In 1999 Robert C. (Bob) Noaker, Jr., was a 23-year-old collision repair technician working at a local shop near his home in Duncannon, Pa. He was making a decent living for himself and Katie, his wife of three years, but he’d grown dissatisfied with his job because of differing philosophies with his boss regarding the shop’s working environment and quality-control procedures. After careful consideration, Bob realized that the only way he could truly control these important aspects of a repair business was to open his own shop.
“Dreaming about having my own shop was the easy part,” Bob says. “Deciding to take the gamble and give it a try was much more difficult.”
Fortunately, help was close at hand. Bob was able to use some space in his father’s (Bob Sr.’s) existing mechanical repair shop to get his fledgling business off the ground. Bob and Katie were the sole employees at first, and so together they started the quest to find customers for Noaker Auto Body, LLC.
Because of a past association with one insurance company, Bob had his first DRP agreement almost from the beginning. With Katie running the office, he was able to visit local insurance agents and drop off business cards at their offices to promote the shop. The customers started rolling in, and the business was off and running. Six years later, Bob still makes regular calls on local insurance agents.
Signing additional DRP agreements was a primary goal, and Bob realized that it would be easier to do this if his business projected the most professional image possible. To accomplish this, Bob earned his ASE Master Certified Collision Repair Technician status in 2002 and continues to encourage his staff to earn ASE certification and attend I-CAR training courses when available. The professional image has paid off. Noaker Auto Body now has DRP agreements with four insurance companies and is negotiating for two more.
The Danger Zone
As the business grew, Bob hired additional staff but remained very much a “hands-on” shop owner, working in the shop every day as a technician. Due to the volume of business, Bob began experiencing the problems faced by owners of most small, but growing enterprises. Not only were there no longer enough hours in the day to fill the roles of manager and repair technician, but Bob also realized that he needed a completely new set of skills to successfully manage his growing company.
Casher’s, Inc. of Harrisburg, Pa. Bob’s PBS supplier – provided the answer. At their suggestion, Bob enrolled in a managerial training course conducted by Masters Educational Services and credits instructors Natalie Kessler and Dave Dunn as influential factors in his successful transition from repair technician to shop owner.
“They helped me to understand that I needed to concentrate on managing our business and taught me the skills that I needed to do it,” says Bob.
The change in management focus, plus the newly acquired skills, started a growth cycle that continues today.
The Big Move
The repair volume quickly overwhelmed the 1,800-square-foot space he was using in his father’s shop, so Bob started looking for a new location. When the property next door to his father’s came on the market, Bob snapped it up after determining the zoning would be approved. A small house also was located on the property that could be used for the company office.
It was a perfect location that, coupled with the profitability of the business, convinced a local bank to provide the financing required to propel Noaker Auto Body into its next phase. The building was completed, the equipment installed and the 5,220-square-foot shop was opened the summer of 2004.
Although a lot of time was spent designing the new shop, Bob is happy they built from the ground up.
“We looked for an existing location,” Bob says, “but we couldn’t find one that met our requirements. Starting from scratch allowed us to place equipment in the ideal locations, plus we could design a building with an eye toward future expansion.”
Planning for future expansion was a wise decision because they’re already running short on space, and an additional 5,040-square-foot addition is in the works.
It Takes the Right People
The Noaker Auto body staff stays motivated to produce top-quality work because Bob keeps them involved in important decisions and seeks their input and advice.
“It may be a different working environment for our staff, but keeping them directly involved in the decision-making process demonstrates the value that we place on having top individuals working with us,” says Bob.
Another aspect of Bob’s “open” management policy is the quarterly review that he holds individually with each staff member. During these meetings, they not only examine the individual’s work efficiency, but Bob shares information on the shop’s business performance in the areas of gross sales, operating expenses and profitability.
“I do that to make them aware of how their personal performance impacts the financial health of Noaker Auto Body,” he says. “Their paychecks are based on their individual productivity, but I want them to see the big picture.”
So Far, So Good
Bob and Katie made Noaker Auto Body a success by identifying and using available resources, working hard and not hesitating to move in a different direction when it was necessary.
“I’m happy that Katie has been able to take a step back to spend more time with our 1-year-old son,” says Bob. “She’s still involved with the business, just not as involved. After all, we both made the necessary sacrifices to get to this point. She is as much a part of our success as I am.
“It was a big gamble for us to open our own shop, and I realize that we had an advantage in being able to use some space in Dad’s shop at first, but it still took everything we had to get things going. It’s taken a lot of work and dedication, and I’m still amazed at how much the business has grown.”
Writer Bob Clark is a former technician and technical instructor. He’s now on the staff of the ASE Technical Group, which is responsible for the development and maintenance of ASE-certification tests.