Current Issue
Published on August 2, 1999

PEOPLE, PLANNING, CHARITY—ALL NEED ATTENTION

If you think about it, it's not hard to imagine how all of us may unwittingly contribute to the industry's poor public image. This can result from the innocent mistakes we all make when learning the business. It also results from those we continue to make after allowing ourselves to be pressured into failing to attend to details. We also contribute to the public's mistrust of the auto repair industry if we: 1) willingly accept substandard replacement parts; 2) don't take the time and trouble to understand what our competition is doing; or 3) fail to plan or solve problems. The list goes on and on.

For many years, our business has been above average in regard to sales and profits—and we knew it. That lulled us into believing we had everything together.

Six years ago, however, our youngest son, Rick, quit the company—angry and frustrated. Part of the problem had to do with the level of his maturity at that time. But much of it also was due to us.

That experience was a real wake-up call for me. Although I was an avid reader and had attended some business classes by that time, something obviously was still missing, and I undertook a discovery process as a result.

That process began with a business seminar entitled, ``Thinking Outside the Box.'' It led me to discover Stephen R. Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as well as other educational materials that proved to be of great benefit.

Being a ``detail person'' and problem-solver by nature, and armed with my ``new knowledge,'' I nearly drove my poor husband, Neil, to distraction.

We couldn't agree on what changes were needed in our business, so I concluded it would be best if I ``retired'' and went on to other activities. My plan was to stay on long enough to get our new automotive software up and running and have the staff trained in its use.

It was then that we were nominated for our first major award—the ``Illinois Family Business of the Year.'' When the letter announcing our nomination arrived in the mail, I almost threw it away, thinking it to be someone's idea of a joke. But I gave it a second look after noticing that our state representative was listed as the nominator.

In the process of writing our application for that award, I was able to identify other elements that were missing from the business. So when an opportunity for growth finally arrived, we were prepared to take advantage of it.

That opportunity came in the form of a study program, requiring one and a half days of classwork during weekends for five months and leading to a ``Certificate in Business Administration'' (CBA) from the University of Illinois in Chicago.

It made a difference that Neil, our other son, Steve, and I all went through the program together. By the time it was completed, the three of us were in total agreement regarding what direction the growth of our company should take.

In the meantime, the business had achieved semifinalist status for the ``Illinois Family Business of the Year'' award and Rick came back to work for us.

Still, the road over the next year was a rocky one. Our greatest weakness was in dealing with staff members.

We spent the year putting our growth plans in place and lost a couple of good employees in the process. Had we operated with defined expectations and followed through as we should have, their loss might have been avoided.

Ongoing education has proven the glue that holds our organization together. We still have problems, but our CBA program at the university has provided us with competent professional help when needed.

We have since hired some excellent people, and each one is adding to the business in very positive ways.

We also have developed some new tools for the hiring process: 1) an employment application form that makes sense for our industry; 2) a list of questions to ask each applicant, depending on what position they're applying for; and 3) better job descriptions.

Meanwhile, our written procedures also make employee training a much simpler process.

We take great satisfaction knowing our business has had a positive impact on its stakeholders. Not only have we developed and increased the size of the company, we also have grown as individuals. We're proud and feel very fortunate at having built both a strong company and a strong family.

Applying for the BBB award and the Illinois Family Business of the Year award caused us to undertake strategic planning—something we previously had never thought about. It helped us become proactive rather than being mere ``fire fighters.''

We're becoming planners and evaluators in those areas of business where details count for everyone—not just one or two of us.

If all business owners were able to go through a similar process, I'm sure our industry would soon acquire a more positive reputation, and we all would be better off—not only monetarily, but in the quality of our lives.

While building a business, it's also important to remember to support the community that has helped to make us successful.

In our hectic day-to-day existence, we can easily forget to do things that help make a community better to live and work in. There also are those days when it seems every charity in the world has found us and thinks we have funds to contribute at that very moment.

To solve such problems, we have chosen our main charity and ``partnered'' with them to plan fund raisers. We organize this process to benefit both the business and the charity.

The fund raisers are scheduled to coincide with our slower season and encourage additional business when we can easily handle it and, at the same time, build as many dollars as possible for our charity.

For instance, our main fund raiser is planned for February and March of 2000. Our goal is to raise $10,000 for our charity partner. We have begun to promote this event in our current ads—particularly in publications such as the Community Guide that tend to stay around a household.

We keep a list of other charities we want to support and establish a budget for each one. When new charities call they're required to apply for help in the following year.

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