By Andrea Hansen
Chelsea Stebner grew up around cars, going on Sunday drives with her family, cruising car lots, and playing “name that car.” Her dad was an automotive mechanic and was always fixing a vehicle, snowmobile, snow blower, or boat to help someone. However, it was by accident that Stebner entered the auto body industry. Today, she is one of five partners and the Managing Partner at Parr Auto Body, which was established in Saskatoon in 1952. She didn’t join the industry on purpose, but Stebner discovered that people who are passionate about cars are passionate people. It was the people in the industry – people like her dad – that convinced her the industry was where she wanted to grow. Cars were just the catalyst.
TELL US HOW YOU ACCIDENTALLY ENDED UP IN THE AUTO BODY INDUSTRY
I completed a business administration diploma and was cold calling businesses for a work placement. I happened to get referred to an auto body shop and that’s where I met Tom Bissonnette. The employee at the front desk of the collision centre had quit that day. Tom wasn’t interested in the work placement and he gave me a job on the spot. He was an awesome and crazy first boss. He trusted me just to handle things and I got thrown into the fire. Fast forward years later and I joined Tom when he bought Parr Auto Body.
HOW DID TOM MENTOR YOU IN THE INDUSTRY?
Tom is a great mentor and provided many opportunities for me to learn and understand the business. He was the guy that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I can remember the first time he came to the shop and told me, “By the way, it’s my turn to speak at my club meeting and I told them that you are going to come do it.” I went home that night and was so mad at him. He always said, “You’re always an expert when you’re talking about what you know and what you do every day.” He gave me no choice. From there, came more opportunities. He started bringing me to events and I started to understand what was going on in the industry across Canada and making connections. Seeing the impact he had on me, there was something in the back of my mind hoping I could have the same impact on others.
When you’re working with partners, you have to give up some control.
WHAT WAS THE BIG PICTURE FOR YOU?
The bigger picture was the impact I could see having on the people in our industry, our team, and our customers. People are passionate about cars, but it’s bigger than the car itself. It’s interesting to find people who are passionate about something. For example, Nicole is a young apprentice on our team and she originally applied for a receptionist job. When I asked her why she wanted to work at an auto body shop, she said, “Actually, I really want to work on cars.” My reply was, “How about we hire you to work on cars?” And we did. I am so excited about Nicole’s future. She drives a race car out at Wyant Group Raceway. She
raises money for pediatric cancer research. She’s won Gold in Skills Saskatchewan and Silver in Skills Canada, which is like the Olympics of our trade.
WHEN EVERY JOB IS CUSTOM, HOW DO YOU CREATE EFFICIENCIES?
We have to react to every custom job. It’s becoming more of a challenge with technology changing every month, so we are continually refining our process. Traditionally a technician would get a job and they would disassemble, repair, paint, and then reassemble the car, which meant one technician on one vehicle. We just have a different way of doing the job. Is it more efficient? Not necessarily yet. We have one person who takes the cars apart, one person that does repairs, one that paints all the cars, and one that reassembles. We are trying to figure out the process that works best.
HOW WAS YOUR TEAM BUILT AT PARR AUTO BODY?
The team members are very dependent on each other because more people are touching each vehicle. Ideally, we touch cars more, we earn more dollars. Traditionally in our industry, technicians make a flat rate wage, meaning they earn whatever hours are on that job. For example, there’s 10 hours on a job and that technician gets paid 10 hours whether it takes him or her 4 or 12 hours. There’s lots of good things about that method, but it doesn’t create teamwork. Tom recognized years ago that we needed to start training more young people. When he initially made that shift, he brought somebody on that had lots of experience to mentor a younger team. Those younger team members are now my business partners and they all grew up at Parr as apprentices. We now work as a straight time shop. Maybe it’s not as efficient, but we’re working as a team. That’s our priority and how we continue to build and develop our current team.
We want our team to have a vested interest and take pride in their work to make sure it’s done right.
WHAT IS THE KEY TO A SUCCESSFUL PARTNERSHIP?
Partnerships are hard. When you’re working with partners, you have to give up some control and I like control. We were a typical small business; nobody had any defined roles. You generally knew what you were supposed to do, but we did that major buyout with Tom and just kept doing what we had been doing. We didn’t have a clear leader. Tom always said, “Chelsea just lead.” That’s awkward when there’s other shareholders and not that easy to make it all come together. We needed defined roles and an organizational chart, and we were almost two years into our partnership when we finally put that together. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to define roles and the structure of the organization ahead of time as part of your succession planning.
WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON HOW YOU MANAGE THE BUSINESS?
We have open book management, which is transparency in our numbers with our team. When Tom first asked us to buy in, we went to Springfield, Missouri, and trained on the Great Game of Business based on a book by Jack Stack. It was part of Tom’s succession plan. When Tom switched from a flat rate shop to build young technicians, he knew it would result in a reduced net profit because you’re teaching people and it costs the business more. We went back to the drawing board to look at how we could have our team take ownership in the business. We opened the books and created this system where the business needed to earn a threshold of profit and we would share profits beyond with our team. We talk about numbers every week and the cost of running the business, including our donation, advertising, and promotion budgets. Employees might think business owners are rolling in dough, but it’s our skin in the game. If something goes wrong, that’s on us. We want our team to have a vested interest and take pride in their work to make sure it’s done right. They understand the impact on the bottom line and on the dollars going into their jeans too.
First published in the December 2019 edition of The Business Advisor.