. They don't have time to be dealing with a broken-down car. Wouldn't it be nice if all you had to do was send me a text message and say, ‘Hey, man, something's wrong in my car. Can you come pick it up in my office and let me know what's wrong with it?’ That's all they have to do is send a text message, and it's getting handled,” he says.

In the End, Culture Wins

Since taking steps to improve his leadership, understand his place in the business, and work with his team to build a winning environment, Swiontkowski is enjoying life as a visionary leader. He’s out of the day-to-day shop work, which he leaves for Potter, Lent, and Setterstrom, and he has added consulting with shop owners through Transformers Institute as another passion. Getting out of his own way and trusting his people, as prescribed by Scandura, has also led to a record-breaking year for Stellar Automotive.

In 2021, the nine-bay, 6,000-square-foot shop broke $1 million in sales for the first time in its history, seeing its total sales go up 67 percent from $612,748 in 2020 to $1,027,353 in 2021. Car count was up 32 percent from 963 in 2020 to 1,272 in 2021, and the average repair order was up 23 percent from $636 to $784. 

The company continues to focus on culture-centric hiring and leadership development as part of its chief strengths. Swiontkowski knows every shop owner can’t walk the road he took to turn Stellar Autoworks around, but he believes they can find the path that best suits their shop’s needs.

“I’m not going to tell everyone to fire all of their employees and rewrite their job descriptions and hire all new employees. I can’t in my right mind recommend doing what I did, but sometimes that’s what it takes,” he says.

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