Al Oramas’ 7 Principles of Running an Auto Repair Shop

Al shares his Auto Repair Business Leadership Principles he's learned over the years.

Al Oramas’ 7 Principles of Running an Auto Repair Shop
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Al Oramas knows how to run an auto repair shop, but it’s taken him years to refine his approach. Here are just a few of the valuable lessons he’s learned during his time as a shop owner.

“My way or the highway.” I think that’s a mentality that many new shop owners—heck, new bosses in any industry—have with their teams when they first start out.

I sure did.

When I opened my shop, I had my own idea of what I wanted the place to look like, my own idea of how to run an auto repair shop. Look, 30 years ago, I was all about growth. But nowadays, things have changed. People’s belief systems have changed.

When old guys like me try to apply the old “I’m the boss” methods of leadership, it just doesn’t work. So, I had to learn to change my mindset.

It wasn’t an overnight thing. I learned tidbits of wisdom here and there and had to connect the dots.

But over the years, I’ve developed some principles that I think every shop owner can use on how to run an auto repair shop.

1. Train Leaders, Not Managers

For years, I trained people at my shop to be managers—store managers, assistant managers, office managers. It seems like a pretty straightforward thing to do. You’re busy, you need people to help you run the show, so you train them up to be managers. 

One day, I was talking to another shop owner at a conference, and he was talking about growing leaders, and making everyone on his team a leader, even his youngest guy. 

And I realized “Wait a minute. I don’t need managers. I need leaders.” 

Managers finish to-do lists, unlock the doors at the stores, and think about what they need to do. They help the customers. But leaders do something different. They grow the people around them, set the level of talent, set the level of excellence. Leaders focus on inspiring others, on setting the bar higher.

I had to change my entire thought process on leading a team and creating leaders. I figured since I was already training managers anyways, I could change direction and instead start a leadership training series for my team, totally voluntary.

Al’s Book Recommendations 

I got Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, and used it as the curriculum for mentoring my people. Of course, as a team, we still need standard operating procedures.

But the focus is now on leadership, not just processes.

  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
    I believe this is the foundational book anyone who wants to transform their leadership mindset should read.
  • Profit First: Transform Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine
    By Mike Michalowicz

    Tremendous financial book that everyone in school should read. It'll change your financial picture big time. It's so simple but it absolutely works.
  • Leadership 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know by John C. Maxwell
    I'm currently basing some of my leadership training on this book. It's a fantastic dive into what strong leadership is.
  • Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear
    A pretty cool book that'll teach you great tactics for building habits.
  • Lessons from the Mouse: A Guide for Applying Disney World's Secrets of Success to Your Organization, Your Career, and Your Life by Dennis Snow
    A fabulous, practical book about customer service.

Build Out Your Team To Support Your Operations

Today, I have eight people on my leadership team across both my locations (including my two daughters—one is the Operations Manager, the other handles admin and customer service. They bounce between the two locations, just like me). 

But the whole “train leaders” mentality was an adjustment for me. I mean, I’m the guy that always had the microphone and wouldn’t let anyone else use it. But now, getting my team’s comments and input is important. You have to be a good moderator to engage people, even the quiet ones.

You’ve got to go, “Hey, we just talked about how we wanted to do this customer event” (or this, that, and the other) and then ask, “What are your thoughts? I wanted to hear what you have to say.” 

After all, I helped them develop as leaders for a reason. If I don’t get their input, what’s the point? I want everyone to bounce ideas back and forth. If I just turn an idea down, we could be missing something that makes the light turn green for our shops.

Al Oramas and team

2. Invest in Your Team

Investing in your team doesn’t always look like getting people to read a leadership book. Nor should it. I know people get this mental image of shops being a place where “tough guys” with big personalities hang out and work on cars.

But shop employees are people, and everyone needs to feel loved and appreciated. That’s why I created a place where everyone feels like they can get help when they need it. 

Our biggest investments are in people.

In 2021, we sent two of our managers to the ATI SuperConference. It was the largest one ever. And the material was so strong. It was all about coming together in unity and considering everything about your shop: your team, your people, what your direction is. It was constant information, just an overload of good ideas.

It cost an extra $10,000 to send two more people to the conference. Some people might think that’s a lot, but a lot of shop owners are spending that much on equipment that might be outdated in two or three years.

The knowledge my team picked up at the conference will help them for the rest of their lives. We’re definitely going to keep sending people back. 

Believe in your people.

You have to believe in your people as professionals and not give up on them even if things look bleak.

A while back, I noticed that one of my employees was struggling. I could have fired him. The “old me,” that newbie shop owner thirty years ago, probably would have.

But instead, I put him on probation, gave him some time to take care of some things, and told him his job would be there when he got back.

During his probation, I focused on helping him confront the challenges he was facing and work through them.

It worked.

That employee is now moving forward in his career at the shop. Had no one helped him see that he could rebuild himself, he would have squandered his career. If I’d fired him instead of helping him, he would probably be in even worse shape today than he was back then.

But don’t just invest in your people when times are bad. You have to invest in them when times are good, too. Part of being a better leader is becoming a better person, and to become a better person, you have to lift up people in all areas of their lives, personal and professional.

Celebrate your wins, too.

I celebrate different “wins” with my employees. For example, I wanted my technicians to get ASA certified. Some were sitting on the fence.

So I said that getting the certification would lead to a promotion. When one of my technicians passed his two tests, we threw him a party with cupcakes, balloons. It was a good time.

I want my legacy to be that I made a difference in people’s lives. 

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Last year, one of my parts vendors called me and said they wanted me to buy from them.

I thought to myself, “Ok, but what are my guys gonna get out of it?” So I cut a deal. I told them, “I want rebates. You’ve asked me to increase my purchases. I did the math. This is how much I need to buy a month. I’ll hit these three tiers. And when I do, you can increase the percentage of my money back.”

With those rebates, I put half of it back into the company and the other half into employee events. 

I also got them to foot the bill for some team-building events. That parts vendor paid for a night of go-kart racing and food and a night of top golf and more food for me and my team!

They also paid for our Christmas party, and with the rebate money, I got everyone Visa gift cards and other gifts.

Next on the list? Go to a nice hotel in Colorado Springs and hit up the golf courses and swimming pools. These are the kinds of experiences I want my employees to have. 

3. Listen With the Intent to Listen, Not With the Intent to Reply 

To invest in your team as much as you can in the best ways possible, you have to change how you listen to people. 

I used to listen with the intent to reply, not with the intent to listen. These days, I listen with the intent to listen, not with the intent to reply. 

It’s natural to want to listen to see where you can jump in during a conversation. We’re all people and people like to contribute. Getting out of that habit is hard. 

But it’s important to break it. Because when you listen with the intent to reply, you’re not truly taking in what the other person is saying.

You’re not really making them feel heard. And in turn, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You’re missing out on things that can really change the way you approach things at the shop for the better. 

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4. Discipline in Sentences, Compliment in Paragraphs 

Even with good listening, there are still times when you’ll have to discipline your team. That’s just a fact of running a business. Sometimes, people have to course-correct.

But you have to make sure to balance how you train personnel. That’s a big part of how to run an auto repair shop. Think about it.

Do you discipline them in paragraphs and compliment them in sentences? That’s what I used to do.

But nowadays, I’m all about disciplining in sentences, not in paragraphs. 

You don’t need to spend 45 minutes telling someone everything they’re doing wrong. But you don’t need to spend 45 minutes telling them how great they are. Peel both back. But peel back the discipline part more. 

When you discipline someone, balance it out by complimenting them a bit more than you give constructive criticism.

It’s that whole “three positives for every piece of negative feedback” idea. People need to know you care enough about them to want them to get it right.

But they also need some encouragement that they're doing some things right.

5. Invest in Your Customers 

When you invest in your team, truly listen to them, and give good feedback, you’re also by extension investing in your customers. Happy employees lead to happy customers. 

But you also have to directly invest in your customers if you want to go anywhere in this business. 

I’ve been doing that from the start. Before I formally opened my shop’s doors three decades ago, I knew I wanted to create a well-run, ethical auto repair shop where anyone from any walk of life would feel welcome. 

Back then, I thought, “Ok, Al, time to think smart.”

I asked myself, “What’s wrong with our industry?” 

And then it hit me. I’d heard it a million times. We all probably have. Women feel like they’re taken advantage of in the auto repair industry because they’re women.

Well, because I was starting my own business, I had the opportunity to squash that discomfort at my shop. I was going to run things ethically for women. 

So I contacted three professional, working women in my community.

I interviewed them and I asked them, “What would you want to see in an auto repair shop? What do you think would make you feel appreciated and welcomed and respected? What are those attributes?” 

To this day, I remember all the words they said. 

They gave me the whole rundown. 

They said it needs to be inviting. Welcoming, comfortable, clean. Needs to look like it’s in order. 

They also said, “Speak to us like we’re human beings. You can be all techie all you like, but make it make sense to us. Don’t belittle us.” 

So that was the information I used to open my shop. Those women had a huge impact on my team. That’s how I’ve been running the shop from those early days to today.

In those days, in 1992, most independents were grungy. Not us. From day one, we made it all perfect, painted the shop cleanly. Bought a couch for the waiting area. 

We treat every customer with respect and make sure they feel welcomed. I organized my shop (and the second location) in such a way that customers walk in all the time and ask, “Are you guys a franchise?” 

6. Invest in Yourself 

No matter how long you’ve been in this industry, no matter what roles you’ve had in this industry, it’s important to keep working on yourself. Self-improvement is a journey, not a destination.

When one of my store managers traveled to Baltimore for a training, I had to think hard about what advice to give him. He has a lot of industry experience and is pretty well-versed in all things auto repair.

So I said to him, “One thing I’ve been working on recently is being more humble.” I advised him to consider doing the same. 

Al reading from binder

Now, I know humility is just one of those words that’s misunderstood a lot. We tend to associate it with not boasting, not bragging. Sometimes we take it to mean staying more reserved, more quiet. And sure, it can mean all of those things.

Say, “You know what? I don’t know everything. I still have the opportunity to learn and grow.” 

Back to what I told that store manager going for his training in Baltimore—I told him, “If you have that humble attitude, you’ll be a sponge. You’ll be a sponge, and all sponges just absorb. And to improve in anything that you do, you have to be able to take in information, not just be motivated for a day or two, or maybe a week after the event.” 

Humility is what can actually give you a plan for your life’s course. 

7. Build Bridges and Break Bread

My best advice for future shop owners, and anyone in the industry, can be summed up with three things: commitment, dependability, and humility. Another big part of humility, I think, is accepting that you’re not the only shop on the block. 

Don’t sit there worrying about things like, “Oh, that shop is gonna get all the business in town.” Don’t concern yourself with things you can’t control. Don’t view the auto repair industry as a giant competition. View it as a community.

As a matter of fact, the shop owner down the street? They need to become your brother or your sister. 

For example, I was recently texting a shop owner down the block from me. We made plans to go break bread. There’s another shop owner north of me I talk to a lot. I’m in constant communication with these shop owners.

I think of it like this—none of us can fix all of the cars that drive in front of our shops each day. It would be impossible. There are just too many cars. 

So, build a coalition of counselors. Be the person building a bridge. Reach out, join associations, get connected, get involved.

There’s value in connecting with my peers. It’s what makes me a better shop owner. I’d be stagnant if I wasn’t involved in the industry. 

Build each other up. Invest in that. That’s how to run an auto repair shop. Invest in your team and yourself, and get out there and do stuff. That’s what you need for success.

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