ST Billingsley is a Co-Owner of B&W Associates in Woodbridge, Virginia. The company runs two auto repair shops – Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire and HomeTowne Auto Repair & Tire. After graduating from high school, Billingsley joined the army reserves, where he worked on helicopters. He worked in the automotive field for 13 years and was a master certified ASE automotive technician. In 2005, Billingsley became the owner of a four-bay auto repair shop, which later expanded to eight bays. He attended and graduated from Automotive Training Institute (a business coaching program for automotive shop owners) and opened a second repair shop in 2013. Billingsley has been very involved in the community through his participation in the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Prince William, and on the boards of local non-profits.
In an effort to support the community, Billingsley helped found What’s Up Prince William – a news site that provides free coverage and event promotion for non-profits – in 2015.
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Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
ST Billingsley: I joined the army reserves right after high school and worked on helicopters. My plan was to return home and work on aircraft at Dulles Airport. But, at that time, a large airline had gone out of business and no one was hiring inexperienced aircraft mechanics. That’s how I ended up working in the automotive field. I started as a tire changer and became a mechanic’s helper. Over time, I began taking classes, received on-the-job training, and took the test to become a certified master technician.
One day, I was looking around and noticed that there weren’t many older mechanics. I knew that I needed to do something different and decided I wanted to have my own shop. An opportunity came along to purchase an existing four-bay auto repair shop. After owning the shop for a few years – as a mechanic turned business owner – I realized that I had bought a job but didn’t really have a business. This led me to sign up for the Automotive Training Institute. That’s where my role as a business owner really started to take off.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
ST Billingsley: My father-in-law was a small business owner himself. When I first started to talk about owning my own business, I was all over the place. My father-in-law gave me a piece that really helped solidify what I was going to get into. He said, “Don’t get into something you don’t know anything about. Do what you know.” At that time, the automotive field was what I knew the most about. His advice encouraged me to look for an auto repair shop rather than another type of business.
Because my father-in-law was a small business owner, he had a lot of acquaintances that were also small business owners. By being around them, I was able to see different ways that small businesses operated and the challenges they were going through before we purchased our auto repair shop.
What are the most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs make and what would you suggest they do?
ST Billingsley: At the beginning, we as entrepreneurs try to do everything. But as you start to grow, it’s important to hire people that are able to make up for your weaknesses or complete tasks you absolutely hate. You should also choose people who can do things better than you. You don’t need to be the top dog in a particular part of your business.
Keeping the wrong people too long is another common mistake. If an employee is unhappy or isn’t motivated to keep up with training, you need to look for someone else. Keeping them on too long will demoralize the team and actually hurt your business in ways you may not be able to see.
You also shouldn’t buy items and flaunt them in front of your employees. I’ve seen auto shop owners purchase a big truck or boat and show it off at the shop. This doesn’t mean you can’t buy a new car for your family and drive it to work. However, when you throw what a lot of people would consider lavish items in front of them, it can actually create resentment. Even if you’re doing five times the amount of work they are, it won’t be interpreted that way.
Is there a particular podcast you listened to, or business thought leader that you find helpful while maneuvering this pandemic?
ST Billingsley: Since becoming a business owner, I have read books written by John Maxwell about being a leader, teamwork, and attitude, I have been able to use the advice he has provided during these difficult times.
When the pandemic hit, it really became an exercise of how do we survive as a business and how do we take care of our people. Even though there were a lot of unknowns, especially early on, it wasn’t a question of whether we would make it through. It was a question of how we were going to make it through with everyone.
What is most important to your organization—mission, vision, or values?
ST Billingsley: Our company’s values are most important. Even when we’re searching for a candidate and in the interview process, we talk about our company’s values. As soon as someone is hired, I personally sit down with them to introduce them to our company, go over the handbook, and discuss our values further. Therefore, there are no misunderstandings of expectations and how we want to treat our customers and fellow employees.
We have a mission, a vision statement, and lots of guidelines and procedures. But it all comes down to a simple sentence that we follow – “How would you want your mom to be treated?” We try to keep it that simple. If a certain action is not how you would want your mom to treated, then the rest of it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean that we should give everything away and not make money. We’re a business. But using that statement is what will make us successful.
Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?
ST Billingsley: We give our managers and rising leaders guidelines they need to follow within the company. As challenges arise, we make sure employees – especially new leaders – are able to talk to us about a situation, issue, or potential decision. This allows us to point out possible pitfalls or certain legal actions, and share from our own experiences. These discussions aren’t being used to tell them what to do but to help them make better decisions.
You also have to be willing to let employees make mistakes, even though you may see it as something you could fix. Sometimes, you need to allow them to see it themselves. Obviously, it shouldn’t be too detrimental to the company. But if you don’t allow your people to make mistakes and talk to them about it so they can understand what happened, their leadership skills won’t grow as quickly.
Early on, we give our managers the book “One Minute Manager”. Even though it’s one of the smallest books about management that I’ve ever read, I’m still trying to master it. It’s great when you start catching your team using “One Minute Manager” tactics on you.
What have you learned about personal branding that you wish you had known earlier in your career?
ST Billingsley: I wish I would have known that building your personal brand is an investment of time and effort. You have to continuously work on it so you become known for your values and you’re able to turn the vision of your company into a reality.
You may be starting to build your brand and not even know it at first. As you learn, gather information, and watch other leaders, you may start incorporating what they’re doing into your brand. However, that strategy doesn’t work because it doesn’t come across as genuine. When creating your own brand, it’s important to remain true to your identity.
What’s your favorite leadership style and why?
ST Billingsley: I choose to opt for a coaching leadership style. When working with a new employee. I believe in the importance of them developing skills and learning to become independent. For example, if they don’t know how to complete a task, I will give them guidance and ideas, and also encourage them to learn the answer on their own. By them looking up what I suggest, it also enables them to confirm that information. If we’re working on an HR issue, rules change. I may have 20 years of experience, but we need to verify that it is the correct way of handling it today.
While I may need to make the final decisions in some scenarios, I want employees to use our company values in making their decisions, But I also want them to tell me about their decision, even if it’s after the fact. Talking about it with them allows us to discuss areas of improvement and how we can prevent mistakes in the future. It’s better for the company in the long run if employees can make a decision and own it.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
ST Billingsley: You’re going to have a lot of people – friends, family, and others – tell you what they think you should be doing. In the end, you have to make your own decisions. There will be a lot of naysayers and a lot of people who will say, “I wouldn’t do that.” Every time I heard that I would think, “Well, no s**t. That’s why a lot of them work for someone else.” Keep in mind that not everybody’s an entrepreneur. But I learned to just nod my head and listen to what they say because you never know, there could be a piece that’s relevant. Now if someone says “I wouldn’t do that and here’s why,” you should spend more time assessing what they’re trying to convey.
What’s your favorite “life lesson” quote and how has it affected your life?
ST Billingsley: “Trust, but verify.”
I heard this quote when President Reagan was talking to President Gorbachev. I was a very trusting person, so I took people at face value. You encounter a lot of people in your lifetime – some good and some bad. This quote resonated with me because you can still trust people, but you need to verify what they’re saying through their delivery and/or actions.
This idea was reinforced when I became a business owner. In the first two years of running our shop, we found that we were being taken to the cleaners by our vendors. What they said they would do and what they didn’t line up. The quote even applies to each of us in the company – the trust is there, but you have to follow up and make sure what someone is doing and what they say they’re doing is in accordance with the values of the company.
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank ST Billingsley for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
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