As a last ditch effort, Wheeler approached Michelle Tortora about assuming the lead. It proved to be an inspired choice.
This year, the New Haven, Conn., dealership was named the Toyota Certified Collision Center of the Year, outperforming some 60 shops of comparable volume nationwide.
“To be honest, I was almost ready to say it wasn’t worth the grief,” says Wheeler of her frame of mind eight years ago. “Besides the fact that the collision center business was one of the founding father’s dreams, the only thing that kept us moving forward was the concern for our body shop employees who had been loyal to us for decades. But Michelle took it on, even though she didn’t have any collision repair experience.”
Tortora, though, was well acquainted with what it takes to serve customers. She got her start at the dealership in 1992 as a service writer, then methodically worked her way up to manager of the service department.
In 2000, however, Tortora got married and started a family. She continued on at A-1 Toyota, but chose the less demanding role of warranty clerk. Fortunately for Wheeler, Tortora was ready to jump fully back into the fray eight years later—when her two sons were aged 4 and 8.
Slow and Steady Progress
Still, the turnaround didn’t happen overnight. Tortora learned while doing. And while the business’s metrics improved, they did so gradually, year after year. Wheeler says Toyota’s collision center certification program served as an invaluable road map along the way, setting clear checkpoints for staff training, the use of specialized tools—often the same as those used in manufacturing Toyota vehicles—and customer satisfaction.
Attention to Detail
Technician Steve Lydon adjusts a measuring device as he works on the underside of a vehicle. The use of specialized tools is one of many requirements a dealership must meet to qualify as a Toyota Certified Collision Center.
“They followed the certification policies and procedures to the letter,” says Dave Pyle, wholesale and collision development manager for Toyota Motor North America. “Winning the award speaks volumes about the dedication of all of the A-1 team members and the A-1 family leadership.”
Putting Customers at Ease
Still, Wheeler believes it was Tortora’s personal touch that ultimately made the difference. After all, A-1 Toyota, founded by Wheeler’s grandfather and father, is the sixth-oldest Toyota dealership nationwide. And it was one of the first to jump onboard Toyota’s collision center certification bandwagon 20 years ago. They’ve been at this for a while.
“Michelle understood that most collision repair customers are pretty upset when they bring their cars in,” says Wheeler. “She was very determined to put them at ease and assure them that everything would be OK. She told them we would work through everything with the insurance company. And we would make their car right again. Making people happy and making things better was just Michelle’s nature.”
Doyon, who came onboard in 2010 and has now succeeded Tortora as manager, echoes those sentiments.
“Unlike some collision centers, we are not a direct repair facility,” says Doyon. “We don’t represent the insurance companies. We work for our customers. Our job is to fix their vehicle correctly and restore it to a factory-like condition.”
Technician Yousifu Imoro buffs the body panels on a vehicle. A-1 Toyota’s objective: to restore every customer’s vehicle to a factory-like condition.
Unfortunately, this story of exemplary accomplishment doesn’t have an entirely happy ending. Tortora, you see, learned that A-1 Toyota had won the national award just two months before cancer claimed her life. Also devastating was the sudden death of 22-year veteran technician Ed Gannon, just one week later. He, too, helped make the award possible.
“She was so proud of her team,” says Wheeler. “It was an acknowledgement of everything she had worked for. And it was a big boost to the morale of the staff. They’re now even closer than ever and remain committed to following Michelle’s lead. If it’s possible to win this award two years in a row, this group could do it.”