For several recent columns I’ve been talking about my early days in this industry almost 40 years ago. The road from part-time work in a body shop while in high school to becoming an executive at a large national MSO has been one with plenty of bumps and potholes. I’ve made some good decisions and enjoyed some good luck at times, but there have also been missteps along the way. I’m sharing my story not to boast, but to hopefully inspire and to help others learn from (and laugh at) my mistakes as well.
I explained that I left my first post-school job after just a few days (Early career lessons, October 2015) when it was clear the other techs there had no interest in helping anyone new succeed. In one of the first bits of lucky timing I’ve enjoyed in my career, the very day I quit, my mother received a call from a friend of hers who had just acquired a new-car dealership.
“I understand your son graduated from a tech school doing body work,” the dealership principal said to my mother. “Ask him to come down to talk to me. I have a job for him.”
I met with him and told him what I could do, and I started the next day. He introduced me to my new boss, the sole employee in the dealership body shop, a 30-something Vietnam vet who worked as a combo tech. I was his new helper.
I worked there for a year, doing virtually every aspect of the repair process. Almost-to-the-day of my one-year anniversary, I got a call from Mr. Lee, the Korean immigrant who had given me my first job in the industry, working part-time in his shop while I was in high school. Mr. Lee asked me if I wanted to come back to run his body shop. As a 20 year old, I saw that as a great opportunity, so I gave my two-week notice to the service director at the dealership.
On my second-to-last day, the dealership principal came to me and said, “I just heard you’re leaving. What are you doing?”
I told him I’d given my notice to the service director almost two weeks earlier because I had an opportunity to run another body shop. He asked me, “What’s going to make you stay?”
“Well, I want to run a shop,” I told him.
“If I let you run the shop here, will you stay?” he asked me.
I didn’t have to think long about that. This was a much better opportunity. The dealership shop already had more work that Mr. Lee’s shop, and as a multi-franchise dealership had tremendous opportunity for improvement and growth. I knew in my gut it was the right thing to do, though it wasn’t fun breaking the news to Mr. Lee.
It also wasn’t fun walking back into the shop and having the dealership owner tell the man who had been my supervisor and lone co-worker in the shop for the past year that things were changing.
“Mike’s in charge,” the owner told him. “You work for him now.”
I’ve frequently thought about the scrambling I did in the hours and days that followed as the MSO I later helped build added employees, acquired shops and changed people’s work responsibilities. I knew I had to figure out a way to convince someone with maybe 10 years more experience in the industry how suddenly having a 20 year old as a boss was a good thing.
So I immediately gave him a raise. And as convincingly as I could, I explained how I thought he was going to end up making more money working for me than the other way around. I didn’t know if that was going to prove to be true or not, but it was self-preservation.
Fortunately, it turned out to be true. Over the next year, the two of us got along, each made more money and grew the shop to the point of needing to hire another technician. By feeling (or at least acting) like I was confident in my abilities to lead, I’d found myself early on in my career in a good position where I could learn and grow for the next dozen years.