Shop Strategies: GM Uses Her Industry Experience to Help Employees Manage Work-Life Stresses

cortney arthur Pacific Elite Collision Center

On a typical day at Pacific Elite Collision Centers, Cortney Arthur might run through the shop’s production list, help write estimates, order parts or even detail cars. As the general manager of the company’s Downey East location in California, Arthur also spends time taking care of the insurance side of the business, keeping up with KPIs and ensuring the facility is compliant.

“I’m a busy girl,” said Arthur, who was hired as a writer for Pacific Elite’s corporate facility a year and a half ago and then promoted to general manager just nine months later. “Numerous people told me that I wasn’t going to want the added pressure and it’s less stressful to be a writer. Since I took on the role as GM, there has only been one day when I thought, ‘What did I do?’ One day—not bad odds.”

The family-owned and operated company is a 16-shop MSO with locations throughout Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. The company is owned by Tim Mullahey and Mike Salyards.

Autobody News reached out to the busy mom of two to find out how Arthur juggles work and home life while managing a successful body shop.

Q: How did your background in the industry prepare you to work as a GM at Pacific Elite?

A: I started in collision repair in the early 2000s working for my family’s body shop in Lancaster—California Collision Center. After a few years, I decided I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be exposed to more cars and more repair processes and realized that the best way for me to do that was to work on the insurance side and become a field appraiser.

I went to work for a large insurance carrier for five years and it was awesome. I had the time of my life! You write eight claims a day and visit so many shops and see different shop order processes. You travel from MSOs to mom-and-pop shops and are able to experience how shops are being run everywhere. I had a lot of exposure and met great people. I saw a lot of things I wouldn’t want to do and a lot of great things that I would want to do if I ever ran my own shop.

After five years with the company, I wasn’t being challenged enough. I missed the rush of collision repair. I went back and worked for a large MSO for four years. Meanwhile, I became the single mom of a 4-year-old and 6-year-old.

During that time, I became really burned out. I was working 11- and 12-hour days. It felt like it had turned into a numbers game and you were only as good as your last month and your sales. Eventually, I quit and took three months off. Then about a year and a half ago, I received a call from a friend from Pacific Elite who recommended I meet with the managers there.

They were so excited and enthusiastic, and they reminded me of home. I was a little leery at first, but I got onboard and they brought me into their corporate store, which is great exposure because you get to meet so many wonderful people.

I remember on my third day of training I was in Covina and the COO, Bob Benjamin, drove to meet me as a new hire. I thought, ‘That’s rare, that’s really rare.’ I knew right then this was going to be different. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is bad because you should never think something is going to happen, but I just kept wondering ‘When is it going to turn into how everything else has been?’ A year and a half later, it still hasn’t.

Q: What do you enjoy most about working as a GM in this industry?

A: My favorite part is getting to be part of everybody’s lives. I try to have a conversation with every employee at least once a day to make sure they have everything they need. I want to find out if there is anything going on in their lives that I need to be aware of. I have a great rapport with all my staff.

I also make it a priority to understand what they want out of their life and help them reach their goals. I’ve helped fast-track a couple of people already who felt stagnant in their positions and were not happy at the time that I came on board. Since then, we’ve moved them into better positions and they are learning more and growing, and you can see them evolving as people. They’re happier now and sometimes a spouse will come in and say, ‘They’ve changed so much.’ I enjoy getting to see that.

Q: What is it like to be a woman in a typically male environment?

A: The officer manager and customer service representatives (CSRs) are female and there are women who are part of the corporate team. However, I am the only female manager in the organization. It’s really great. There are always going to be people who think that because I’m a girl and they are guys, they know more than me. There are a lot of customers who have changed their mindset and realized we can learn from everybody. However, there are still customers who say they want a man to help them. I think that’s always going to be something women have to challenge.

It’s especially prevalent in collision repair. Girls aren’t supposed to know about cars and anything like plumbing or building a house in our society’s vision. What’s great is that girls are becoming more aware and involved. Typically, those who do get involved in this industry are really great at it because we’re excellent multi-taskers and pay attention to details.

Q: What advice would you offer young women who are thinking of joining the industry?

A: It’s not easy. You have to have tough skin for sure and ask about anything you don’t understand. Don’t be afraid because there’s no stupid question. If someone makes you feel stupid for asking that question, it’s on them, not you.

It’s a learning process and you’re going to have days where you want to rip your hair out. But then you’re going to have days where you will be so happy with what you are doing. It’s a roller coaster. Every day you might put out 10-15 fires. Parts don’t come in or something happens. It’s an adrenaline rush and you’re either going to fall in love with that or it’s not going to be for you. Whatever you do, I don’t think you should ever give up because of somebody else’s opinion. I think if it’s something you want to do, then go for it.

My company asked me to speak at UTI to encourage young women to get involved in the industry and show parents that this profession is not just for boys. It’s an honor and really cool to think you can inspire others to join the industry and they can have a great fulfilling life in it.

Q: How have you handled some of the challenges of work-life balance?

A: The first few years were chaotic. I remember times when I was working at the MSO and my son had the stomach flu but I couldn’t miss work, so we made a little bed on the ground next to me. I had a couple of great managers who were understanding of that. I was lucky. There are plenty of people who would say ‘Your kid can’t come.’

It was really hard. I had a lot of babysitters and a nanny for a while, but I was determined. I knew what I wanted and that there would be a sacrifice, and unfortunately that was time with my kids. Now my boys are 11 and 13 and more independent.

I’ve always been one of those people who are really good at organization. One of my managers told me that I’m detail-oriented to a fault. If I know that something big is coming up, I come in early or stay late the day before and try to work around it so I can get to my kids’ practice or game or do whatever I have to do.

It’s a double-edge sword because I see a lot of moms who are helicopter moms and I see how these kids are not able to do a whole lot for themselves when the time comes. I can come home at 5:30 p.m. and the laundry will be folded, chores and homework will be finished and one of them will have started making dinner.

They are very resilient and independent little boys and I hope that they are going to be great members of society someday—I think they will be.

Q: What sets Pacific Elite apart from other repair facilities?

A: Originally, Pacific Collision and The Elite Group were two separate companies that had been in business independently for about 20 years. Then The Elite Group acquired Pacific Collision in November 2013 and the company became Pacific Elite. It now has about 385 employees.

As big as we are, we are still very family-oriented. Nobody is treated differently. We usually see the owners and our executive team a few times a week. They make their rounds and talk to everybody. They are also incredible about staying up with the latest equipment. I’ve never seen an organization like this. If they think it will get the customer a great result that we’re all happy with and uses less waste and energy, then they are definitely going investigate it. We are a lean process organization. We have spaces and signs and stalls for everything. You walk through my shop and most people’s mouths hit the ground because they cannot believe it’s a body shop.

Q: How has using a lean process benefited the business?

A: Using the lean process is very organized and improves everything. There’s less clutter and things are where they are supposed to be every tim,e so there’s less downtime. It also improves cycle time and overall quality.

A saying from one of our owners is: ‘A messy stall or a messy shop isn’t honest.’ It’s true because you can hide a lot behind a mess. That’s why when it’s clean and up front, you know what you have and where it is going.

Q: What is your hope for Pacific Elite?

A: I hope they continue to grow and maintain the environment they have right now. It’s really unique, especially with this whole MSO concept the collision industry is in right now. To find your own little place at work where you feel at home and safe is very special. They’re great people and I’m very thankful for where I am.

I think that is why we don’t have high employee turnover. There may be other MSOs to work for, but few offer the quality of work life that we have here.

It’s really awesome. I would love to grow within the company. I always joke with my COO and tell him, “When you retire, I want your job!”

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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