The Mightiest Managers

Oct. 25, 2022

Three grateful shop owners share what it takes to find—and keep—a manager with true might.

Here’s the word on the street from every automotive shop owner with a contented look on their face: If you’re looking for a manager, slam on the brakes. Stop looking for a shop manager, and start looking for a leader. The person with leadership qualities and tendencies—and a like-minded vision with yours—will be the manager that you seek. 

“A leader is different than a manager,” says Jared Rutberg, president of Kwik Change Complete Automotive and Covington Pro Lube, both in Covington, Georgia. “Find a leader, someone who leads by example and who’s willing to make the hard decisions.”  

Rutberg has found that star manager, and in the process, he was able to take a much-needed change and give himself a personal promotion. Or, as he puts it: “He makes it so we can actually go on vacation.” 

Another happy proprietor, in Graham, Texas, is president and shop owner of The Oil Pit, Cody Hughes. Thanks to his invaluable manager of 22 years, James Burleson who handles the business, Hughes says, “I went to every baseball game of my kids’.” 

Same story in Salisbury, North Carolina, at a Grease Monkey owned by Dan Newell and wife Sheila, where Newell thanks his lucky stars for the shop’s manager of seven years, Dustin Carr. “I’m 57 and retired,” Newell says. “He’ll call me if there’s an issue.”  

Origin Stories: Managers Who Go the Extra Mile

Grease Monkey, North Carolina 

Newell was in the NASCAR business world when, around 2008, the economy went south. “People started losing their jobs,” he remembers. “I hadn’t yet, but by 2010 my wife, Sheila, and I sat down and discussed life and what it would be. And we talked about owning a business.

As Newell remembers, he was a customer at Grease Monkey in Mooresville, North Carolina, at the time that he decided to make a career change, and the shop hired him when he left NASCAR. “Then, through wishes and prayers, we were able to buy our [Grease Monkey] store. So basically, I bought myself a job and decided to treat people the way I wanted to be treated as a customer.” 

Then Newell remembered his co-worker, Carr, in the Mooresville shop, and he brought him onboard as manager. “He treats the place like it were his,” Newell states of his good fortune, hinting that one day, indeed, he may sell his shop to Carr. “He treats customers like family, and the cars like they’re his.” 

The Oil Pit, Texas

Hughes bought The Oil Pit from his father in 2000, and fortunately Burleson was already on the scene.  

“James [Burleson] was part-time when I bought the shop, and he spent three days a week at another shop,” Hughes describes. “But right off we knew he had the ability to be a manager and see things through.”

Kwik Change Complete Automotive and Covington Pro Lube, Georgia 

Rutberg chose just such a person 11 years ago when he hired Alec Lumpkin as a lube tech. And it wasn’t long before he realized the value of Lumpkin’s efforts.  

“Within a month or two after initial training, I realized … this guy is dedicated, knowledgeable, and I promoted him to assistant manager at Covington Pro Lube,” Rutberg says. “I can teach the lube side of things, but I can’t teach people to be leaders.”  

So a year later, Lumpkin became Rutberg’s shop manager at Kwik Change, and then a few years later another promotion—to general manager at both shops.

8 Qualities of a Standout Leader

To get a shop manager that has what it takes, all three successful shop owners agree, an owner must be on the lookout for specific traits and natural abilities.  

1: Innate Trustworthiness 

“As an owner, I’m here a lot,” Hughes says from his shop. “But there are also many times I’m not here. I want to know that I can trust my shop manager and know that the public can as well.” 

That trust extends to customers. Hughes says that when parents come in with the family vehicle to get serviced, it’s Burleson who is helping to get them on the road safely. 

“James has the ability to just do the behavior—to be honest. It’s just who he is,” Hughes says. “And that’s invaluable. It’s not something he has to think about.” 

Newell says that Carr, his manager, shares similar values and is all-around trustworthy. 

And Rutberg pointedly advises shop owners who are in the hiring process: “Put trustworthiness right up there at the top.” 

2: Industry Knowledge 

A no-brainer: Any prior automotive experience a manager has will always be a benefit. And it will help to fully round out a shop’s offerings—which is something that customers will value. 

“Alec [Lumpkin] is very smart and very thorough,” Rutberg says about his manager. “He had worked in automotive shops before. So what’s unique in the quick-lube world is that he is an excellent mechanic and he’s great at diagnosing vehicles. So if there’s an issue or a question, he can go and explain it to the customer, beyond just the lube service.”  

Another quality of a star manager is that they’ll constantly be working to expand upon the knowledge they already possess. 

At Grease Monkey in Salisbury, Carr devours every piece of automotive information he can get his hands on.  

“He does a tremendous amount of research on the new cars, so he knows what the correct maintenance procedures are, and that we’re using the right filters,” Newell says. “He does his due diligence.”  

For that reason, Carr is qualified to do much of the training at the shop, which is a great asset for a manager. 

Hughes says that Burleson, his manager, is practically MacGyver with his mix of industry knowledge and longstanding ingenuity.  

“James has done it so long that there’s not anything he hasn’t seen,” Hughes says. “And if he can’t fix it, he finds out how and he gets the parts on the way.” 

3: Natural Work Ethic 

All three shop owners acknowledge the hard work and dogged determination that are part of a strong work ethic can be difficult for an employer to come by. 

“I have to keep one more person in my shop than I need at all times because I can’t get everyone to come to work,” Hughes says. “Especially the younger kids will call in sick. But James [Burleson] has the work ethic. You just don’t see it anymore. Someone who’s here like him, every day, is invaluable for me.” 

For Rutberg, work ethic is synonymous with loyalty. And his shop manager, Lumpkin, is loyal to both the company and to its betterment. And he will strictly enforce company policies at Kwik Change Complete Automotive and Covington Pro Lube.  

“A lot of times you run into a manager who wants to be a friend, therefore they won’t uphold company standards,” Rutberg says, adding, “And this goes back to my advice to find a leader first, and a manager second, which comes from my time in the military.” 

For Newell, work history can potentially be a strong indicator of work ethic. So he suggests that shop owners put a careful eye on job applications when they’re hiring—for any position, but most definitely for a shop manager.

“I’d look for longevity,” he advises. “To me, it’s a red flag if you see a job application with three jobs in the past two years. I’d be looking for someone with one job in the past seven years.”

4: Respectfulness 

Of all the traits a truly high-powered manager must deliver, this one may be where the rubber meets the road—at least in the eyes of the customer.

At The Oil Pit, Hughes says Burleson is a natural in this department, too. He says the manager has a “yes ma’am, no ma’am” style with a respectful personality. Those experiences resonate with customers. 

Respect is also something the rank-and-file shop technicians catch on to, and emulate. Newell has seen that at his shop and the family atmosphere he has promoted. He credits Carr for setting the tone and example for the rest of the team. 

And respect, as it turns out, is a two-way street. Rutberg notes that in an industry where shops are very competitive for both customers and high-caliber employees, he goes the extra mile to practice respectfulness—toward Lumpkin as shop manager and every tech that works under him. 

“We have a very positive relationship, and we listen and respond if our manager has concerns. And it’s the same thing with all our employees,” he says. “We work with them if they have emergencies, trouble with their kids in school, or other issues to deal with.”   

5: Professional, Yet Approachable 

Newell says Carr’s personality has helped create a reputation at his shop.  

“This is like Dustin’s house. We’re going to talk to you and know your kids. You’re more important to us than a $100 bill,” Newell notes.  

And when Carr is not there, customers notice—big time.  

“People come in and say, ‘Where’s Dustin?’ And if he’s off on a day,” Newell says, “then they’ll say, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow.’ He has this ability to have a personal touch and still speak to people in a professional manner.” 

Hughes, too, notes that his shop manager, Burleson, has a loyal following of customers who’ve come to rely on him as both a professional and someone friendly they can trust. 

“I’m not a social media guy, but I hear that people always take screenshots and call out his great work,” he says. “People even stop me in the grocery store and say what a great guy he is, and what great service they get from him.”  

6: Emotional Steadiness 

A candidate for your manager position can tell you they’re level-headed and calm under pressure, but you’ll never really know until you see them in action under a range of different circumstances. And being able to keep a handle on one’s emotions is critical in this role, where your candidate is interfacing with the public and representing the business. 

Newell says that his manager has proven over and over that he has an even temperament, even when they’re short-handed. Positivity goes a long way during a hectic day at the shop. 

The trait is also important for customer service. 

“So many people can’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Newell says. “And if somebody says ‘no,’ you’ve got to take it for an answer. You’ve got to look this customer in the eye and say ‘you need an air filter.’ And if they say ‘no,’ be able to say ‘OK, we’ve documented that and we’ll check next time.’” 

Burleson has the calm-cool-collected demeanor down to an art, Hughes says. Right now, with oil prices going up so steeply, for instance, the price of an oil change has skyrocketed—something customers really notice in the tiny population of 9,000 in Graham. 

“We’re asking people to pay $100 for something that used to cost them $40,” Hughes emphasizes, “but he tells them why. It’s an expensive service and it’s not fun to pay $100, but we do a good job and it is what it is right now. And James is out there easing the tension and explaining.”  

Rutberg describes his manager as a “pillow for the customer.”  

“He absorbs an issue, and then he goes and tries to resolve it,” he says. “He’ll let them speak their piece and then go and try to solve it.” 

7: Adaptable—and Willing to Learn 

Shop owners will need a manager who’s not rigid and can roll with the punches when change comes around. 

Rutberg finds this is an area where Lumpkin is unique among lube managers.  

“He can diagnose and turn a wrench when he needs to,” he says. “He’s adaptable and willing to adjust to his environment and the company policies. And if he messes up, he wants to fix it and do it right again in the future.” 

Hughes sings Burleson’s praises, noting that he’s a jack-of-all-trades type, and he’s and highly flexible. 

“James has an uncanny ability to come outside and get underneath your car if there’s an issue, diagnose, take a plan of action, and fix it himself, if it’s possible,” he says. “And then he can come in every day and close my books, and he’s never been a penny off one time in 20 years.”  

A shop manager must also be willing to figure out a new plan of attack when things don’t go their way. 

Newell says Carr doesn’t let the daily highs and lows throw him off.  

“He adapts and maneuvers,” Newell says. “To me, that’s maturity. He doesn’t let our downs today affect our goals tomorrow. He has resilience.”

8: Takes responsibility 

Newell says his manager is open and honest about mistakes, and he follows up to make them right.  Rutberg notes an especially sought-after trait in Lumpkin.  

“He’s very accountable. He works hard to correct it if we make a mistake, since nobody’s perfect,” Rutberg says. 

Hughes tells the story of a recent incident at The Oil Pit, when a high school shop tech student who’s working there accidentally smashed up a customer’s car door.  

“That will cost me,” he admits. “But by the time I got back in town, James had already gotten in touch with the lady. And he told her what happened and said, ‘We’re taking care of this.’ And he had her completely calm. He can pull someone from jumping off a ledge.”

Boosting That Bottom Line 

Whether outwardly or behind the scenes, the top shop managers will pull in some serious revenue for the business. Whether it’s through expertly selling services, with no pressure, and managing the day-to-day car count, or just by helping ensure that people come back to the shop, the high-performing manager is worth their weight in gold. 

For Rutberg, there are two key ways that Lumpkin helps his shop make money. The first is the ability to fix various vehicle problems on the spot. The second is being able to train others, especially for added services. 

“For example, he identified a group of vehicles we can do serpentine belts to in the bay, and that provides a good revenue opportunity,” Rutberg says. 

Today, Rutberg describes his business (at Covington Pro Lube) as high-volume. He says they service 1,850 cars per month in a two-bay shop that’s open six days per week. That success is certainly due to having the right person in a place of leadership. 

For Hughes, it’s Burleson’s consistency over time, and his ability to keep people happy and coming back, that really affects The Oil Pit’s bottom line.  

“He can simply drive day-to-day sales,” Hughes says. “If you can find someone with the same values, goals, and ideas as you—on how to handle the shop, the business, the customer, it’s just there with James. He’s invaluable to this business.” 

He adds, “The shop has been here 34 years total, and we reached our highest dollar volume one year ago with James and all my guys. And we just won our seventh straight Best Lube Award in the town of Graham.” 

Newell knows what he’s got in Carr, as well, and the proof’s in the stats.  

“When I bought this Grease Monkey in April 2012, we serviced about 11 to 13 cars a day, and today it’s 45.” 

And he adds, “He knows the level of quality and consistency to make us successful. I mentored him in the beginning and he knows how I want it run.” 

Incentives: Giving Credit Where It’s Due 

On the day that Hughes saw his highest dollar volume ever at The Oil Pit, he says, “I had bonuses lined up for all these guys the next morning. These guys are driving my entire family and my way of life, and I appreciate them.” 

Hughes shows his appreciation in other ways, too, with things that turn out to be quite valuable for his employees.  

“I help them out when they need it, and I’ll let them have their check early. It shows them appreciation. I try to give them something back that shows they’re valuable here,” he says. 

For Rutberg’s part, “Along with pay, I want them to know they’re appreciated. I give them ownership, where they know that their opinion is valued. Pay only covers you so far, and they can always find more. But if they’re not happy where they are, the money is irrelevant. The shop has to have a positive environment that works for them.” 

Newell says this about compensation, for Carr in particular. 

“As he’s grown and taken on more and more and we’ve offered more services at the shop, we make more and we offer him more. Then at some point you’re at the top of the heap, and you don’t want to go back to the bottom of the ladder and start over at someone else’s shop.”  

Then he adds, “We fully understand that we are successful because of our employees, so we take care of them and let them take care of the customer. And we offer a lot of incentives.”  

End of the Shop Day 

No roundup of advice on what to look for when hiring a shop manager would be complete without mentioning sense of humor. 

“Dustin’s laugh is infectious,” Newell says of his man, Carr. “He’s gullible and we play pranks on each other. He’s awesome.” 

One time when there was a mild flash flood in Salisbury, North Carolina, Carr took it upon himself to make the whole shop laugh.  

“He said, ‘I’ll bet you $10 that I’ll go out there and swim in the flash flood.’ I told him he’s crazy. Then he went into the bathroom and put on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, ran outside, and went swimming right next to the road! He’s crazy!” Newell laughs. “Someone would have to work really hard to get him away from me.”