Employees take ownership reins
North Kansas City, Mo.—Before Northtown Auto Clinic founder Ed Schaeffer lost his battle with cancer in May 2017, he left a solid foundation for Service Manager Bret Crawford and Office Manager Erin Hall. Now in their second year of ownership, the duo have added some of their own ideas.
“We’re trying to create a happy family environment for our employees and ourselves,” said Crawford, who’s worked for the business since graduating from technical school in 1983. It’s one reason he thinks sales are up 15 percent this year.
There was a time that surly technicians made him dread coming to work, with the tension felt even by customers.
“We want a culture where customers feel happy and secure to leave their car, which is their second-largest investment, here,” Hall said. “And as a business, you can’t do that if you’re fighting and growling at each other every step of the way.”
It’s been a shift, Hall noted, from being an employee to manager “suddenly being responsible for your employees, knowing the feelings they get and what we can do to assuage their worries, if any, and work with them to be more active to promote the company’s ‘buy-in’ culture.”
As such, they involve their team in decision-making processes, such as for equipment purchases.
One example Hall gave was for a technician whose desktop computer was broken and suggested that it be replaced with a laptop or a large tablet so that when he’s looking at a wiring diagram, he can have it right there instead of printing and wasting paper.
“I’ve worked in other places where I’ve felt powerless in the company’s decision-making process. Employees have good ideas, and they want to contribute them to a place where they’re actually used,” she said.
With a technician shortage, it’s a wise investment to offer such benefits as paid health insurance, and retirement plans with company-matching funds, Crawford said.
Because technicians will be rubbing elbows with a new-hire technician, they’re part of the interview process, Crawford and Hall said, noting that they are searching for an additional technician to add to the shop’s staff, which currently includes three technicians.
“They have a better idea of what their specialties are going to be and how qualified they are as a technician,” Hall said. “No one is all-knowing in any one position. Everybody who works here is invested.”
The business invests in its technicians by paying for all training and training time. The staff holds multiple ASE certifications, including Crawford, who also holds an ASE Master certification, and who assesses the needs of the facility, built from the ground-up in 1985 after Schaeffer started business in 1982 in a former Skelly’s gas station on Armour Road. A 2002 expansion brought the bay count to 11, with room to work on larger vehicles at the shop, also a NAPA AutoCare Center. Crawford and Hall are pursuing fleet service business, a specialty in demand in the commercially oriented North Kansas City area, and have hired an additional service writer/commercial coordinator.
A fleet’s needs are as varied as those of a retail customer, Hall noted. Some may keep a backup vehicle on the shop’s spacious lot to swap out with a vehicle needing a time-intensive repair. Another may schedule a service or repair a couple days ahead of time for a tight window.
Building customer rapport
Much of the management system is a legacy holdover, planned for an update, although the shop’s use of AutoVitals digital inspections “is a big benefit,” they said.
“Everybody has had a bad experience with car repair, so new customers, especially, can come in a little bit jaded,” Hall said.
With digital inspections, customers can be spared a repeat of previous experiences, when a breakdown in communication left them confused or upset, she added.
“AutoVitals automatically emails them their inspection. They can directly see, ‘This is my car — look how oily that part is.’ It’s great for updating them with a text: ‘We’re waiting for parts for your car.’ It’s a great tool to break down the mystery of what’s happening to your car whenever you’re off work doing other things.”
The transition to ownership has expanded their roles, while still sharing front-counter duties. Crawford, a Master ASE-certified technician, not only turns wrenches, but sometimes is called upon to assess the facility’s mechanical needs.
In the year after he was diagnosed, Schaeffer was able to assist with some planning of what would be needed for office operations, while Bob Ward, of Perpetual Business, serves as coach to Crawford and Hall to help with the transition. There’s always something to learn as a new owner, she noted.
“That should be the case for everybody. Whether you’ve been doing it for a year or 30 years, you should be developing, figuring out better ways to do things, and if you’re not, then you’re not doing something right.”