Find Your No. 2

May 3, 2021
How can you find the ideal partner to take your shop to the next level? Three shop owners share the top skills and traits they found in their perfect copilot.

Launching a business solo is no easy feat, but finding a talented and trusted partner who can help you grow and expand that business is an odyssey all its own.

As Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters outline in Rocket Fuel, some of the most successful ventures in modern history have stemmed from collaboration between two key complementary roles: the visionary (those who concept big picture ideas and solutions) and the integrator (those who organize and execute the tasks needed to carry out those ideas). Titans like Walt Disney and Ray Kroc each had a copilot by their side to help guide the company’s vision to new heights, and the same can be said for the teams behind Avalon Motorsports, AutoStream Car Care, and BG Automotive.

While the owners of each have graced the pages of Ratchet+Wrench for their savvy strategies and notable growth, they’ll be the first to tell you they didn’t get there on their own. Each has found a passionate, dedicated and hardworking No. 2 that’s been instrumental in growing the shop’s operations and helping bring the company’s vision to life.

Ratchet+Wrench checked in to learn how those dynamic partnerships came to be and what shop owners should keep in mind when searching for their own No. 2.

Shop: Avalon Motorsports and Urban Autocare
Dynamic Duo: Owner Brian Sump and Director of Operations Phil Carpenter

A Leap of Faith

In 2007 Brian Sump, now the owner of Avalon Motorsports and four Urban Autocare locations in Denver, Colo., was a solo entrepreneur looking for a skilled technician who could help expand his online parts store to offer installation services.

“I knew nothing about the industry and I really needed someone I could rely on to be ethical and precise,” Sump says.

Phil Carpenter, now his director of operations, was his very first hire. He’d been working at a dealership and taking side jobs for additional income when he took a 30 percent pay cut to join Sump. Why?

“His energy and his ethics aligned with mine, but he was also upfront about his plans for the company,” says Carpenter. “He cast a vision from day one and explained how I’d be treated as a partner so I could see a career trajectory for myself.”

Between the financial leap of faith Carpenter took in joining the fledgling venture and his dogged performance on the job, Sump knew he’d made the right choice.

“He was committed. He jumped in, took ownership of everything he worked on, and hustled hard,” Sump says. “It was just the two of us for those first few years and he stepped up to every challenge along the way.”

Divide and Conquer

As the business has grown and evolved, so have their roles.

In the early days, Sump learned to write service on the fly while Carpenter tackled repairs, organized the shop and handled parts inventory and ordering. Today, their complementary skill sets have helped them to naturally fill those integrator and visionary roles.

As director of operations, Carpenter works to develop short-term deployment tactics, oversees each shop’s performance, supports each location’s staff through day-to-day issues, and looks for process and infrastructure improvements,  while Sump plans for the company’s future growth.

“Phil’s excellent at creating a vision for a one-week to six-month strategy that will help us accomplish whatever we’re trying to do in the near term, and my vision generally applies to that six to 12-month range,” says Sump. “Even right now as we’re working on a new shop acquisition, I’m already casting three years down the road and drafting plans for our next one, and Phil’s focused on what’s directly ahead.”

Embrace Evolution

Since taking on his first role as the shop’s sole technician, Carpenter has reinvented himself five times—and he’s fully prepared to pivot again.
While trust, accountability, and clear communication have all been critical in building their partnership, both agree Carpenter’s desire and ability to adapt in new roles has been key to the partnership’s sustainability.

“There’s this concept that the person who got you to $1 million isn’t going to be the same person that gets you to $5 or $10 million,” says Sump. “Phil looks at that and says ‘Maybe I’m not supposed to be the guy that gets us there, but I’m going to prove that wrong.’ He doesn’t see a ceiling.”

That transformation hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The duo has endured growing pains and both note a moment where Carpenter was confronted with critical feedback from the team he oversaw. Carpenter reflected, committed to changing his leadership style, and later that year when the team launched its first Urban Autocare location, they broke the store’s 20-year sales record under his leadership.

“You need to have someone in that No. 2 spot who’s a lifelong learner and won’t crumble taking criticism,” says Carpenter. “Certainly hustle and drive are important, but to see the business grow you need to have someone in that spot that’s continuously trying to improve themselves.”

Shop: BG Automotive
Dynamic Duo: Owner Bryan Gossel and President Philip Christensen

Prioritize Best Fit

Bryan Gossel, owner of BG Automotive in northern Colorado, officially joined ATI in 2009, but he says it took him years to truly start listening.

“We were trying to grow the shop, and my coaches were giving me solid advice, but I kept hiring ‘Mr. Right Now’ instead of ‘Mr. Right,’” says Gossel.

He met Discount Tire Company manager Philip Christensen when he began buying through the vendor and it was “love at first sight,” he jokes.

They quickly found they shared a similar energy, drive and work ethic. “If you crack a door open I’m going to kick it down to get at that opportunity and Phil’s the same way,” he says. “He’s going to run toward the fire, rather than watch it burn and that was exactly what we needed.”

The pair discussed a BG position for Christensen for nearly two years before he officially signed on. Though Gossel feared he couldn’t afford Christensen’s salary, he believed the growth they could achieve with Christensen by his side would be worth the risk.

Since joining the team in 2012, the BG has opened three new locations and grown to 21 lifts and 33 employees with Christensen’s help.

Find Your Flow

Through nearly a decade of partnership, Gossel and Christensen have honed their roles as integrator and visionary by embracing each other's quirks.

Gossel manages the company’s marketing, technology-focused decisions, and research of future acquisitions, while Christensen oversees day to day operations, payroll, and checks in with BG’s team leaders to ensure KPIs are hitting the mark.

“Being an integrator is one of the toughest jobs out there. And it has to be the right person in the right seat, or those ideas will fall flat on the page,” says Gossel.

As Gossel crafts new concepts and solutions for the company, he talks through his ideas out loud while Christensen, a detail-oriented logistics pro, documents and organizes those ideas to find a throughline and anchor for each strategy.

“We’ve come to call it the ‘shotgun effect,’ says Christensen. “Bryan rifles off ideas and I’ve developed a system to direct them and get them moving forward to keep us from spinning our wheels. We’ve learned how to play off each other so we can brainstorm as a team.”

A Balancing Act

While both bring a unified attitude to their work, describing each other as positive, high-energy, and open to new ideas, Gossel’s quick to note their differences have helped move the company forward.

“I’m very much a people-pleasing person at heart and I’m making progress on that, but having someone like Phil who isn’t afraid to make the unpopular decision and counterbalances me like that is critical,” says Gossel.

As Gossel works to become more comfortable with conflict and holding others accountable, he knows he can trust Christensen to address issues head on in real time.

“Of course, you need a No. 2 you can get along with, but I’d say finding someone who fills those gaps and complements your weaknesses is most important. You need to find balance.”

Welcome A Challenge

Gossel also stresses finding a partner who will challenge you.

“It can be intimidating, but you need someone that’s going to push you, and disagree with you, and poke holes in your plans,” he says.

Christensen notes a strong No. 2 needs to approach the role with a focus on what’s best for the shop, even when it can lead to conflict.

“In anything I put my mind to I’m focused to win, and in this role if there’s something I don’t think will help us in the long run, I’m going to speak up about it,” says Christensen. “At the end of the day it’s about the success of the shop and you’re going to have disagreements, but you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable to work through it.”

Through the years, Gossel and Christensen have worked to confront disagreements and tough conversations head on and find that focusing tough conversations around a shared vision for the company can help keep them find common ground.

“There were times where we had the same vision but it was like we were speaking different languages,” says Christensen. “The more we sat down together to throw ideas around and explain how they fit with the larger goal, the easier it’s been to push each other without running each other over and stay on track.”

Shop: AutoStream Car Care
Dynamic Trio: Owners Doug Grills and Rick Levitan & Director of Operations David Askwith

Trust Your Gut

When Doug Grills and Rick Levitan, then the owners of multiple gas stations, stopped into an ExxonMobil convenience store to scope out the merchandise, they were caught off guard by a genuinely friendly and helpful David Askwith.

“You’d think a store manager might be more suspicious or standoffish in that scenario, but David was sincere and professional and really wanted to help,” says Grills. They exchanged business cards with Askwith and two weeks later they called to offer him an interview.

“Turns out we’d been thinking about David and he’d been thinking about us,” says Grills.

Grills and Levitan hired Askwith as a retail C-store manager and had always planned to hire a No. 2 with years of industry experience, but when the existing manager of service bay operations failed to pan out, Askwith was tapped for his confidence, drive and work ethic to run both the retail and service sides of the business. 

“When David sets his mind to something, he’s going to seize the opportunity and do whatever is required to learn and grow to meet the challenge head on,” says Grills. “When you combine those traits, you get a powerful outcome and that ended up being what we were really looking for in that second in command.”

With Askwith by their side, the trio now run six AutoStream Car Care Centers with a total of 37 bays and an annual revenue over $7 million.

Set Clear Expectations

With two shop owners, one director of operations, six shops and more on the horizon, Grills, Levitan, and Askwith all stress the importance of defining clear responsibilities and expectations for each role.

“Doug and Rick made it clear from day one that their goal was to work on the business,” says Askwith. “They needed me to come in and create processes, procedures and make an impact.”

Today Levitan oversees the company’s financing, real estate acquisitions and scouts new locations, while Grills develops the company’s long-term strategic goals, operations, and participates in a variety of associations and 20 Groups, and Askwith manages day to day operations (including personnel, KPI’s, expenses and reporting), overseeing each location’s team and performance.

Through the years, as tasks have been divided across each role, the trio has become disciplined in their communication, making sure the correct person is consulted and looped in.

That structure and clear divide has helped Askwith take ownership and execute in his role as an integrator. “Those clear expectations and lane makers give me a structure I know I can work within,” says Askwith. “From there I have the freedom and autonomy to go out and deliver results in the ways that make most sense to me,” Askwith says.

Make a Serious Commitment

After working as a tight knit group for 14 years, Levitan, Grills and Askwith can finish each other’s sentences—a dynamic they’ve worked hard to earn.

“You’ve got to dedicate the face time to learn about each other inside and out,” says Grills. “You have to think of it as something you’re planning to stick with for the long haul. This is a long-term relationship.”

When Askwith officially became director of operations, Grills and Levitan were intentional in walking and talking him through each task he took on, were diligent in setting regular meetings, and made a point of spending time together outside of work to get to know each other away from the business.

“We’ll have a two or three-day off-site to develop those relationships and get a feel for each other’s mindsets and where each of us is coming from,” says Askwith. “Purposeful time together like that is the way you build up the synergy you need to fully execute in your lane.”

They may not agree on everything—the trio has had its  share of healthy disagreements—but like any serious relationship, they know compromise comes with the territory.

“It’s like a marriage and you’ve got to be on the same page and willing to work through the hard times or it’s going to be brutal,” says Levitan.

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