A History of Success and Change - BodyShop Business
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A History of Success and Change

The time: 1894. The place: Boston, Mass. The body shop: Fitzpatrick Brothers.

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Crossing over the boundaries of time, the
shop soon will have survived the start of two new centuries. The
family legacy began with Fran and Harry Fitzpatrick’s grandfather
and his brother who worked out of a stable, was carried on by
their father and his brother – finally finding its way to today’s
set of brothers.

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Fran and Harry have been at the shop for more
than 40 years and are acquainted with 103-years worth of industry
history, challenges and changes. And this current set of brothers
continues to carry on the shop’s age-old philosophy – "change
when necessary" – as the collision-repair industry and Fitzpatrick
Brothers make their way into the future …

In the Beginning

Fran and Harry’s grandfather began the business
by building freight wagons for the Boston Ice Co. and the Railway
Express Co. As time went on and society became mechanized, it
was natural for Fitzpatrick Brothers to venture into the automotive
business – though the shop didn’t start doing a volume of cars
until the 1950s. The shop stuck with commercial vehicles and continued
to do body work – the bodies just shifted from wood to metal.

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There was a time, Fran remembers, when Fitzpatrick’s
was the destination for the Packard Motorcar Co. in New England.
Chassis, separate from the bodies, were shipped to the shop, and
the Fitzpatricks would then put the chassis and bodies together,
equip the interiors with upholstery and then refinish the vehicles.

During the 1950s, industry opportunities were
"tremendous," says Fran. America was through with World
War II (see box titled, "War Effort"), there was plenty
of help around and, in addition to the population boom, the country
experienced an economic surge. Employment opportunities abounded
and people had money – and many of these people were spending
it to get their cars decked out with fins and chrome. "Cars
were beautiful," Fran remembers. "People, although they
had always liked their automobiles in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,
fell in love with their automobiles during the ’50s."

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The ’50s also began the era of the two-car
family. Highways were being built, making it possible for suburbs
to pop up, and when people moved away from public transportation,
they found they needed a second car – and if a family could afford
one, they got it.

The automobile population doubled between
1955 and 1968. There was also plenty of skilled labor at this
time, and the suburbs provided great, new territory in which to
open shops – or any business.

1980: Introduction of the Unibody

The most profound change seen in the industry,
as Fran remembers it, occurred in 1980, when General Motors manufactured
an X-body automobile, what we call unibody today.

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As a result of two gas shortages during the
’70s, there was a cry from the U.S. government for a more gas-mileage-friendly
car. The Chevy Citation, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark were
the first of the mass-produced unibody-style vehicles Fran remembers
rolling onto the scene. Other unibody vehicles had been manufactured
before this (Fran remembers one by American Motors in the ’50s),
but it didn’t catch on at that time.

"It was amazing as far as change was
concerned," says Fran, "because all the tools we used
– frame racks, body tools, everything – became obsolete. We couldn’t
pull; we’d pull [the new vehicles] apart. We were using so much
power, we were pulling them in two."

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The introduction of this new type of vehicle
left shops to reschool and retool themselves, and dimensioning-equipment
manufacturers were in a scramble to produce machines that would
straighten these newfangled frames. Fran describes that whole
year as "traumatic."

"Errors were made everywhere initially,
as there would be with change," he says, "but within
the next two years, there was equipment available for all of us
to tackle."

Now, 17 years later, Fran describes the repair
process as "smooth as glass" because of the type of
equipment that’s available today – especially the laser measuring
equipment. Referring to Fitzpatrick Brothers’ Chief Genesis system,
Fran says, "If you said ‘laser’ to someone in 1960, they’d
look at you like you had two heads."

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Change is Good

When vehicles drastically transform again,
Fran thinks the industry probably will adapt better than it did
the last time. "I think now, with communications being better
than ever before, hopefully we’d have a year, year-and-a-half
lead time as to drastic changes that were coming in the industry,"
he says. "I wouldn’t think a manufacturer would be able to
keep a secret as well today."

Auto manufacturers keeping changes a secret
was a major problem, according to Fran, because this left the
industry with no idea what was coming. He says because the OEM
just sprung the major change on the public and left independent
shops scratching their heads, there was a lot of talk about why
the new Xbody was no good – and the manufacturer ended up with
a black eye in the aftermarket. To avoid such a situation, Fran
thinks that from now on, manufacturers will broadcast planned
major changes so the repair industry – especially the independents
– will be ready for them.

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As for change in general, Fran says most of
the industry changes that have come to pass in the last 10 years
have been excellent ones – especially those dealing with the health
of workers, such as the right to know what’s in the materials
body techs use on a daily basis. As kids, Fran says, he and Harry
had no idea what they were breathing. Products were latent with
lead in the ’50s and ’60s, people were sick and they didn’t know
why. "As much as many sectors of this industry fought against
environmental [changes] that have taken place in the last 25 years,"
Fran says, "these environmental factors have been actual
lifesavers for many who are in the industry today."

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While Fran believes most changes are good,
they’re also expensive – the major reason they meet with resistance.
There’s also the cost of time you’re not going to get paid for
– the learning curve to change and the change itself.

"Change usually means new equipment,
more education and basically a different way of doing something
you’ve been used to doing the same way for a long time,"
says Fran. "But if you look back at change, which is a funny
thing about change, most changes are very good. It’s only when
you [anticipate] change that there is a negative [attitude]."

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Looking to the Future

What will the industry’s landmark change be
in the near future? Alternative-fuel or electric vehicles, which
will "unfold" in the next five years, says Fran, adding
that shops must prepare for this change since repairing these
vehicles will require shops to be certified.

To do this, Fran says the most important thing
a shop owner can do is to get on a regular education beat – whether
it be one or two days a month or through local-association or
vehicle-manufacturer seminars. "Just attend," Fran says.
By doing this, he says, the owner and employees will "get
the bug for more information. And there’s nothing better than
feeling like you’re on the cutting edge."

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As a matter of fact, if Fran were to do anything
different, he would opt to get more industry education on a regular
basis. "Expect change," Fran says. "Don’t get complacent
with the way things are. Complacency is going to kill you."

Writer Eileen Benedict is associate editor
of BodyShop Business.

War Effort

Fitzpatrick’s did its patriotic duty during
World War II by working on a lot of defense equipment – finishing
the vehicles with camouflage markings. Fran and Harry’s father
remembers how tough it was during that time to find help (sound
familiar?) because many of the men working at the shop had been
drafted.

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Where There’s Smoke …

Some 100 years later, Fitzpatrick Brothers
still remains at its original location, just not in its original
buildings. The first two structures were lost in fires – one in
1901 and the other in 1918. "Fire was always a problem in
those days," Fran says. "There was no fire-suppression
equipment early on."

Both fires had the same origin: hot cinders
that were spewed from steam engines running on railroad tracks
adjacent to the property. These days, a subway runs where the
railroad used to.

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No Insurance Required

The good ol’ days – when auto insurance wasn’t
required. It was during the mid-’50s, Fran remembers, when many
states started to require automobile insurance.

In the ’50s, Fran and his staff never saw
staff appraisers. Many claims were settled over the phone, and
the shop owner and the customer dealt with the claim. As a matter
of fact, the customer many times presented the bill to the insurance
company.

It was in the late ’50s/early ’60s that things
really started to change: Independent appraisers started to spring
up, and staff appraisers hit the streets. Still no drive-in claim
centers, the appraisers, then called adjusters, more than anything
else just verified claims – and bills were rendered after jobs
were completed.

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As time went on (still the early ’60s), negotiation
prior to repairs became "blanket." But even then, when
shops had to come up with what we today call an agreed figure,
shops did business with their customers first. Things, obviously,
evolved to what we have today: drive-in claim centers, preferred
shops and direct-repair programs.

The Notion of Spraying Paint

Fran and Harry’s Uncle Tom, their dad’s brother,
was quite the inventive one. He wasn’t the inventor, but, according
to Fran, he probably was one of the "prime movers" as
far as blowing paint through a nozzle is concerned. Because of
Tom’s innovative thinking, Fran says Fitzpatrick Brothers was
one of the first shops in the United States to use an air-powered
spray gun.

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Originally, vehicles were brushed. It’s hard
for people today to comprehend, says Fran, but "[the paint
applications] were beautiful. The handwork was absolutely gorgeous."

In the ’20s – because the primer, color and
topcoats of varnish were applied with a brush – a lot of sanding,
rubbing and buffing was necessary after the paint job was completed
– and there were no hand polishers or automatic or electric buffers.
Among the first to "play with" the idea, Tom thought
if paint were sprayed the same way gas were sprayed inside a carburetor,
it would help lessen this arduous workload and improve the finish.
So, with some help, Tom worked on his applying-paint-with-air-pressure
idea around 1925.

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Before "the actual spray gun" was
manufactured, the shop used homemade sprayers – but only for testing
because they produced unacceptable finishes. The idea ended up
being passed on to a paint manufacturer because the shop didn’t
have the funds to engineer and produce something of this magnitude.
According to Fran, it wasn’t until 1936 or ’37 that an acceptable
paint gun was introduced.

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