Interior Insights: What to Consider When Growing Your Business

Feb 3, 2010

In the auto upholstery trade, hiring an employee is much more difficult than it is in your standard retail service operation. It’s tough to find a good upholsterer who doesn’t have his own business, and hiring someone without any skills whatsoever and training them from the ground up is a gamble at best.

Still, the decision an auto trim business owner makes about whether to hire depends on three things. First, does the business have enough demand for auto upholstery and other related services (basic repair, marine, furniture, aviation, commercial, etc.) that the business owner just can’t get the work out the door efficiently on his or her own? Second, will the new employee help generate enough extra revenue to offset what he or she costs to employ? Third, is the business owner willing to deal with training, managing and handling the accounting (and tax reporting) for an employee?

Although these should be relatively straightforward questions to answer, I’ve talked to a number of trim shop owners over the years that have gone back and forth when it comes to hiring employees.

The usual cycle goes something like this: A trim shop owner starts a business, often with family, and after a few years someone retires or goes into another business, leaving the shop with just the owner. The owner tries to hire someone else with experience but that doesn’t work out. The owner then tries to train someone but this individual either doesn’t have the skill or the work ethic to produce and the shop owner lets this person go.

Another common event is forced downsizing due to a slow local economy or a major shake up in the business’ customer base. After that, the trim shop owner is fed up with all the costs and hassle associated with employing people, decides employees just aren’t worth the trouble and goes it alone for years.

This isn’t how employing people should work or how it has to be. Trim shop owners should have some idea whether they want to expand their business or keep it small.

If the goal is to keep it small, why even bother hiring someone? Dealing with payroll taxes and withholding, workman’s comp, employee benefits and managing people are all perfectly good reasons to go it alone. Many trimmers would rather focus on doing the work themselves than on dealing with other people.

So why hire someone? Trim work can be hard on the body, like most other types of automotive work. Pulling seats out of a car and putting them back in and trying to fit into cars at weird angles isn’t exactly easy on a trimmer’s knees or back. When you’re young, it’s fine, but as the years go by most trimmers have days where they wish they had someone else around who could at least help with some of the grunt work.

In the hot rod world, although most trimmers would love to spend a ton of time on single projects and do a perfect job, many enthusiasts and collectors are less patient and want to bring their cars to shows. To get top-notch interiors done on time, most trimmers need help.

The biggest reason to hire someone, though, is that it’s impossible to grow a business without doing so. Every auto trimmer has strengths and weaknesses, not to mention a limit to the number of hours he or she can work. What’s the point in owning your own business if you work 16-plus hours a day and never take vacations? Even if a trimmer loves the work they’re doing, at the very least they’re sacrificing a social life and time with their family.

In my opinion, going it alone works only if you can charge enough money and have enough of a high-end clientele to keep you busy so that you can work relatively normal hours, take time off and have a lifestyle you’re happy with. If you can’t do that, you need to hire someone to help you build your business.