Auto Laundry News - July 2011

Solo Operator — Do You Have a Second-in-Command?

By Sharie Sipowicz

You operate a small detail business and have a few experienced employees. Your business is doing great and your customers love your service, but the daily grind is wearing you down. Nothing gets done unless you’re there and on top of things. So, you have to be there all the time. Does that sound familiar?

We call this the solo-operator syndrome, or the curse of the small-business owner. Your detail business is you, so the demands on your time and energy are all-consuming.

You can have another “boss” in the business, the wife, but that can be another problem. It is better for the marriage if husband and wife each develop their own interests and pursuits — not to mention the extra money generated with a second income. Also, how can you take family vacations when you both run the business?

There is a solution. You need to develop a second-in-command — someone who steps in for you when you
are not there. It might cost you more than just having a good employee, but it is worth it for the sake of your business, your mental health, and your marriage.

The first step is the willingness to give up some of your leadership role. Giving up control means letting someone else have the responsibility to make decisions. Most small business owners, especially detailers, have a difficult time letting go of the reins.

When a person makes a bad decision — alienates a customer or buys the wrong chemical — it does not do any good to yell. Your job is to explain why the decision was not the best that could have been made. If a piece of equipment breaks down and time is lost, you must patiently instruct your second-in-command how to solve the problem next time.


In developing a second-in-command, select an employee most likely to rise to the challenge. They must be honest, someone who has demonstrated that they have the company’s best interests at heart and are willing (for extra pay) to step up to the plate.

It might take some coaxing. After all, the individual signed up to be a detailer, not a manager. There is a difference between running a buffer and facing an angry customer, or dealing with a fellow worker who had a bit too much to drink last night and will not cooperate.

Additionally, a second-in-command will find his or her new status tricky. But, you chose this person because, time and again, you called on them to perform a management task, and they came through.

Why do you pick one person over another? Because you sense that there is more to the individual than what is on the surface. You feel that this particular person has the confidence and inner strength to walk the fine line required of a second-in-command.

When you are away, employees go to this person for guidance. He faces angry customers, and makes customer-saving decisions. When equipment breaks down, he knows who to call — and makes the call. If a vendor visits, he is familiar enough with the accounts and supply demands to be able to carry on a conversation.


Obviously, for an individual to accept this level of increased responsibility, he must be rewarded with a raise. Will $1 an hour work? Two dollars an hour? A full salary and benefits? It depends on your business, the person, and the amount of time you spend away from the business.

Your conversation may go something like this: “Danny, you’re now my second-in-command, and I am going to depend on you more and more. When I am not here, you are in charge. That is why I am raising your salary $2 an hour. It may not be every day, but I will probably be away for an afternoon a couple of times a week.

“Of course, if you accept the offer, there will be no more saying, ‘The boss will be back at 5:00.’ You are in charge, and I will expect you to solve whatever problem comes up — not just postpone the inevitable for me to take care of when I return.”

Assuming the person you selected accepts, you will then need to train, train, train your second-in-command. As you run the operation, feed him the information he needs to know. Review each situation as it comes up, offer advice, and offer a critique on what was done well and what was not.

Your tone is crucial. You cannot say, “You should have done it this way, stupid.” You should say, “The better alternatives are this, this, and this. We prefer the first solution whenever possible, and the second when it is not. Here’s why.”

Give the second-in-command a notebook so he can jot down pertinent details, phone numbers, and any other important information. He will soon get in the habit of taking notes, which will improve performance.


Make sure you both understand your roles. You are the boss; there is no question about that. However, when you are not there or when you call on your second-in-command, he takes on a different role, he is in charge, representing you. But, he is not management when you are on the premises.

It can be a tricky balancing act, but the two of you can work it out, and it may lead to an increase in responsibility for your second-in-command as the business grows. For now, it means peace-of-mind for you and a better paycheck for an employee you trust.

The key to developing a good second-in-command lies in selection and grooming. Go with your gut and develop the person’s leadership skills with patience and understanding, and you will be happy that you have a new shadow to back you up.

Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator
in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at

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