Jon Clerk of Steel Wings on What He Wants in a Good Employee
Piston Foundation enjoyed a conversation with Jon Clerk of Steel Wings in Ivyland, Pennsylvania. He knows a thing or two about Aston Martin and has some interesting insights into what it takes to succeed as a craftsperson in the industry.
Tell us your professional car story.
I started working in 1987, when I was 21, for Peter Livanos, who was one of Aston Martin’s owners. I got my foundation in terms of training and knowledge in the race shop. When Peter closed the shop in 1990, I moved to Florida and opened my own business, specializing in Astons. At that time, Lance Evans started Steel Wings; he’d grown up working on Aston Martins when they were based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1978. Lance and I would trade help over the years, I was heavy in racing and could help him there and he could help me with restoration.
When I decided to move back to the northeast in 2000, Lance and I merged our businesses. Steel Wings is deeply rooted in Aston Martins and dedicated to growing with the marque. The oldest car we look after is from 1928 and the youngest is from 2018 so we run the whole spectrum in terms of years and models.
What do you look for when hiring?
It’s almost impossible to find someone who has a background like I do so I look for someone who wants to have those deep roots. I can always train someone who hasn’t worked on an Aston Martin if he or she is a great mechanic. We can also work with people who don’t have that experience but do have a strong desire to learn what we do and become very good at it.
I spend a lot of my time training and doing quality control. I don’t have to micromanage my experienced staff, just make sure things are going in the right direction.
With someone like Kira, an apprentice, I spend more time teaching. Kira’s been with us for a year and half. I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent 500 hours with her, training her one-on-one in that first year. Now that she has a base of knowledge, I probably spend five hours a week training where I had been spending 15 to 20. The more she learns, the more I push her to think and draw from what she’s learned to figure things out. It takes a lot of time to know what to do and, until someone has that knowledge, it’s unfair to expect them to figure things out.
Why do you invest so much time in an employee?
When you run a business, everything is essentially a business decision. You have to make it work or you can’t keep the doors open. But, for me, I feel both an obligation and a desire to teach someone who has talent and drive. This has been a rewarding career for me and I look at teaching as giving a gift to someone who wants to know how to do this work.
It’s a commitment and you have to believe in that person, to see that talent and desire. And the apprentice has to commit to this as something they want as a lifelong career.
What else do you want to see in an employee?
Patience. It takes time to do things properly and we have a big problem with instant gratification in our society. Whether it’s working on one component or a whole car, you have to have patience and be okay with the idea that it might be two weeks or a whole year before we finish. I also want to see natural curiosity. If a person doesn’t have that, I don’t think they’re going to have a passion for this work.
I’ve trained many different personality types over the years and there were many people who didn’t work out. Right now, the staff I have is incredible. I think this combination of people is the best we’ve ever had because of personalities and not just talent. And, when you’re with people you enjoy working with on things you’re passionate about, it makes it easy to get up and look forward to doing that work.
Is on the job training the only place an employee can learn?
There are very few places you can go to get the knowledge and experience you need. Schools can provide a base of knowledge but work can give you the chance to do what you learned, which puts more tools in your brain. Then, you can approach a project from more angles and you have more options. An experienced person can bring another level of knowledge, different ways of doing things, that benefit everyone.
A simple example is welding. If you don’t know how to weld, you approach fabricating differently, using rivets and making brackets. If you know how to weld, you can cut, move, and weld panels. It’s just a different way of doing things. The more you can do, the more efficient and better you can do the job.
Why do you still do this work?
After all the time I’ve spent doing this, I’m not bored. I still look around the shop and think about how special the cars are and how fortunate we are to be able to do what we’re doing.
I also love seeing the craftsmanship that other workshops do. When I’m at Pebble Beach or another high-end show, I appreciate what goes into those cars, that level of skill needed to make a piece of trim fit the car so beautifully. I always look forward to seeing that.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with great clients over the years, at races and shows. Maybe winning a trophy or being on the track is their dream. There are twin brothers who inherited their grandfather’s DB5. The grandfather bought the car new and Lance worked on it. When I first met the brothers, about 10 years ago, I looked at the car and told them it deserves to be at Pebble because it was in incredible condition. We put a lot of prep work into it and they were so excited to be at the show, I had to grab food for them and remind them to eat. They’d never shown a car before and we were all shocked when their car won the preservation class in 2019. It was fun for me to be part of that experience.
I think it’s pretty special to realize that I’m helping to make their dreams come true.