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Early career lessons

Always look for opportunity—but also be on the lookout for potential sabotage
Wednesday, October 7, 2015 - 07:00
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In a recent column, I shared a little of how I got my start in this industry almost 40 years ago. In talking (and laughing) more about it with some family and colleagues, I realized there are experiences throughout my career that could serve as inspiration – or as a caution – to others growing their careers in this industry. So here’s a little more about how I went from spraying cars overnight in a body shop during high school to eventually becoming a vice president of a leading national MSO.

I mentioned in that previous column that my high school consumer economics teacher provided my introduction to the industry. One thing I didn’t say, however, was that teacher also gave me an opportunity to restore his 1966 Corvair. He even allowed me to drive the car while the work was in process with the caveat that I only drive it back and forth to school – a limitation that as a 17-year-old I tended to stretch a little at times.

One time, for example, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were driving down a 4-lane, 40 mph road in the Corvair when a tire suddenly went whizzing by right in front of us. Just as I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, someone lost a tire,” the car started to jockey and I realized that had been our right front tire. I managed to get the car off onto the median, and proceeded to search up and down the road to find all the missing pieces of the brakes, etc., and put it all together.

“You may want to check your brakes,” I remember telling the teacher when I gave the car back to him.

At the start of my senior year, I applied to what is now the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Penn., where I was fortunate enough to receive a full grant. I spent two years there, learning all the right ways to work on vehicles and unlearning a lot of what I had “learned” in my previous part-time work.

I graduated in 1980 and almost immediately landed a job at an independent body shop close to home. It was there I learned that while you should always look for opportunity, you also should be on the lookout for potential sabotage.

The first vehicle I was assigned at that shop was a local township police car. I was told to remove all the decals, fix all the dents and rust, and prep the vehicle for paint, including priming it.

I spent two days doing all the repairs and needed disassembly. Near the end of the second day, one of the other techs told me, “You really don’t need to work that hard.” I suspect he was worried about me making him look bad.

When the car was ready for primer, I got it into the paint booth at which point another older technician (who I’ll call “Joey”) said, “I do all the priming.” I was pretty sure my boss had indicated I needed to do my own priming, but this was just my Day No. 3 on the job as a 19-year-old, so I said, “Okay.”

Try to imagine the very worst priming job that you can; this one was probably twice as bad. I couldn’t believe how much primer Joey was putting on, enough to run it to the ground.

A bit later the shop owner asked me, “What did you do to that car?” I told him that Joey had primed it, something Joey proceeded to deny.

“Why would I do the priming,” Joey said. “I’m a heavy-wreck tech.”

The owner called over another tech, a friend of Joey’s, who backed up his friend by saying I’d done it.

I knew then that this wasn’t a place I could continue working. The owner should have realized I had no reason to lie. I was a rookie. I could have easily blamed the bad priming (had I done it) on inexperience.

I quit that job and have always been determined to build a culture of honesty and teamwork within the shops I later had the opportunity to lead.

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