Creating an Environment Safe for Dissent

Paul J Daly, CEO and Founder of Congruent Story and Image Auto LLC

For the last fifteen years, Paul J Daly has been building two businesses in Syracuse, NY: Image Auto LLC, a reconditioning services company, and Congruent Story, a media firm. Paul describes himself as a people person and is all-in on the human side of business, stating “I believe that if you put the people first and they see that, and they know that you will act in a sacrificial way to protect their interests, everybody wins.” In this episode of the podcast with Paul, we’re learning about building companies after bible college, servant leadership, and a new way to think about mission, values, and purpose.


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Connect with Paul J Daly on Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram.

Check out Image Auto LLC  on their website.

Connect with Congruent Story on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and Instagram.





















Adam: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, and for the next 25 minutes I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring. Today on the program, Mr. Paul J. Daly is the founder, CEO and creative director for the bootstraps Image Auto and Congruent Story, both based in Syracuse, New York. Image Auto was founded in 2003 and currently employs 35 people.


Paul, the best learning happens through the experiences shared by fellow entrepreneurs, and we are excited today to learn from you. Welcome to the show.


Paul: It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here with you.


Adam: Image Auto was recently named one of the best places to work in Central New York by the “Central New York Business Journal.” You guys are doing great. Congrats on a great year so far.


Paul: Oh, thank you. It’s definitely been one to remember. You know, it hasn’t been an overnight thing, as you know. We’ve been working at this hard for 15 years, and we call it the 20-mile march in reference to a book, “Great By Choice,” and a little bit every day consistently over time is how we got here, and hopefully we’ll do it again over the next 15.


Adam: I don’t doubt it. We are here today to focus on the people side of your business or businesses, really, but before we dive in, let’s set the stage. Give us 30 seconds on Image Auto and Congruent Story. What are you guys up to?


Paul: Sure. Image Auto, started it as a wheel repair company, just servicing dealers. I got out of bible college, decided I was going to start a business instead to be flexible. Still wanted to serve the church, but I also wanted to make a living. A friend of mine was doing wheel repair. I was working as a service advisor at a Chevy dealer, first time I’d ever been in a new car dealership. I worked there for 60 days. My friend showed me this wheel repair, saw the opportunity.


Talked to my boss, who was the dealership principal, about it, and he started … my first people lesson. He said, “When you really care about your people, you do what’s best for them, not what’s best for you.” He said, “I think you should start the business. You’ll be great at it.” Got me a $400 Chevy off the wholesale line, leaking everything from everywhere, and off I went.


Fifteen years later, we offer a lot of reconditioning services to auto dealers after the detail, so paint repair, aluminum wheel repair, interior repair, and we service about a hundred dealers and dealership groups across upstate New York, so Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, down to Philadelphia, and in the interim, communicating our culture to our own people.


We use media to do it. Started developing that, and a few years ago we actually launched a creative marketing and branding agency where we work primarily for non-automotive people, helping them tell their story. An interesting path, but that’s us today.


Adam: That’s fantastic. If listeners want to learn more, what’s the best way to reach you for both businesses?


Paul: Yeah, for both businesses, the best way to reach me would be my personal website. It’s, and it has links to Congruent Story, which is our media branding agency, and Image Auto and all the other things that I find interesting on my social media feeds.


Adam: Very cool. All right, jumping right into the people side of your business, Paul, you started Image Auto with, as you said, a wholesale Chevy Astro leaking everywhere, and at some point you needed to hire somebody. Talk about the experience of realizing it needed to be more than a one-person operation, and what you did to bring that first person on board.


Paul: Sure. When I started the business, I started with the understanding that it was going to grow. Not having any business background or pedigree whatsoever, I just knew that there were certain things that I observed that other people did that had team members, employees. When I structured the business, I said I’m going to structure it as if I had one employee. I’d get dressed up every day, I’d go downstairs to our rented place, and my wife would look at me dressed up in the morning, sitting with no business yet, and you know, QuickBooks showed up in the mail. I was like, “Great, now I can do this.” Company name, I got it. You know, EIN, I know what that is, right? Then it said chart of accounts, and I was like, “I don’t know what that is.”


Then I realized there’s this thing called accounting that goes with running a business, so I made my way through, but all that to say I started to realize there’s all these regulations when you need to hire someone. I started in on that a little bit early, and it was about three or four months in when I felt like I needed to hire my first person, because I needed to concentrate on expanding. It was probably the least informed, worst hiring process ever, which is I just asked if anybody needed a job.


Adam: Okay, that’s one way do it.


Paul: It served the purpose, and I hired my first person on the agreement of … I’m sure an illegal wage agreement. You know, a fixed wage for whoever knows how many hours of work. We didn’t count, we didn’t care, we didn’t know. That was my experience of my first hire.


Adam: How’d that work out?


Paul: It ended up working out okay. That person stayed for a number of years. Actually the second hire that I made was slightly more informed, and his name is Peter Schultz and he’s still with me today, so that wasn’t far after.


Adam: What was the difference between the first and the second? You said you went from uninformed to informed. What does that mean?


Paul: I think one of the biggest changes, when I hired my first person, I realized there’s a whole level of accountability that comes with having somebody else you’re responsible for. I think I interviewed a little bit more. I looked a little bit harder for a relevant skill set. I looked a little bit harder for job history, but again, even back then … we’re talking 15 years ago when I was really, really, really green … much different than it is today.


Adam: You’ve got 35 employees now. What’s your process today? How has past experience informed your approach?


Paul: Yeah, so about a year ago, a year or two, the approach kind of morphed over the years. I actually got a lot of success because I went to bible college. I had somewhat of a network of pastors and churches, right? They’re all over the place, so us being in a fairly specific area of, you know, Lehigh Valley, Eastern Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, I was able to just search out and find churches that I knew that I could relate to, and I would start calling pastors and emailing pastors and specifically the care pastor, because they usually have an understanding of the people’s needs who might be looking for work, who might be qualified, and we had a lot of success with that over the years.


We had leased our staff with a staff leasing agency for a while. We used to process payroll in-house and then we went to leasing, and then we switched to a payroll processor. The hiring process kind of evolved through that, you know, friends, family, relationships, referrals, and really over the last year we found ourselves now … we’re looking to scale our growth and we have been on the upswing over the last six months, and we plan on scaling fairly quickly over the next 12. We realized we needed process, and we had no process. We brought in a business manager who has kind of whipped our HR into shape. We actually became Hireology customers. Hit the bell. [Bell rings] I was waiting for that.


Adam: There we go.


Paul: It was kind of we backed into the Hireology relationship, because I had just connected with you at NADA just from an entrepreneurial side, and meanwhile we’d learned about Hireology and it was a perfect fit for what we needed.


Adam: NADA being the National Auto Dealers Association conference, the mega-conference, 18,000 people.


Paul: Right. Yeah, in New Orleans. It was overwhelming for me. I went down there, connected, and Hireology, the process was exactly what we were looking for. We needed structure, because now we are … we have to do it like everyone else in the sense where there’s a labor pool, and we have to try to find the best fit from the labor pool of people we don’t know. The first ones were pretty terrifying, like, “I don’t know you and I’m about to trust you with a lot,” but we’re probably six months into that journey and we’re starting to get our feet under us. I think I’ve seen the light that it is possible to find good fit.


Our culture speaks for itself. We’re a very people-centric culture in general, and there are people that want to be part of something, regardless of what you do. We always say … you know, I say nobody’s passionate about dyeing a carpet from dark gray to darker gray. If they tell you that, they’re lying, but I do believe that whatever you do, if you do it with purpose and you know you do it with other people for an end.


I say, “You know, our job is not our hobby. No one does this for fun. We do it because it has meaning and purpose beyond what we just do,” and people want to be part of that culture and we communicate that well. We’re having some good success through the Hireology process and just that hiring structure.


Adam: Just talk about your leadership team and how that’s evolved, from you doing it all to now you’ve got 35 people. Who helps you run the business?


Paul: We are a director-run organization. I function as the CEO and then I have directors that operate different geographies of the business, and then also a business manager. Basically we have a director of fixed operations, a director of reconditioning service in the northern territories for us, which is New York and then one in Pennsylvania, which we’re considering the south right now. Which it’s funny, because the northern guy, he’s from New Orleans, so he hates the fact that he’s the northern guy, you know.


Then our business manager handles … he’s one of the most creative and talented, people-oriented MBAs I’ve ever met. He kind of keeps us on track with finance, HR, and also even some of the creative media side. That’s basically the structure, and then we have general managers that handle scheduling, route development and things like that, and then we have our front line, which are our technical experts that perform the repairs, that have face time with our customers every day.


Adam: For your directors, were those outside hires or did you bring them up?


Paul: We brought them all up. Everybody has been brought up.


Adam: Was that by design?


Paul: It was by design. You know, hiring and trusting the culture to somebody that I don’t know has been … I don’t know that anybody could have gotten it, because we came up the way we came up. I know a lot of people probably say that, and maybe it is or isn’t true, but for us, our culture is held so closely that I couldn’t imagine putting someone in those seats that hasn’t been part of that journey. At this point, moving forward, as we go, I don’t know if that’ll be continually the way we go, but I know it’s been effective to this point. I know that every one of the directors cares for the men and women on our team just like I do. They practice servant leadership, and a huge amount of value in there.


Adam: That’s great. Do you have core values for the business?


Paul: Yeah.


Adam: I’m assuming you think a lot about this.


Paul: Yeah. Yeah, I do, and sometimes I probably think too much about this, if that’s …


Adam: I don’t think that’s possible.


Paul: I would say that’s never possible, but you know, some people would probably have a dissenting argument. I’m a people person. I believe that if you put the people first and they see that, and they know that you will act in a sacrificial way to protect their interests, I think that everybody wins. We do have values. We have eight values, and basically the way we teach it at our company is that we have a situation, which is over the horizon. You know, we’ll never get there, it’s the direction we walk.


We have a mission. The mission is how we carry out our vision, and then we have values which act as the boundaries to which we walk about it. You can say, “I want to lose weight,” right? That’s not really anything. It’s not a goal, it’s not a mission, it’s nothing. Or you could say, “I want to be in shape,” for instance, right? I want to be in shape.


Adam: I do want to be in shape.


Paul: Me too. Doesn’t everybody? Come on, let’s just be honest. Everybody wants to. You can say, “I want to be in shape,” but until you start to define the criteria by which you will be in shape … what does “in shape” mean? Well, being in shape means I will be within this weight range, this heart strength, and then how are you going to get there? You know, are you going to starve yourself? Are you going to take supplements? There are a lot of bad things that you can do to look in shape, right, but then you have your values that act as the boundaries, so I’m going to eat healthy, I’m going to work out regularly, and so on and so forth.


For us, our vision is Provision4Life. Everybody knows that provision … in our company when you say that, you know it’s our professional vision, but also it’s what provides. Not just for practical needs like money, everybody needs that, but also for relational needs, emotional needs, like we’re people. That’s our mission, and we march toward Provision4Life. There is no end point. It’s undefinable.


The mission … and basically we’ve distilled it down to two words, which is “consistent provision.” We show up every time. Our industry is really plagued by people that are fly-by-night, that look all different ways, drive old vehicles and create a scene on some of our customers’ property, so we say we always show up, we always deliver value. For us, the consistency is huge.


Then we have values. There’s eight of them, so there’s a lot, but we always tie them back to, you know, any measure that we take within the company, whether positive reinforcement or negative consequences, we say, “Well, there was a failure of this,” and those are integrity, consistency, accountability, unity, gratitude, growth, and grace is our last one. That kind of is the umbrella value. We’re a Golden Rule company, treat others like you want to be treated. I think it’s very similar to your No Assholes value here at Hireology. It’s kind of a catch-all, right? You know it when you see it, you know? That’s kind of how we operate.


Adam: That’s great. How do you discern whether or not someone is going to live those values as you’re going through a hiring process? Is there one series or battery of questions you like to ask, or are you having people do various roleplays or anything like that?


Paul: Yeah. No, roleplaying is an interesting suggestion. We’ve never tried that. We do have questions. With Hireology, the survey that goes out as soon as someone responds to our job interview, we’ve crafted those questions to kind of highlight some of those things, to get a feel for are these an others-first type of person or is this an “I’m going to get mine” kind of person, so we try to weed it out a little bit.


One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What does success look like in five years for you?” If you could paint a picture of your life in five years and you would say, “You know what, I feel like I’d be successful,” I feel like that tells me a lot.


Adam: Yeah, it’s a great question.


Paul: We just interviewed a young man, and he said … and this was for a technical position, so it’s a position that really is best filled by someone who probably didn’t go to college, but they have a really good … they grew up around, you know, fixing things or putting things together, and they tend to be just a simple, simple American Pie breed. He said, “in five years, I’d like to own my own home, I’d like to marry my girlfriend and maybe have a dog.” I was just like, “I understand you. I understand you.”


I like that question a lot, and that’s not the only right answer. You know, some people have ambitions to, you know, climb a mountain or be a songwriter or things like that, and all that stuff is great, but I think that one question gives me personally a lot of insight into what’s important to them.


Adam: Yeah, that’s fantastic. What’s your philosophy around employee feedback, or someone isn’t getting it done? What do you do?


Paul: Yeah, so we try to cultivate an environment. We call it Safe for dissent, and I kind of picked that from Dave Ramsey and his EntreLeadership stuff. That culture, we always tell people like, “Look, if you have a problem or an issue, we have a strict no-gossip policy. If you have a problem or an issue, you need to feel that it’s safe to bring that up to somebody.” That right away takes away a lot of excuses on why someone may have acted out on an issue that was ongoing, because we’re saying, “Look, if there’s a safe environment, then you have no excuse not to bring up an issue.”


Now, when somebody does fall short of the mark, grace is one of our values, so we exercise grace whenever possible, as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else or tragically hurt the company, because that’s protecting the interests of everybody.


Adam: Give me an example of grace in practice at your company.


Paul: Sure. A while back we had a team member. We have GPS monitors in all of our vehicles, and they make sure that we visit our customers regularly, that we’re abiding by the speed limit under liability issues, and so we always kind of know what’s going on throughout the regular day. We noticed that one team member who had been a really reliable, really reliable guy, and just is a good person in general, it appeared that he was milking the system a little bit and parking the vehicle, leaving it running for a couple hours at a time. Meanwhile, we were also having several other indicators, saying his supply ordering was off or his reporting was off, and so we reached out.


Usually that would be … for us, that’s a disciplinary offense, right? You went off schedule, you didn’t tell anybody, you didn’t ask anybody. We found out that he was actually going through a divorce and we didn’t know about it. He thought … he was like, “I understand if you guys let me know. I understand, you know, I kind of brought it to myself,” but instead, his leader drove out there and spent half a day with him, and just really encouraged him and tried to walk that with him because there was an understanding there.


Like, “Yes, you violated company policy, yes, it puts us at a disadvantage, the customer didn’t get service. However, we all have situations. Life happens.” We did note that in the file, but there wasn’t any disciplinary measures taken, and it kind of helped get him back on his feet and kind of walk through and be clear with the expectation, but also give some accommodation.


Adam: That’s great. I can imagine the impact that had on the rest of the team, when you lived that value authentically. That’s pretty powerful.


Paul: Yeah. When you do things in front … and that’s the benefit of such a transparent environment, even like you have here at Hireology. I realized that when you give people grace openly, you tend to get it back. You know, treat others as you want to be treated really works, and it’s not as a strategy. It’s just because we’re human, and everybody in essence wants to be treated well. When they see other people getting grace, they know that they’ll need it at some point too.


That’s kind of part of our definition of grace. At some point, we’ll all mess up and need it. I as the CEO need a lot of grace, right? I’m a rookie CEO. I always joke. I say, “I’ve never run a company this big before,” because as we grow, it’s the truth every year. I’ve never run a company this big before. I like to sow that through the culture, because I need it too.


Adam: Yeah, like setting that expectation. Trust me on one thing, I’m going to screw stuff up. My only promise is I’ll make it right, I’ll fix it, and I’m going to need your help to get there.


Paul: Yeah, exactly. Absolutely.


Adam: It really makes a difference.


Paul: It sure does. It makes a difference.


Adam: Let’s talk in the final couple of minutes we have here about your marketing company. Tell me, at what point did you say, “Hey, I think we know something about telling the story of culture and company, let’s go do that too”? That’s fascinating to me.


Paul: Sure. I think that it is the greatest time in history to be a creative, because the market and commerce values creative like it never has in history, and that shift is upon us. That goes with not just external push marketing, but it also goes internally. Because I’m a people person, that was always a focus of mine, how do we keep these couple dozen people that are separated by 500 miles, how do we stay aligned? How do we stay around this vision and mission and values? How do we know what’s going on?


We’re talking 10 years ago. You and I were just having a conversation about, you know, bandwidth back then. There was no streaming video, there was no instant downloads. The only way I knew how to communicate was through creative, right, so I grew up as a musician and kind of have that creative bent, so we started producing media. That guy Peter I told you about who’s been with me, strangely enough, he studied video production, which was a whole different thing 15 years ago. We’ve got a big studio, we’ve got tapes, we’ve got levers that we push forward. It looked like the Death Star control panel.


We bought some gear and we started producing videos for ourselves that we’d show at our company parties, and every time we did, you know, whoever the catering service was, they were like, “I want to work there.” It was basically just everybody telling their story of why they work here and what it means to them, and then little by little other companies would see it. “Hey, can you make us one?” I took a chance on a young man who was doing an internship locally in Syracuse at a church. He needed a part-time job, so I brought him in and he was very talented and we worked well together, so we started making better media and more of it.


We started working with a small two-person marketing agency for some of our products, and that business, really the owner was looking to come under an umbrella, to work as part of a bigger agency. It was tough going by yourself, and so he’s now our business manager. All of a sudden we have this cohort of like three or four people that can do this, and there were some legacy clients that he brought in. Now all of a sudden, we’re helping the Boston Bar Association and we’re helping, you know, food producers and dealerships.


All I can say is I really enjoy the messaging side of that business. I used to think it was I liked production, and I realized that it’s bringing people clarity is what I love to do. I think that branding and marketing and video production are all just means to do that. Now we represent … we work with local and national brands to do both product launches, fashion brands. We did a big internal communication project for a large … you would know it … food producer in the country, and that really just … finding a way to work those two companies in synergy is a big difference in culture.


We have guys walking in from the remanufacturing facility in the back, dirty, covered in aluminum dust, and they walk through, and there’s a millennial on the couch with his feet up on his phone, right, but he’s working. He’s working. It was an interesting year or two, everybody realizing that, hey, we’re on the same team, and at one point I really didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off. It has been pulled off, and everybody again has rallied around Provision4Life.


Yeah, so now it’s one of those elements that I get access into boardrooms and find myself at tables next to CEOs. I feel like this is way above my pay grade, but it has helped me bring that back and be able to sow it into the lives of the people in our company. It’s really been an interesting thing.


Adam: That’s amazing, and the impact I’m sure you have … I mean, I can guarantee you have … on a company’s ability to find the right people by telling that company’s story in an authentic way, it’s just such a powerful thing.


Paul: Oh, I love that side of it. It’s called Congruent Story because “congruent” is, you know, not equal, but it’s the same as. We believe that your media should be an accurate reflection of who you actually are. Even from the technical side, I think sometimes just poor production, you know, just out of I don’t know how to produce, poor production or even preplanning and crafting that story and that message so it really does reflect who the people are I think is doing them, the team, their business, I think just a great service.


Adam: Very cool. All right, so if you come back on the show in a year and tell us about the big thing you’ve got to tackle now, and you’re bragging about knocking it out of the park, what’s the thing that’s on your plate?


Paul: Yeah, I think that we would have effectively made the transition from about 35. I’ve never really liked quantifying a number of people as far as success, but I think what it represents now, we’ve wrapped our mind around it. I think if we are in the vicinity of 50 team members a year from now, I think that would really reflect the fact that we’ve executed on our plans.


Adam: That’s incredible.


Paul: Yeah, that’s a big jump.


Adam: That’s 50 percent head count growth in a year.


Paul: Yeah. It’s a big jump, but we can see it. I feel like we’ve built the infrastructure now that we can do that with a lot … without much infrastructure change. I feel like we’ve been building it to this point to now. We’ve built the motorcycle, now it’s time to run it.


Adam: Yeah. It’s an honor to be a part of that journey.


Paul: Yeah. Oh, you’re a valued, valued partner.


Adam: I think that’s fantastic. Okay, what book is on your nightstand right now?


Paul: Yes, I haven’t … I’ve read two pages of it.


Adam: That’s fair.


Paul: It’s “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker.


Adam: Okay. That’s kickin’ it old-school.


Paul: It’s real old-school. I read the first two pages and they immediately made me feel better. It’s like, you know, the cover’s not sexy, it’s none of this. You know, he doesn’t have a blog, I don’t think. He probably doesn’t even use any social media, but he basically says, “I’ve worked with political leaders and executives and not-for-profit leaders,” and he quantifies it, “in this country and this country and this country.” He says, “Never once have I seen someone who was a natural at being effective. Effectiveness is something you have to learn. It doesn’t come natural.” Automatically I said …


Adam: You got me on page two. I’m hooked.


Paul: Like, “Empathy. You know me.” I read through, and he boils it down to seven things that an effective executive would focus on, and they all are things that can be learned. That’s what I’m reading right now.


Adam: Enjoy. I look forward to catching up with you on what you thought of that. That sounds like something I need to tackle. All right, that’s the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been learning from Paul J. Daly, founder, CEO and creative director of Image Auto and Congruent Story. Paul, thank you for being with us.


Paul: Oh, it was my pleasure.


Adam: All right, that’s a wrap for this week’s episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast. We’re featuring entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book “The Best Team Wins,” which you can find online at Thank you for listening, and we will see you next week.