Shop Strategies: How Independent Nashville Body Shop Nurtures Homegrown Talent
Written by Stacey Phillips, Autobody News
Published August 30, 2018
Sixty years ago, John (J.T.) Whaley opened a small body shop in Nashville, TN, which he named Whaley Body Shop.
Although John retired in 1981, the business has remained in the family ever since and prides itself on offering quality repair work to its customers.
Autobody News spoke to Linda Whaley, owner of Whaley Body Shop, about how the business has survived tough economic times and retained its employees.
Q: How did you get involved in the business, Linda?
A: When John sold the business to his son Gary, who I was married to at the time, I began working at the shop. It was the early 1980s; we had two small kids and I worked part-time. Interest rates were very high, and we were going through tough economic times. We went out on a limb and decided to take the company to the next level. With a lot of hard work and dedication, we were able to triple the size of our shop and get through that hump.
We decided to sell the business to a nephew on Gary’s side during the late 1980s, and he ran the company for about 10 years. In 2008--09, we decided to take the company back. The economy was suffering again, but we were able to keep all of our vendors and employees and run it successfully. I had the opportunity to purchase the shop in 2011 as a sole owner, and I’ve run Whaley Auto Body since then. My goal is to continue to grow the business while offering great service to my customers.
Q: What sets your business apart from others in the industry?
A: The number one thing that sets us apart is that we are a household name in our area. We have a really good reputation. We receive a lot of great reviews and have many long-term employees.
Q: How do you retain your employees?
Currently, I have 20 employees, and many of them have worked here for more than a decade. I pay my technicians a little more per labor hour---about $3 more per labor hour than they can receive anywhere else in town.
Because of that, I can retain them, and it seems to keep the revolving door down. I think shop owners need to offer a substantial enough wage, so your employees don’t jump from one shop to the next.
I also give employees an extra week of vacation after they work at the shop for more than 10 years, so they get three weeks total per year. These may be small things, but it does make a difference.
I’m proud of my team and how they work together and cooperate with one another. That takes building a culture. Dave Luehr at Elite Body Shop Solutions helped me a lot with culture. He gave me reading material, and we have expanded on his basic principles and implemented them at the shop.
You can tell when someone is having a rough day. You have to find out if it’s something to do with the person’s work life or personal life. If it has to do with something at work, it gives you the opportunity to deal with it, so it doesn’t fester.
If one person has an emergency, my team will jump right in and finish that car. That makes my heart happy to see them do that.
Q: How do you ensure a quality repair for customers?
A: Because I don’t have a high turnover rate, I’ve found it has been very helpful. Historically in our business, when someone is disgruntled or going to leave, they cut corners. My goal is to keep turnover low, so there is consistent work in the shop.
I created some Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that Dave helped me put into place several months ago. This has greatly helped hold people accountable and keep things flowing in the shop. The company is achieving a great transformation that I never thought possible. It has also helped me work toward reaching my potential and given me a renewed passion and vision for the future.
With cars changing so much, I think it’s imperative to keep up with the times to be successful. You have to do the repair right. There’s no question about it.
Your best advertiser is your satisfied customer, and we all know that. Do a nice job, give them back a clean car, provide personalized service and the work just follows from there.
Q: How do you receive feedback from customers and ask for reviews?
A: One of the unique things I have done over the last couple of years is hand-write thank you notes to my customers. Inside the envelope, I include my business card as well as information on how to write a review about the service they received at my shop. I list three different ways they can post a review---Yelp, Google and Facebook. I also include a pen, magnet and some type of treat. Although the majority of my customers don’t acknowledge it, a small percentage comes back and tells me how much they appreciate the work we’ve done to their car.
One lady recently wrote me a letter thanking me; she was impressed that I took the time to write her a note. I think it shows that I care and that I’m willing to sit down and spend the time to show my appreciation for their business and not send a mass-produced letter. It does take up some of my valuable time, but for me personally, it’s rewarding whether or not they recognize it. Also, I know my effort will stick in their minds if they have a wreck again.
Q: What is your biggest challenge right now?
A: I think the biggest challenge for me is [filling] an opening for a technician. Our industry is really lacking quality people to do the work that needs to get done.
Whaley Body Shop has been around for 60 years, and I remember people used to line up to come and work here, but the industry is just not producing new technicians as they should. Recently, I put up a banner on the outside of my building looking to hire body techs. Never in my life did I think I would have to do that. Unfortunately, it didn’t draw people.
Q: How are you addressing the shortage of technicians?
A: One of the ways I’m addressing this problem is by paying apprentices to help in the business. I’m a small shop, and it’s a liability to my company because it takes several years of training. However, I feel that I’m doing my part to help. I currently have one employee who started as an apprentice and has now converted to a full-fledged commission worker, and I have two techs fresh out of school who have been here about a year. It takes a while to get them to perform on their own, so I nurture them along the way. I’ve also paired them with experienced technicians to give them an opportunity to assist with many types of processes in the shop.
Q: What advice do you have for other body shops currently looking for new talent?
A: I’ve found it’s crucial to cultivate technicians from the trade schools. You have to take a chance. Go ahead and interview them at the end of the school year and make a spot for them to work at your shop. Otherwise, we’re not going to have anyone to do this work.
I don’t think our industry understands the level of high alert that we are in. We’re in a dying trade, and if we don’t do something, we’re not going to have a way to fix these cars. It’s scary to me that we don’t do more to foster homegrown talent.
Q: What do you enjoy most about working in this industry?
A: I enjoy the whole process of a car coming in torn-up, and then that same vehicle goes out looking better than it did when it first came in here. That is IF a customer has taken good care of it. You can only do so much. I’ve had my share of cleaning up cars, and I’ve found that there are some very meticulous people and there are others who don’t value their cars like they should. It’s nice to see vehicles that are crunched up become nice and shiny and clean and then hand the keys back to the customer. I find they are so happy because it’s a stressful situation to be without your car, and they don’t like being in rental cars either.
I’m pretty proud of being one of the few female body shop owners in this industry. At first, when I got back into the industry, I anticipated some resistance. As it turns out, I’ve found that my female customers actually love doing business with a woman-owned business. I realized it was a plus. I also think we need more women in our industry because of our attention to detail.