Denny Foster laughs now, but he didn't always. A veteran mechanic and manager of a western Wisconsin full-service auto repair shop, Foster oversees the day-to-day operations of what he likes to call "some good guys getting together to work on cars, only we're getting paid for it."
The chance to run a shop is a dream come true, even though the stereotypes that come with the job -- everything from "wrench head" to "grease monkey" -- sometimes brought him down. But after 15 years in the business, he says he's reaping the benefits of his hard work.
"I've earned that by becoming certified and by learning the tricks of the trade," says Foster. "But to me, the important thing is my customers and my staff believe in me and believe in us."
Another industry veteran says that many mechanics-turned-managers find it can be easier to make an engine run smoothly than to keep a business humming along.
New Tools for the Front of the Shop
"A lot of guys I deal with are in their 40s, and they just can't turn a wrench like they used to, or they're a little more sore at the end of the day, so they want to get into managing a shop," says Jim Howell, owner of AutoPersonnel, a Lexington, Kentucky-based staffing agency. "But some don't realize that working in the back of the shop is a lot different than the front of the shop."
In fact, they require vastly different skills, according to Howell. "The number one thing employers look for is people skills," he says. "Can they talk with an elderly woman who believes she is being ripped off? Can they deal with someone who believes the mechanic didn't do a good job? The credibility of the company is at risk, and the manager is often the voice of reason that brings customers in and keeps them coming back."
While they hone their management skills, today's managers also need to keep their mechanical skills sharp, says Howell. Many are ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified, meaning they have passed a course proving their knowledge of a particular aspect of automotive repair. There used to be about eight certifications, but now there are approximately 30, says Howell. Continuing education is just as important in the automotive service industry as it is in the white-collar world, he notes.
"The grease monkeys of yesterday are very very bright today," says Howell. "Most can probably build a computer without a problem. That's why the best mechanic can make a good manager. They have to understand everything within a vehicle, but they also need to have people skills and a professional appearance."
Brad Englebrecht of the Bellevue, Washington, employment agency Car People says employers look for these qualities in managers:
- Enthusiasm and excitement about the product and job.
- People skills with both customers and employees.
- Leadership skills.
- The ability to train others.
- Administrative skills.
- Ability to set action plans.
- An understanding of the numbers, including profitability, customer satisfaction and turnover.
"Each employer will emphasize one of these qualities over others to compensate for the shortcomings of the person leaving," says Englebrecht. "But profitability is usually the top dog."