Shop Strategies: Leadership Development, Process-Centered Environment Enable TX Shop’s Business to Grow

Bates Collision Center
The staff at Bates Collision Centers located in Texas.

Courteous, professional and high-quality---these are some of the words Leila Bates said customers have used to describe the work provided at Bates Collision Centers.

This year, the business received the Baytown Sun Readers’ Choice Award for best body shop for the eighth year in a row. Leila said they were honored to receive the award and will continue to work hard to fulfill their mission to be the collision center of choice for customers in the Bay area of Texas.

Autobody News recently talked to Leila about Bates Collision Centers and learned about some of the unique ways the company gives back to the community. She also shared how they use a process-centered environment and leadership training to facilitate the business’s growth, retain employees and offer customers exceptional service.

Q: What prompted you and your husband, Lee, to open Bates Collision Centers 28 years ago?

A: Lee had a lot of wrecks while he was in high school; he was in double-digit accidents before he graduated. At some point, his dad told him that if he continued getting into accidents and wrecking his cars, he was going to have to fix them. He went off to college and was doing well, but decided he wanted to focus on something else. He always had an interest in cars and his dad encouraged him to get involved in the automotive industry. Lee ended up working at a dealership in his college town, San Marcos, TX, sweeping floors. His ultimate goal was to own a shop of his own.

Meanwhile, I was going to college and working part-time when we got married in 1989. A year later, we decided to open our first location in Baytown. We experienced some good growth our first year, so we relocated to a larger facility in 1991, which we currently operate today. We also opened a second location in the neighboring community of Channelview, TX, in 2003.

Q: What is your main role and focus at Bates Collision Centers?

A: My official title is vice president, although as in most small companies, you wear a lot of hats and have to address the different phases of your business. I also handle CFO responsibilities for Bates Collision Centers, and both my husband and I are very involved in marketing efforts and community involvement.

Q: What type of marketing have you found to be beneficial?

A: When we opened our business, we were operating on a shoestring budget and had to find ways to create awareness about the services we offered. Although we have a pretty good Facebook presence now, we spent a lot of time over the years getting out into the community. I’m on the board of directors with the Baytown Chamber of Commerce, we’re both active in the Chambers of Commerce in the areas where we have our locations, Lee is a Rotarian and we’re big supporters of the Relay for Life. About 15,000 people attend that event every year to raise money for The American Cancer Society. Creating top-of-mind awareness with the local insurance agents has also been a long-time focus of ours, and we’ve done this with creative contests like an annual pumpkin carving contest, offering continuing education classes quarterly at our shops and other fun contests and visits to their offices.

Q: What are some of the unique ways you have given back to the community?

A: Baytown is where my husband and I grew up and went to school. All of our friends and family live here.

After opening our business, we received sponsorship requests all the time. Eight years ago, we decided to put together a more structured program called the Community Give Back Program. Organizations can now contact us to give to their program year-round, and Bates Collision Centers donates 3 percent of a customer’s repair total to the local nonprofit organization of their choice. Whether the money goes to a school, church, the wetlands center or an upcoming event, the donation is made in the customer’s name.

Since launching the program, we’ve found that it has allowed us to get involved in the community and show our support in a more organized fashion rather than be reactive to every donation request we receive. We are dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of others by supporting our community and the people who live here.

We also give out a responsible parenting award as part of a benevolence program we set up in 1998. Bates Collision Centers presents “new” used vehicles to deserving families every holiday season. Our employees volunteer their time to refurbish a vehicle from each of our centers and fill it with gifts such as toys, gas cards, car seats and food for the family. The vehicles are then presented during a special awards ceremony and holiday reception held in their honor to recognize and reward parents for "responsible parenting."

We feel this program focuses on a parent's tireless efforts to parent "responsibly" while coping with the daily challenges and hardship of running a household without reliable transportation. The Bates team has refurbished and presented more than 30 vehicles since we first launched the program, and we have seen a real impact in the lives of these families through our gifts of transportation.

Q: Why are these types of programs so important to implement?

A: First, we truly feel it’s the right thing to do in a community that has supported us for so many years. Second, it’s part of being a good business citizen in the community and doing your part. Third, there is no doubt that it has impacted Bates Collision Centers in a huge way by helping us grow our business and letting the community know that we’re not just a business looking out for ourselves, but one that gets involved and cares.

We’ve also found that it has afforded our staff a unique way for them to put the skills they use every day into putting a family back on the road---not just a car back on the road.

Q: What procedures have you initiated at Bates Collision Centers to help run the business more efficiently?

A: We’re a direct repair center for a large number of insurance companies. Since we first launched Bates Collision Centers, our goal was to standardize our processes in a way that would allow us to perform well in those DRP programs while meeting the needs of our customers. We’ve spent a lot of time setting up standard operating procedures (SOPs) and developing processes to help organize our business and ensure success.

Lee’s dad worked for Exxon and shared a lot of information from a corporate mindset. We began to see that we could put processes in place to help avoid some of the pitfalls in repairs.

In the last 10 years, we’ve found that a lot of the things we were doing when we first started out are now buzzwords in the industry: lean thinking, the Toyota way, and adopting a process-centered environment (PCE).

We were utilizing a lot of those concepts not really knowing what the technical terms were, but we were doing it out of necessity.

We’ve also always measured cycle time. We realized early on how it would help us improve customer service, deliver what we say and do it on time. As a grassroots business, we needed every customer who left us to feel like it was what we call “a legendary service experience.” We want our customers to tell family, friends, co-workers and others about our exceptional service and recognize that it’s the only way we will continue to grow our business.

We’ve also participated in performance groups over the years through our paint provider, AkzoNobel, as well as a PCE group through the company. Both have been very beneficial.

Q: How has setting up and utilizing these processes been helpful to your business overall?

A: If you are a DRP shop performing well on your KPIs and have a good relationship with the insurance companies, that is critical to your long-term success. However, many of the KPIs that are required are a win-win overall regarding cycle time, customer satisfaction and a low supplement rate. All of those have such a positive impact on the customer experience and therefore, a positive impact on the business.

We recognized early on that we have humans working for us in a very complex environment in terms of the procedures and guidelines to meet the billing requirements of the insurance companies.

We had to develop ways to help our staff with the guidelines, policies and procedures in the industry. There’s a lot to remember and it’s easy to forget some of the steps, especially when insurance companies have different processes. We now use checklists as a guide for our team to help keep them on track and hold them accountable for their work. We also use cartoon signage around the shop reminding the staff that their initials on each checklist item is their “promise” that their work has met the Bates standard.

Q: Can you tell us about your company’s new focus on employee development?

A: We have a lot of great policies and procedures in place and maintain a rigorous standard of training for employees, but over the last several years we realized we also needed to work on the people side of the business. If employees don’t buy in and believe in our culture and who we are as a company, we’re not going to succeed.

We haven't abandoned the concept of a process-centered environment, but we realize it won’t work on its own. Our new direction over the past five to six years has been to focus more time on leadership and employee development---what I like to call the “inside-out approach.” As a result, we’ve seen a lot greater success.

Q: How do you stay up-to-date with new concepts at your locations?

A: We’ve worked with a company for the last several years now called LeadersWay, and that’s what has guided our path through this employee-centered focus and leadership development. We’ve adopted a lot of their timelines and strategies. We have monthly webinars with the owner, Kevin Wolfe, as well as live workshops and training with him and his staff.

It has been really helpful! No doubt it takes extra time for staff members to do these things. At first, we didn’t know what the reaction would be from our staff, but they quickly started seeing positive results.

One of the concepts we’re currently working on is that your customer’s satisfaction can never be higher than your employee’s satisfaction. As a result, we’re looking at ways to engage all of our employees and help them understand their role and how their job impacts other people as well as making sure they feel valued.

A couple of books that have helped us recently include "Whale Done" and "The Ideal Team Player." They are short reads and I recommend both.

New chapters have brought different seasons and challenges, but we’ve been very blessed for sure. People ask me all the time how Lee and I work together so well. We don’t know anything different because we started out that way in the early years of our marriage and made it work. We’re a very good team.

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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