Within the year, Big Sky made its first acquisition almost by accident. “I was good friends with the owner of A&D Auto Body Repair in Bozeman, and he was a mentor of mine,” McDonnell says. “We had planned to open a store in Bozeman because that was next market nearest us.”
McDonnell reached out and let the owner know about his plans so it wouldn’t come as a surprise. “I told him I hoped we could take business away from his competitors, but it doesn’t always work that way,” McDonnell says. “I told him, ‘We want to be friendly competitors, unless you’re willing to sell,’ and I said that kind of as a joke, because he was doing really well.”
The next day, the owner surprised McDonnell with an offer to do just that. “He wanted to spend more time with his family,” McDonnell says. “We made the transition in a few months and it went really well.”
A short time later, McDonnell received a similar call from the owner of Crash Repair in Livingston. “He said he wanted to do the same thing, but we really weren’t ready,” McDonnell says. The owner offered up his financials, and explained that he wanted to sell the autobody business so he could focus on a more lucrative storage unit business he owned. “We did owner financing and he gave me a deal I couldn’t refuse,” McDonnell says. “That store has been a little moneymaker ever since.”
As the company and staff grew along with the business, though, McDonnel had to face a new problem – his repair processes were built around a smaller operation, and they were creating a bottleneck that dragged the team’s cycle times up to 18 days.
At the time, the original Billings shop was divided into 24 stalls. Each body tech was responsible for three vehicles at a time. The cars headed for the paint booth as they were completed, but that lead to a back-up in the paint booth because the workflow was so disjointed.
McDonnel decided to apply a lean approach to his shops after a visit to Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wis., in order to reduce waste, improve communication, and streamline operations.
In 2014, McDonnel and his employees revamped their operations so that a team of multiple technicians (two A techs and two B techs) would work on each vehicle at once. Each has a set of designated tasks to complete based on the repair. McDonnel implemented a color-coded repair order system to indicate the severity of the repair, and also instituted a checklist of parts and repair steps for each vehicle.
One vehicle at a time gets released to the paint department, where a team of technicians take care of the paint and prep activities. The checklist and written notes that travel with the repair order help improve communication among the team members, customers, and appraisers.
As a result, the company cut cycle times from 18 days down to six. After just a few months of the new system, each repair team averaged 74 cars per month. Previously, the entire Billings store had averaged just 110 vehicles per month.
Big Sky also pre-washes and scans every vehicle to get a better idea of the physical damage and trouble codes/faults.
Staff Development is Critical
As part of the company’s growth, McDonnell has been careful to invest in his staff. “Your competition can copy every advantage you have except one,” McDonnell says. “That’s the investment you make in building leaders. There are a lot of KPIs to focus on, but if we invest in building leaders and really focus on building people up, they can take the business to the next level.”
McDonnell put 40 staff members through the same Discover Leadership program he had found so inspiring, and instituted ongoing education and training. He’s also encouraged a high level of community involvement at the shops as well. “We’re better people all around,” McDonnell says. “The stores are really self managing. We manage by the numbers, but we can’t be at all the stores all the time. Right, we’re on pace to hit $12 million between the three stores, but I’ve told the team I think we can hit $14 million, and everyone is focused on making that number.”