Searl Auto Body
An Interview with Mark Garner, Owner & Chelsie Schmitz, Manager of Searl Auto Body
By Will Joekel & Amanda Scott, Creighton University MBA students
Mark Garner is the first to admit that the auto repair industry has a fairly bad reputation. Painted as the “bad guys” looking out for only the bottom line, customers tend to be wary the minute they walk through the door of Searl Auto Body. Luckily for them, the Garners not only stand by their work with a 100% warranty on parts and labor but they will help on anything from arranging a tow truck to filing a claim with the insurance company. Their hard work and ethical standpoint has not only earned them a 99.4% customer satisfaction rating but also the honor of being the recipient of one of the Better Business Bureau’s Integrity Award for 2012. During our interview we had the opportunity to discuss how an ethical culture has moved from raising a family to employing a business.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you came to be the owner of Searl Auto Body.
Mark’s senior year of high school was when he decided he wanted to be an auto body technician or a mechanic. After attending school for body work he was offered a job at Searl performing duties such as painting, frame work and other types of body work. In the mid-eighties the original owner, Don Searl, began to try and lessen some of his duties so Mark began splitting his time between the office and the shop aspects of the company. In October 2004, Mark decided to take up the Searl family’s offer of owning Searl Auto Body after working as manager for 14 years.
What are your personal ethics based on? Have you had an ethics mentor?
As a strong Christian there is a motto that Mark bases his business on: “If Jesus was to walk through that door and asked me to work on his car, would I make it any different than I would for anybody else? Also, how would I, or my family, want to be treated if one of us walked through the door?” Employees know that these are the questions that are used to make decisions when issues come up in the day to day business. As far as mentors go, Don Searl set a fair example for Mark, not only in how he would act as a manager, but also as a family man. When Searl would make a decision he always stood behind his word and it is apparent that this practice still applies at Searl Auto Body today.
What have you changed since you became the owner?
While the work and employees have remained mostly unchanged in the years since Mark took over, there is now a faith-based aspect to how the company is run. When employees approach Mark with a question or a problem they know that he will respond with asking them how they would fix the car if it was their own. While he will also admit that sometimes the decisions are not always the most profitable, he knows that if he were working strictly for the money he would never have chosen this line of work. “I have to answer to God for everything that I do, and although a customer will never know if I take a shortcut on their car, He will and I will. This is how I treat the employees, how we treat the customers, and how we do our business.”
The Ethical Legacy Project has identified a list of business core values; how does Searl Auto Body personify these?
Throughout our interview, it was apparent that these ethical values are instilled into every part of Searl Auto Body. Employees are held to the same standard as the owner and know what is expected of them, whether it’s how to repair a car or how they treat each other and customers. They stand by their work and back it with the 100% warranty on parts and labor. Mark has a very basic reason why integrity and accountability are such an essential part of business: “At the end of the day, I like to lock up and know that I’ve helped people. Yes, I’ve fixed some cars, but I’ve also helped people who were nervous or had some anxiety about their cars and I’ve helped them.”
Describe an easy ethical situation you have faced.
In the auto repair industry there is a lot of ethical grey area, Mark explained. It’s possible to shortcut some repairs and have the car still work but if you deliver something other than what the customer expected, then that is unethical, Mark continued. It is for this reason that Searl almost exclusively uses factory made parts even if cheaper reworked parts are available. Furthermore, if any repair is not done up to the customer’s standards, Searl will redo the work.
Although much of what Searl does may fall into an ethical grey area, there are still behaviors that are very much black and white. Mark told us a story where a repeat customer who had referred several other people to Searl had wanted to test the trust and integrity of Searl and its employees. The customer had purposely placed loose change and valuables in his car in some obvious and some not so obvious places, such as under a floor mat. Searl’s policy, Mark explained, is that anything in the car belongs to the customer, whether they know it is there or not. After the customer picked up his car he came into the office to tell Mark that Searl had passed his test; all of belongings had been put into a bag and set in the cup holder, down to the penny.
What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professionals today?
Chelsie responded that the cultural acceptance of younger generations will be challenged more than ever. Over time, additional rules and regulations will not only result in more black and white rules, but there will also be more of a push for ethical behavior regarding what is left in the ethical grey area. Each individual, she continued, is going to have to be morally responsible and will have to strive to come together to make a successful organization.
Mark followed up her point by explaining how young people are inevitably going to find themselves in a situation where they are asked to do something that they feel is not right or unethical. It would be easy for anyone to go ahead against their better thinking and claim that he or she did it for fear of losing their job, but that doesn't matter Mark continued. If you stick to your values and make the ethical choice it doesn't matter if you keep that job or not, another job will come around and you will be more respected because you did what was right and not just what you were told to do.
What is the thing you like most about your role at Searl?
Although Mark enjoys most aspects of his job, he said that helping people is what he enjoys most. Mark and Chelsie readily admitted that no one who walks through their doors is especially happy to be there. Additionally, a lot of people don't know what they need to do and are confused by the repair process. Being able to put someone’s mind at ease and walk them through the repair process is part of what helps Mark lock up each night knowing that he has helped someone.
What is one aspect of your job that you dislike?
One thing that Mark told us that he did not enjoy is the politics that occur among insurance agencies, customers, and himself. Usually, Searl will work off of the insurance company estimate, he explained, but if he feels that the insurance company does not want to repair the car safely or fairly he will call and fight for a customer.
Most of the insurance adjustors, however, have gotten to know Mark over time and know that when he says he will repair something a certain way, he means it. Both the customer and the insurance companies know that Searl will deliver a safe car at a fair price.
How are ethics infused at Searl?
Searl is a small enough shop that an employee handbook isn't necessary because everyone knows what is expected. Much of that expectation comes from the top, Chelsie described. Mark serves as a role model for everyone to follow. Furthermore, with employees who have been working at Searl for as many as forty years, their personal values have a role in the company’s ethics as well.
Having employees whose values match those of the company is crucial according to Mark. Even if it means passing on hiring an employee who could potentially drive more revenue, Mark knows that he wants someone who will always act in a manner that fits with Searl’s values. Aside from the long tenure of Searl employees, Mark knows he can trust them to act ethically and perform their jobs well because they go through the same extensive training that he has. Last year Mark gave every employee a Searl Auto Body coat. He explained that he was able to do so because of the trust that he has in his employees to represent him and his company.
How has your company’s ethical behavior affected profitability?
Being in the Midwest and having the opportunity to know many of the auto shop owners in the area, Mark feels that the majority of owners do the right thing most of the time. Acting ethically does help drive Searl’s customer base, as many of its clients are referrals, but it is difficult to make much more a link between profitability and acting ethically.
Additionally, the way that business is done at Searl is not going to change regardless of the economics of the industry. Searl will continue to operate with the same principles it has always exemplified.
How do you feel talking about ethics and answering specific questions about them?
Mark admitted that it was difficult to look at the interview questions regarding ethics and reason why he and his employees act the way they do. For them, it is just they way that they act. Mark explained that you just have to do what feels right, even if it is difficult to explain your reasoning in words.
From the moment we started this interview it was apparent that Searl Auto Body is proud of what they have accomplished. The owners and employees have set high ethical standards for the industry in Omaha and live up to that example every day.
They have not only continued a successful local business but they have done it with the integrity it takes to be recognized with one of the Better Business Bureaus highest achievement awards.
While Mr. Garner does not seem to have plans to retire any time soon, he is setting up his daughter, Chelsie, to take over the family run business. The customers and community can rest assured knowing that the ethical legacy and high commitment to service will continue at Searl Auto Body.
© 2017, Kracher & the Business Ethics Alliance