The Need to Refocus: Business owners need different set of skills

Being part of a family business offers some comfortable expectations, not least of which is the ability to be married and support a family at a young age. I owe this to the opportunities afforded by my family’s transmission shop.

I learned to rebuild a transmission at the age of 14, and now, at 34, I’m proud of two decades of experience in the shop. In recent years, though, my prior expectations have morphed into a realization that my past has only partially prepared me for the future.

As in most family businesses, my father and grandfather were technicians. I learned to follow their example. Work was routine, busy and reasonably profitable. Steady technical training and regular investment in the latest diagnostic tools kept us equipped for anything that came through our doors.

Up until several years ago, things carried on as usual, and our collective expectations were for more of the same. But we, like some other transmission shops, began to recognize subtle changes in the industry and grew our services to include general repair, becoming drivability experts in the process.

Car counts were still good, average invoice amounts were above average, but our margins were slimming despite increased gross sales. I began looking critically at our shop.

We were doing everything correctly from a technician’s point of view, and therein lay our problem. We were all technicians who had learned to work on cars, not on the business. In conversations with other shops, I found that many were facing similar concerns.

Everyone complained about stagnant wages, the expense of health insurance, the tech shortage and the high cost of repairing emerging technologies. The old ways, it seemed, were over. So wasn’t it past time to rethink our practices?

At the next tech expo, I enrolled in one of the business development classes rather than the usual tech seminars. I was confronted there with the concept of working on the business, not just in the business. A simple concept, but a radical idea to a technician raised by other technicians.

I learned formulas for calculating where our labor rates should be based (on actual operational costs). And I became equipped to measure all facets of the business and understand where we were performing strongly and where we needed to focus for improvement. Furthermore, I began to see that the challenges ahead are really just new and exciting opportunities.

So there I was, looking at an old business model in a changing aftermarket yet no longer looking at taking over an old business. I was looking to develop one for the continued success of my family.

I now had a clearer vision for the future and have learned strategies to communicate this to my staff. The whole team is learning how their efforts directly impact the business and their personal incomes. Developing this learning culture among all personnel is now a priority.

The lessons: Don’t let yourself become too comfortable in your traditional role and gain knowledge that will justify the necessary transition to focus on your business. You owe it to yourself and your team to do this right.