You may recall from the movie “Back to the Future” when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is preparing to make his return from the 1950s to his present-day family home. Strapped into a heavily-modified, time-traveling DeLorean (courtesy of one Dr. Emmitt Brown), Marty quickly surveys the instrumentation, making sure that the flux capacitor is fluxing – among other things – and that everything else is in working order to assure his safe return. A short while later toward the close of the movie, we see Dr. Brown himself refueling the car – now equipped with an onboard nuclear generator that, once “gassed-up,” allows him to literally fly away into the future.
Today, of course, cars have neither flux capacitors nor onboard nuclear generators … yet. There is, however, no question that today’s vehicles are supremely complex marvels of engineering that increasingly incorporate space-age materials, hybrid engines and ever-more sophisticated electronic systems, not to mention the coming of fuel-cell technologies.
Speaking of advancements, Forbes magazine (Dec. 23, 2002, p. 284-288) profiled a scientist in the midst of perfecting a superhard steel coating measuring a mere 20,000th of an inch. The material makes metal completely impervious to dents, is tougher than the hardest chrome/tungsten carbide alloys and provides four times the surface hardness compared to the best conventional steel alloys.
The article goes on to foretell of car frames that, when coated, could absorb the shock of a head-on collision. (Translation: no more frame straightening, no more frame rail replacements, etc.) Right now, in fact, the U.S. Navy is testing the material on 297 T700 Seahawk helicopter engines, and General Motors is in discussions for its use in the manufacturing of autobody parts.
While it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see time-traveling cars (DeLoreans or otherwise) in our lifetime, it is safe to say the world has changed, is changing and will continue to do so. Yet, despite the irrefutable evidence of this fact, far too many repairers – I submit, the vast majority – are wallowing in yesteryear’s thinking, content that what worked then will work just as well five, 10 even 20 years from now.
It appears the consensus is that since “we’ve always done it this way,” there’s no need to upgrade the skills, knowledge or equipment with which to match today’s – let alone, tomorrow’s – vehicle demands. Worse yet, my suspicions are borne out by numerous discussions – as recently as this past weekend – with seminar organizers and instructors from far and wide, all of whom share stories of atrociously poor attendance by technicians and shop owners alike. Five to 10 percent participation (compared to available seats) is typical.
What are the implications for the industry – or any other – suffering from seemingly widespread apathy? The answer seems fairly obvious. While much has been made of the presence and impact of consolidated operators such as Sterling, True2Form, Caliber and others, I submit that the most critical issue facing the collision industry is consolidation of a much more fearsome variety: The inevitable industry “shake out” that is occurring and will continue if the trend of increasing obsolescence in the repair community isn’t reversed.
There’s a massive segment of repairers who lack basic business skills, technical knowledge and equipment, and who, by virtue of not engaging in regular training and/or equipment acquisition, are falling further and further behind those who do. Make no mistake about it. These folks, for whatever reason, are driving themselves out of business. They are being and will be forced to shut their doors permanently, leaving those who do stay abreast of training and technology to welcome the new volume with open arms, smiles on their faces and bulging wallets.
Apathy: Not Caring Enough to Actually Care
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend an industry trade show and convention and to see firsthand the number of people in attendance. Aside from the vendor booths there, a number of extremely relevant, cutting-edge seminars were being offered, one of which I attended (a legal seminar). A grand total of 14 people came to learn how they can effectively – and legally – deal with insurance companies while increasing the profitability of each repair. (And three of those people were from BodyShop Business.)
Let me put this number into perspective. We estimate that in Ohio, there are approximately 2,300 repair shops, with the “typical” shop – per industry statistics – being made up of four people. Collectively, the number of people engaged in repairing cars in Ohio is slightly more than 8,000. Fourteen people (a count that also includes me, BSB editor Georgina Carson and the two editors she brought with her) out of 8,000 is 175 one-hundred-thousandths of 1 percent! Applying the same calculation to those attending the trade show (about 250) still yields only one-third of 1 percent!
Needless to say, these numbers are staggeringly low. More importantly, they demonstrate how little real effort is being made by shops and technicians alike to stay abreast of what’s happening in their chosen profession.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick, easy quiz that reveals how well-informed you are: How often is the average person involved in an automotive mishap, one requiring your repair services?
If you’re correct, you have a leg-up on the competition and stand a chance of remaining in the game if you stay informed. If you’re wrong, you can’t afford to waste another minute; you must become better informed about your profession if you wish to remain in the business over the coming years. (The answer appears at the end of this article).*
Consolidating the Apathetic
In the past 10 years or so, the industry has begun witnessing this type of consolidation. Where there used to be some 65,000 recognized shops across the country, only about 50,000 or so remain (a 21 percent decrease).
And even that number continues to dwindle. In fact, this consolidation may not end for some time as the number of vehicles requiring repairs each year could be, according to some analysts, adequately serviced by just 17,000 shops nationally! If these projections are even remotely accurate, the reality is that better than three out of four shops will close their doors in the not-so-distant future.
Even with the potential for tens-of-thousands of repair shops being gone from the marketplace, there’s no evidence that those remaining will be any better informed or better trained in the future. Consequently, unless and until a concerted effort compelling continuous training and technical proficiency within the workforce is brought to bear by the industry, I think that more and more states will establish requirements. For example, for a shop to enter into and then to remain in the industry, states will require that shops demonstrate repair proficiencies, complete and show evidence of continuing education, and acquire and maintain certain equipment.
Several factors lead me to this conclusion. First, if figures such as those put forward by California’s Bureau of Automotive Repair are even remotely accurate – namely, that 40-plus percent of repairs are fraudulent – quite obviously the repair industry has a big problem, image being the least of them. Even assuming fraudulent repairs comprise only 5-10 percent of the repair marketplace, the defrauded population – which includes insurers – remains sizable enough to warrant attention from regulators and legislators.
Second, a cursory examination of the various consumer protection agencies in existence reveals that, historically, automotive repairs typically rank near the top for consumer complaints and allegations. Complaints such as these likewise draw attention from regulators and legislators, who act – or will act – to eliminate or reduce the source of those complaints.
Third, the number of shops that cannot or do not perform proper repairs today – let alone tomorrow – continues to grow due to increasingly outmoded skills and equipment that, in turn, serves to perpetuate the complaints and further compromise consumer safety. Again, these actions draw the notice of those who can and do alter the regulatory landscape that shops must operate within.
Lastly, the historical, ongoing lack of widespread participation by those in the industry to resolve issues such as these is a red-carpet invitation for non-industry groups to intercede. If the industry isn’t solving its own problems, then others are compelled to do so – the “kicker” being that repairers will then be heard screaming: “*&%$# government is sticking their noses in our business!”
It’s almost a guaranteed, self-fulfilling prophecy.
6 Things You Can Do
Is there a solution? Yes, of course there is, but the solution absolutely demands that the industry adopt a totally new philosophy – namely, one of active engagement in its own affairs.
The following are suggestions in order of direct and personnel costs:
- Network, network, network!! A tried-and-proven technique, networking is nothing more than meeting and socializing with others, and learning about them and their businesses. Make a point to network with others in the profession in order to compare notes, techniques and the like. After all, while they may be competitors, they’re also your colleagues!
- Subscribe to leading trade publications (BodyShop Business is a good one) and read them during off-hours. These magazines often provide instruction on what successful operators are doing and also report on what’s happening in the courts, in state and federal legislatures, in various associations and in general, all of which affect your business.
- Participate in the Web-based collision repair discussion boards. While sometimes nothing more than the rants of others, these boards also are a window into what’s happening in the industry and what other operators are doing to successfully deal with similar problems.
- Train! Train! Train! Shop owners and technicians cannot ever have enough skills at their disposal since technology and business itself moves too fast to ever stay completely current. Shop owners – particularly in light of historical industry benchmarks – should obtain and continuously upgrade as many business management skills as possible, with courses that include: accounting, finance, marketing and business law, as well as other more industry-specific class work. The cost of obtaining these skills is minimal compared to the undeniable cost of not doing so – the inevitable closure of your business.
- Continually invest in your business and upgrade wherever and whenever it advances your shop’s image, repair capabilities and efficiencies. The application of your growing business skills (see No. 4 above) allows for objective decision-making, such as whether or not to replace – via purchase, lease or other – that tired but still-useful frame machine, for example. Knowing beforehand if your decision will or won’t enhance your bottom line better ensures your shop’s long-term survival. Moreover, having current equipment allows you to keep the job in-house, as opposed to sending it down the street.
- Get involved in the legislative process since that’s where structural change for any industry happens. After all, our elected officials devise the rules by which business is conducted and operates. Participation can take many forms – making monetary contributions with which to elect or re-elect candidates sympathetic to your issues, creating and/or contributing to a Political Action Committee (PAC), or sending letters to and/or telephoning your representative(s), senator(s), assemblymen, etc.
Better yet, embrace and participate in every opportunity to appear and testify before your legislators in support of or in opposition to a particular bill; their decisions are only as good as the information they’re provided. Those who remain silent do so at their own peril!
These six suggestions are just an appetizer. There are plenty of other opportunities from which to choose and become actively involved.
Granted, it may be easy to be apathetic right now, but when your shop’s about to go out of business, you’ll likely find yourself suddenly caring – and you’ll likely find that it’s too little, too late.
Writer Jack Lundberg is the executive director of the Ohio Board of Motor Vehicle Collision Repair Registration.
*The average consumer is involved in a repairable accident once every seven years and one month.