She Went from Receptionist to GM in Just 3 Years at NJ Shop

She Went from Receptionist to GM in Just 3 Years at NJ Shop

Her customers love her and her team respects her, and that's why things run smoothly at Hampton Body Works in Newton, NJ.

Her name is Dee Mathews, and when she entered the field of collision repair three years ago, she didn't know the difference between a bumper and a fender. But by using all of the skills that she accumulated working in the corporate world for two decades at a large manufacturing firm, Mathews has been able to flourish in a whole new environment with a completely new set of challenges.

Mathews was hired initially to answer the phones at Hampton Body Works, which has three distinct departments--collision repair, RV sales and towing. Within a short time, she designed the company's website and started doing sales and marketing for the RV sales department. Her can-do attitude and desire to learn new things set her up for success in collision repair, an industry in which she had zero experience.

Things changed literally overnight for Mathews when the large corporation she was working for changed hands. "After 20 years at the same company, the original owners sold and I had no connection to the new people, so I left," she said. "It worked out well, because I took that time to raise my grandson from age two through pre-school. Now he is five and we have an amazing relationship. It was a fortunate thing and something I will always look back at fondly, but when he started attending pre-school, I figured I better get back to work."

By operating a towing company in a town of approximately 8,000 people, damaged vehicles come to Hampton Body Shop all the time, which gives Mathews a chance to retain towing customers for collision repairs, she explained. "I treat people like my long lost brother and walk them through the entire repair process from beginning to end. I put them at ease and spend time with them and that's how I retain the customer. All you have to do is pay the deductible and pick up the car when we're done, I tell them. I also tell them that their insurance company is going to try and bully them, but it's their choice and their decision and my success rate is roughly 75 percent doing it that way."

Mathews doesn't mind doing whatever she can to keep towing customers in her shop, because she has seen it from the other side and it isn't good business, she said. "Yes, steering is bad around here, because all these shops are fighting for the same cars. The main problem is that the customer just wants to get their car fixed without drama, because they're already stressed out when they come in here initially. I try to educate the customer so that they won't get manipulated by their insurance company. I tell them that they don't have to settle for what the insurance company offers them--it's negotiable--and I think that puts them at ease, because I'm on their side."

William Dianella (Bill) is the current owner of Hampton Body Works. He purchased the shop from its original owner Jack Burke in 1984 and four years later, he opened Hampton RV Trailer Sales. One year later, he purchased 1.7 acres adjacent to his lot, where a showroom with a display area, service bays and offices exist today.

Dianella was impressed by his new hire, but wasn't ready to offer her the manager's job--at least initially, Mathews said. "I was working 60 hours a week and we were not having any luck finding a manager that was going to stick around," she said. "It became the 'musical chair', because these guys would come and go. Each time one would get fired or quit I figured I would get a shot, but it wasn't happening. Then, when the last guy quit, Bill came in and said, 'If you want it, you can have it.' And that's how I got hired, after five managers came and went."

Mathews literally hit the shop floor running upon landing the manager's job, she said. "I came in on a Monday and we ripped that shop apart. We cleaned and re-organized everything and updated whatever we could. We streamlined our production processes, added a prepper to help the painter and started ordering all of our parts electronically by using CCC."

To become a better manager and continually prove herself to Dianella, Mathews is now proactively trying to learn as much as she can about the technical side of the collision repair industry. "With my background in the corporate world, I wasn't scared by any aspect of this business, except for maybe the technical side," Mathews said. "I realized that I need to know about things like severity and the integrity of a vehicle after a collision. So now I am taking I-CAR classes and asking our techs a lot of questions, because I want to know it all."

Another way to be a good manager is to network with other shop owners and pick their brains if they're willing, Mathews said. "We joined AASP-NJ because I want to meet the top operators in the state and ask them questions. I would like to meet another woman who is managing a shop here in New Jersey, to see if she is encountering the same problems I am. But I haven't actually met one yet, so if you're out there girl, give me a holler."

Now that Mathews has proven herself as the unquestioned manager at Hampton Body Works, she doesn't take flack from her crew or male customers, she said. "I was talking to a male customer one day and he said, 'You know, you have a certain sex appeal about you.' I just blew it off, but later I thought, who says that? I realized yes, I am still working in a man's world here and I can tolerate it, but at least I'm doing it my way."

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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