Feb 28, 2023

The Redo: 3 Pieces of Advice Shop Owners Would Give To Their Younger Selves

The Redo: 3 Pieces of Advice Shop Owners Would Give To Their Younger Selves

It’s often said that mistakes are a part of life. They’re how we learn; if we didn’t do some things wrong, we wouldn’t know how to steer them right.

With that said, some mistakes can gnaw at us. “OK, yes, I learned something, but I wish I didn’t have to learn it that way.”

Everyone’s got one of those, right? Probably more.

It was those tough lessons we had in mind as we started researching for this article. We approached a bunch of shop owners—all of them successful—and posed the following scenario:

They either gain access to a time-traveling phone booth or some kind of, I don’t know, hot tub time machine, and are able to travel through the mists of reality to visit their younger selves. What advice would they give these younglings?

Because we’re a diesel-centric site, we did ask them specifically about running a repair business, and not righting ancient wrongs or philosophizing with Socrates.

They had a lot of great advice, and we condensed it into three tips any shop owner would benefit from.

1. Get the right people…and learn how to delegate.
A lot of shops start out as one-man bands, and many of them stay that way forever—a tech in a truck, cruising out to customers in need. And that’s awesome—mobile techs are one of the new wonders of the modern age! But some business owners want to grow, and that often means hiring employees.

The fine art of bringing on the right people is an article unto itself (or maybe a series!), but today, we’ll summarize. “Skill set is second,” says Peter Cooper of Absolute Repair LLC.

We’ve all had jobs where we had a coworker who was good at what they did, but just plain miserable to be around, whether because they were angry, or unpleasant, or maybe just jerks.
Those colleagues are bad enough if you have to see them sporadically, but commercial diesel repair is a very labor-intensive industry. Which means your employees—techs, office managers, service people, and more—will be spending a lot of time in each other’s company.

One bad apple can ruin the bunch, as they say. “Most new shop owners are so overworked and desperate for help that they easily overlook how toxic some employees are,” Peter says. “They don’t even know how much it’s killing them behind the scenes.”

Then, once you have those people, let them do their jobs.

“I held onto many duties that could easily have been handled by others,” says Glen Grader of Integrity Fleet Services. “This kept me tied up in the office instead of out seeing customers, visiting techs in the field, focusing on growth.”

It’s a tough mindset to shift into, especially if you’ve been that one-man band or smaller operation. But if you want to grow, you have to step back and focus on other aspects of the business—and trust your employees to do the work you hired them to do.

2. Embrace technology.
When you first started out, you were probably doing everything on your own. In the past, that was unavoidable; today, happily, we have some technological advancements that can speed up and streamline your processes. Peter recalls “spending all day rewriting chicken scratch handwriting that techs scribbled on a dirty greasy piece of paper,” and thereby rejoicing when he found software that could do it for him.

Irvin Bowman of Wayne Truck and Trailer agrees: “I wish I knew how to properly set up my accounting system [when starting out],” he tells us, along with understanding a proper parts matrix and how to build one (also made infinitely easier by technology).

We’re not going to turn this into a Fullbay plug (although Peter does credit Fullbay with billing out more hours!), but rather a gentle nudge toward available technology. Can it save you time, energy, and brainpower? Maybe it’s worth an investment.

3. Go mobile.
Integrity Fleet Services started out as a mobile operation. Glen is pleased by how they’ve grown, but if he had to advise his younger self to change things up, he’d suggest focusing on mobile service. “Before we had a shop, we were running at a much higher overall margin,” he says. “For us, mobile service is where the real money is. Stay lean on the fixed cost!”

Peter agrees: “Don’t take on Goliath starting out,” he advises. “Road service may be the best option for most guys starting out … [you’ve got] very low overhead, and most days you can charge a 25%-50% premium for road service.”

Then, as your shop builds a name and reputation, you can make the jump to a brick-and-mortar location (or buy more trucks!) and face off with the heavyweights.

Don’t look for a time machine.

You live and learn. Even those of us who have had our lives turn out perfectly—just like we dreamed!—probably wouldn’t mind making a change somewhere, and passing some bit of advice to a younger self to spare them pain, embarrassment, or decaf.

The diesel repair industry is full of good people who are generous with their time and wisdom. While none of them have figured out how to build a time machine* that lets them advise their younger selves, they are willing to share that wisdom with others. Maybe their younger selves won’t benefit, but someone else can—maybe even you!


*If you have built a time machine, please get in touch. Someone needs to stop Disney from buying Star Wars.

Suz Baldwin