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A Model of Success: A 1:24 Collection!

Lee Stone began collecting cars nearly two years ago – everything from a Ford Model T to a ’56 Ford Pickup to the newly designed 1994 Mustang – and the collection is now pushing 30 vehicles.

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Soon it will also include a ’97 Dodge Viper
that Stone has on order, which will be a real gem to the bunch
– if he can find a place for it on his desk.

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Stone’s car collection, as you’ve probably
already guessed, is made up of 1:24-scale, die-cast metal models
– the real vehicles are those found inside his 11,300-square-foot
collision repair facility. "I can’t collect the big ones,
so I collect the little ones instead," says Stone, whose
love of cars (large and small) started in high school nearly 30
years ago.

A New Beginning

Stone gained basic collision repair experience
through a vocational program, and now, at 44, owns the Lee Stone
Collision Center in Camden, Ark. Before buying the shop, formerly
known as C. Long Collision Repair Center, Stone worked as shop
manager for Curtis Long’s Ford/Lincoln/ Mercury dealership in
Camden. Stone let it be known that he’d be interested in buying
the shop, so in 1990, when the body shop portion of the dealership
moved from a 2,000-square-foot building to an old warehouse with
approximately 6,000 square feet, Stone took over.

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It wasn’t until May 1996 that Stone broke
ground for his current facility on a two-acre lot near the heart
of town. And talk about good positioning: Stone figures most of
Camden’s 15,000 residents pass his shop daily. "We looked
at many different locations, but we kept coming back to this one,"
he says.

While the new location gave Stone’s shop added
exposure, he built name recognition through advertising and promotion.
Last year, Stone spent $12,000 to $14,000 on marketing because
he refuses to rely on referrals for new business. "We constantly
have to let people know what we have to offer," he says.
"The name they’ve heard the most is where they’re going to
go. And if we can get them in the door, that’s half the battle."

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Since the move was expected to hike the number
of customers, Stone presented an option to his employees: They
could work overtime to handle the increased workload or he could
hire additional help. They opted to work overtime. The decision
kept Stone with a staff of one part-time and three full-time metal
technicians, two full-time paint specialists, a full-time paint
assistant for prep work, a full-time detail person, shop foreman
Jeff Swilley and Stone’s wife, Barbara, who handles the bookkeeping
on a part-time basis.

The Ins and Outs of Success

After spending countless hours with contractors
working on the overall shop design, Stone finally opened the doors
for business Oct. 21, 1996. Since then, there’s been significant
improvement in sales and productivity compared to the old facility.
In the old location, the closing rate on jobs was about 33 percent,
while the number has risen to nearly 50 percent since the move.

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A location with nearly two times the square
footage is a big reason for the closing-rate increase. As a matter
of fact, the shop should top $1 million in sales for 1997. "Last
year, we were about $32,000 short of the $1-million mark,"
says Stone. "I even thought about passing the hat around
so we could top it."

With construction costs and the price of some
new equipment, Stone estimates he invested about $350,000 in the
new facility. This figure includes the addition of a second Viking
downdraft spraybooth and two Kayco prep stations. He also purchased
three mid-rise lifts from Hercules, a spot welder and an additional
turbine vacuum system for the paint shop in preparation for the
move.

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Stone has used NAPA/Martin-Senour finishes
since 1984 because, he says, of their color-matching capabilities
and overall quality, and he uses high-solids paints for environmental
reasons. He also uses DeVilbiss HVLP spray guns that cut down
on the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and when
he bought his paint booths, he selected downdraft styles instead
of crossdraft booths to better control emissions and increase
production.

The size of the new facility has boosted productivity
and eliminated a major headache for Stone’s employees: shuttling
cars in and out of bays. "We had to move three or four cars
any time we needed to get one car out and get the next one in,"
he says. "Now, we don’t have to move anything. We’re able
to turn jobs around faster because, instead of moving cars, the
technicians are actually working." (Stone estimates that
prior to the relocation, employees were spending nearly 20 hours
each week moving cars.)

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With the current setup, metal-shop technicians
are the first to work on most vehicles, and they follow each project
until it’s time for refinishing. At that point, the job is prepped
by the paint-shop assistant and painted by the paint specialists.

From body reconstruction to paint refinishing,
all jobs are assigned based on the employee’s skill level – with
the more-difficult jobs given to the more-experienced specialists.
Once vehicles are refinished, the detail person washes and vacuums
them before they’re given to the customers. The detail work is
free, in an effort to generate good will between customers and
the shop. "I’m amazed at the number of shops that don’t do
that," says Stone.

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Big on Training

Another major aspect of Stone’s business revolves
around technical training. He and his employees attend as many
training programs as possible to keep up with OEM and aftermarket
repair standards, and he recommends that all shop owners attend
training courses, especially those held in conjunction with NACE.
"If you’re serious about your business as a body shop owner,
you better go to NACE," says Stone, who’s been to the conference
eight times.

He also advises shop owners to join a value-added
marketing program, such as the NAPA AutoCare Collision Center
program, of which he’s a member. Programs such as this have numerous
benefits, such as providing shop owners with reports on customer
satisfaction and sales comparisons for shops with similar demographics,
and helping to eliminate problems associated with customers who
can’t afford their deductible or who don’t want to pay it in one
lump sum.

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Programs like this, says Stone, also give
you national name recognition. "The best way to describe
it is with the mom-and-pop restaurants. In order to increase their
business, they become a McDonalds."

Ensuring Quality

While it’s important to think about ways to
better the position of your shop in the market, Stone points out
not to forget what – or who – ultimately determines your shop’s
success: your customers.

You not only work for yourself, but you also
work for them, says Stone, who cites this example: "We know
that aftermarket sheet metal is inferior to OEM, so when an insurance
company forces us to use these parts, we make sure the customer
and the insurance company know we aren’t liable for the quality
of the product," he says. "When confronted with this
type of ultimatum, some insurance companies will allow OEM parts
to be installed.

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"The bottom line is: We always work for
the well-being of our customers."

A Calming Experience

When designing his shop, Stone wanted what
he calls "curb appeal," which meant inserting a waterfall
fountain in the main lobby and piping in New Age music. "When
customers come in, they’re already ticked off because they’ve
been in an accident," he says. "I wanted to create an
atmosphere that was soothing to them, sort of like when they go
to a doctor’s office and they really don’t want to be there."

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