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How Was Your Summer Vacation?

Shop owners, like everyone else, need a little 'downtime.'How do you measure up when it comes to letting go?
Monday, October 1, 2001 - 00:00

Shop owners, like everyone else, need a little 'downtime.'How do you measure up when it comes to letting go?

Have you ever said to yourself after a vacation, "I need a vacation to recover from my vacation," or "There is so much work to come back to; why bother?" Is a vacation something you really need to take, or is it just better to plod along day after day and not have the hassle of getting this 'vacation' done? Let's take a look at what a vacation is - or should be - and investigate why 'time off' is so important.

Let's examine the 'middle-class' vacation in the United States, before and after World War II. Before the war, only the wealthy could afford to take vacations. In the late 1940s, though, the concept of 'moving up' gained popularity and middle-class families started taking vacations. These families had some money, owned a car and could afford a week off from work.

Places such as Disneyland began springing up in the '50s, and vacation plans started to change as a result. No longer was it just a quiet week at a nearby beach or lake; now, families had a car, a destination and were on the move. What was once a very relaxing break has more recently turned into a stress-ridden, expensive, time-sensitive adventure far from home.

It is true that many of us need a vacation after our vacation. But do we actually know what a vacation is for and how to take one? It might be a good time to re-examine this 'Griswold Vacation' idea.

What do I need a vacation for?

I polled my fellow shop owners about their definition of a vacation. These were some of the typical answers:

  • quot;A vacation is for the kids so they can have fun when school is out."
  • quot;A vacation's someplace warm."
  • quot;A vacation is when you go somewhere you have never been before."
  • quot;A vacation is a place to go [away] and relax, and have someone wait on you."
  • quot; A vacation is when I get to use my [insert your favorite toy] and get drunk every night."

The list goes on. How about this one: "A vacation is used to celebrate a win." I like that one. It is taken after you earn it. What a novel idea.

But, a relaxing vacation also allows you to see much further into the future than if you stayed at work for years on end. Why do you think that college professors take sabbaticals? Why do clergy and rabbis go on retreat? Even the President has Camp David. Why don't we all take vacations?

As I posed these questions to shops owners, a few of their answers rang true. Money is an issue for some; for others, it is staff. Some were afraid. Many didn't think they should go. But, if you don't deserve a vacation after a year of hard work, who does?

Jim Chew, the owner of two large repair/tire shops in central Massachusetts, recently assumed ownership of the business from his father. Jim hired me to train his sales staff, and during the couple of months we worked together, he told me that his business was so crazy, he hadn't taken a vacation in years. After a session with his staff, Jim and I talked about him. It was more personal than business. He was tired and needed a break.

Success stories

Jim was listening. Last summer, he took two weeks off. Not a great adventure; he already had an adventure at work. Jim needed some real R&R - that is, not 'remove and replace,' but 'rest and relaxation.' Jim stayed home with his wife and kids. He also went to Cape Cod for a few days. He just relaxed. He had his cell phone if needed and called in on Wednesday, because it's bill-paying day. Only a few minor things came up.

Jim told me, "It was great for my staff as well. It allowed them to make decisions without using me as a crutch." Two weeks later when he returned to work, his building was still there. Rested, with a better outlook on life and his business, he was a new man. I asked him why he didn't take a vacation sooner and he said, "Something inside me said I couldn't do it. I needed to convince myself that I could. After that, it was just take care of some details. I already had the key people in place."

The world's best example of a 'vacationer' is shop owner Ed Ormstrom from Cape Cod. His small shop employs a couple of techs, including his son. Ed has watched people trying to take a vacation every summer and failing at it, and in the process, he has learned a thing or two. Try running a repair shop at a vacation destination during the summer, and you will see firsthand the screaming kids, frantic parents, cars that should have never left their driveways and traffic - lots of traffic. So, for a few years, Ed planned an extended vacation, while taking an occasional week off.

Ed owns a sailboat and, a couple years ago, he took his wife sailing for that extended vacation. His advice: "Never call in." He should know - he didn't call in for a year! His son knows how to run the shop, and that was good enough for him. Less than a year after he returned from the trip, he went sailing again, but this time for only a week. "Very relaxing," Ed said. And still no calls to the shop. He does carry a cell phone, but there is one stipulation: "The cell phone is for family business only."

Planning to take a vacation is the key to actually doing it. Fred Harlander from New Hampshire has it down to a science. His "Goal Grid" includes vacation time for both him and his lead tech. When Fred is gone, his lead tech takes over.

Plan for it

Fred offers some suggestions for shop owners. First, advertise just before you leave on vacation so the shop stays busy. Second, don't call in; let your staff make their own decisions.

Fred runs his business 12 months a year in a way that allows him to leave when he needs to. This is not to say that Fred isn't there much; he works as hard as anyone. He has created a structure that trains his staff to multitask. When I asked Fred what it's like to come back from a vacation, he said: "After my one-week cruise, I didn't want to go there Monday morning. I didn't want to go back to the rat race, but after two hours of pain, it was ok. On Tuesday, I was right back into it."

If you are taking over the management of a business, take your vacation before you start the process. Shop owners I spoke with said that taking over a business is tough and vacation time is scarce. But what about the shop owner who has been working for decades? Is he or she getting the personal time they need in this stress-filled industry?

Positive effects

"Research suggests that people who take annual vacations are less likely to develop heart disease and more likely to live longer than people who don't take annual vacations. In a study of 12,000 men at risk for heart disease between the ages of 35 and 57, Gimp and Matthews [published in the "Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine," Sept/Oct. 2000] analyzed lifestyle and health data. The study found that the 13 percent of men who did not take an annual vacation were at higher risk of death," says Dr. Elaine Borgen, Fallon Medical Center, Worcester, MA.

Dr. Borgen also adds, "In another study, researchers showed that employees had fewer physical complaints immediately after taking a vacation. This effect continued for five weeks after the vacation. In general, I recommend to my patients that an annual vacation is important to their physical and mental health. I also recommend actually scheduling it into their time, just as we would a doctor's appointment or an important meeting. What can also be very helpful are taking those 'mini vacations,' or the long weekends that can help to rejuvenate you in the short-term and keep you going until you can take that annual vacation."

So what does a shop owner need to do to take some time off? First, unless you're closing the shop, you need some key people to take over. They must be well-trained and have the authority to make decisions on their own. You must trust their judgment and understand that their decisions might be different than yours, but are still valid.

If you believe in the old adage, "If you want something done right, you must do it yourself," get help and work on your control issues. You must be able to let go. What good is a vacation if all you do is worry?

As you learn how to take a vacation, you will see the positive benefits it can have on your company. Productivity will go up as your staff learns to trust themselves and come to you less often for advice. Finding key people and preparing them is a long-term process, but it's well worth the effort. When those people are in place, make sure you have policies for pricing, come-backs (heaven forbid) and related work.

In the weeks before you leave, clean off your desk and tie up the loose ends. Go to work an hour earlier to get this job done. Don't expect to get ahead; you just don't want to be too far behind when you leave. With all this done, pack your bags, pick up a good book and get out of town.

You will likely spend the first couple days thinking about work. That's normal. But don't talk about work. If you are with your spouse, remember that they want to enjoy their vacation, too.


You will know the feeling when you finally relax. You sleep in, do next to nothing and as the saying goes, "are one with the world." After a few days, you might begin thinking about your shop and your long-term goals. This is a time to dream again. Try to remember when you were young and everything was possible. It still is, but sometimes you can't see it in the heat of battle. Dreaming allows you to remember why you opened your shop in the first place.

Arrive home at least two days before you go back to work. This allows you to re-enter your life with less G-force. After unpacking your bags, relax some more with family and friends.

If you must, drive by the shop to see it's still there. Don't be surprised if you are disappointed that it is. You can allow yourself a brief visit to check the mail, but don't get deep into it.

When you get back to the shop, thank everyone that allowed your vacation to happen, get to work and let the feeling in. It can be very depressing to return; sometimes our shops are not all we want them to be. Vacations let us see what success is.

How we define 'success' is much like how we take vacations. Show me a shop owner that defines success with toys, and the vacation will be about fast boats or something similar. Show me a man whose family is his success, and the vacation will be about giving to his family. What you do on vacation can tell you a lot about yourself. If you don't take one at all, this speaks volumes.

A great quote from the book "Four Pillars of a Man's Heart" by Stu Webber says it best: "It occurred to him that providing a great lifestyle didn't necessarily provide a great and meaningful life. It began to dawn on him that the whole point of 'bringing home the paycheck' was to provide for a healthy life and relationships - not just pile up a bunch of stuff. To use Bob Buford's words, Jacob's emphasis began to shift from success toward significance. Jacob began to get some bearings. Family and relationships began to mean what they should have meant in the first place."

My wife, my son and I loaded the minivan, hooked up the camper and took off for Cleveland, OH from Worcester, MA. Taking old Route 17 is the long way, but it's a lot more fun.

Want to know about my summer vacation?

Open-wheel racing is a family event, and we spent a couple days at the track. Next, we visited with my mother-in-law in Columbus; then, camping for a week. After that, we headed to Toronto for the next CART race and spent a week in upstate New York.

Twenty-two days in all, and no calls to the shop. It was one of our best vacations ever and was filled with many adventures. My minivan had a seized caliper in Geneva, NY. A Monro Shop bailed me out. Fixed the van as soon as possible and the price was reasonable. I got to be the 'stranded motorist;' it was a good lesson for me.

My son grew up a lot in three weeks, and my wife remembered why she married me so long ago.

Vacations can be good or bad. The good ones are less expensive and more real on average. Va-cations can bring people closer, and can help you see the big picture. Vacations are many things to many people. Vacations are part of the 'American Dream,' but that dream is under review. Shop owners need to relax more and should not be the only one running the show.

So what have you learned?

So, will you take a vacation? I sure hope so. Will it be long enough? Probably not, but we can dream. Is running a repair shop rewarding enough to satisfy the most important parts of your life? That may be doubtful, but it can allow you to take a great vacation once in a while so you can reconnect with the rest of your life.

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