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Becoming the Fastest Gun in the Shop

Because the industry is changing rapidly, the best painters are productive technicians, active communicators, speedy problem solvers and quick learners.

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A neighbor of mine came home from his management job at a steel mill several years ago looking like he’d been run through the proverbial wringer.

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"Marty," I said, "What happened?"

He told me a meeting had been hastily called for everyone in his department late in the day. When they were all assembled, an executive vice president of the mill stood up and made a very brief announcement: "I want every one of you to go home tonight and prepare a letter to me and the company justifying your continued presence here. If you don’t have the letter, don’t bother coming back."

I could see why my friend was so upset. The business world doesn’t get much more cold-hearted than that.

"What are you going to do Marty?" I asked.

He replied: "I’m going to write that letter, and I believe I can justify my existence. Then I’m going to polish up my resumé and look for a new job. I didn’t spend all those years learning how to excel at my position to be treated like this."

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It turned out that Marty survived the cut, got a new job shortly thereafter — and the steel company no longer exists.

If you’re wondering what this story has to do with maximizing your value as a painter, it’s that I think a little self-evaluation is a good thing for everyone. Every employee in every business should be ready to answer the challenge of justifying his or her existence. Why? Because it’s more and more a part of management training to regularly evaluate employees. The big corporations have been doing these evaluations for years, but keep in mind that as the collision repair industry evolves, more shop owners and managers are also taking part in training classes to improve the functionality and profitability of their shops.

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One of their biggest concerns is payroll expense; wages and benefit costs are one of the largest overhead costs in a technical service business. And these trained business owners are prepared to make sure they’re getting what they should from every member of their staff.

What’s In It for You?
If you’re the only painter and your father owns the shop, you might not need to keep reading. But if you’re like most technicians who need their jobs and whose families rely on their continued employment, I think I can give you some food for thought, something that could re-ignite your interest in what you do and possibly help you to become a more valuable asset to the person who signs your paycheck.

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When you make it your business to be a highly valuable employee, you’ll still be employed even if the business conditions cause your market to dip. Plus, a real satisfaction is gained when we better ourselves. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen that excitement in your child’s eyes when he learns a new word or to tie his own shoe. This sense of satisfaction is contagious; one key person in a business who decides to make a personal commitment to bettering himself can positively effect the people around him. All it takes to start that ball rolling is a desire to better yourself — to spend some time learning more about your trade and its place in the collision repair equation.

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If that’s not enough to convince you, how about this: If you have a grasp of current realities, then you’re aware of what’s termed a critical technician shortage — and there’s no indication the situation is going to improve in the near future. What this means is that those in the industry today who have a burning desire to excel have great opportunities. The Harvard MBAs and bankers who are becoming shop owners don’t know how to paint cars. They may have vision and marketing savvy, but they also need what you have.

I’ve been at many meetings, listening to the new breed who describes a shop with multiple shifts, assembly line repair processes and faster turn-around times than ever. They envision a few skilled journeymen managing a larger force of semi-skilled workers doing cost-effective repairs. I’m not knocking this thinking — there’s sure to be a share of the collision repair market occupied by these folks. But most of the semi-skilled workers will make what would be considered a sub-standard wage. What about the journeymen? My guess is that a highly skilled journeyman with a broad knowledge of the operational parameters of the business, above-average business and computer skills, and the ability to communicate with his management team and his department’s employees will set new levels in compensation. He’ll bring maximum value to the table and, in return, will be entitled to maximum pay. This, I believe, is a future reality.

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Technical Skills
If we look at maximizing value, then we must place a high priority on training. Those of us in businesses who provide products and services to body shops (I own a paint and equipment business) have seen differences in growth and success directly related to a commitment to education. Today’s most successful collision repair businesses are those that have never stopped learning. And this desire to excel is usually driven from the top. The owner of the business has recognized there’s a direct correlation between the amount of training his employees receive and the dollar amount on the bottom line.

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These businesses have a culture of learning. Somehow, these owners and their employees always find time to attend meaningful classes. And when they’re confronted with a re-occurring problem, they seek out knowledge to fix it. These are businesses with confident employees and satisfied customers.

As a painter, many opportunities are available to expand your knowledge of your craft. Your paint distributor should regularly let you know about the course offerings for painters, including classes sponsored by paint manufacturers. Depending on the paint products you use in your shop, there also might be different levels of training that consist of classroom and actual spraying time in the booth.

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It’s also not unusual to find classes that specifically address color matching. If your shop mixes its own paint, then you should have a working knowledge of the different tinting colors, their strengths, their effect on hue and flop, and the most time-effective methods to keep vehicles moving through the paint department. When I was a young painter, the head painter in the shop taught us to spend up to one hour tinting a color. After that, keep painting. He understood cycle time in 1973. It’s sad to say, but a lot of folks still don’t get it.

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I-CAR also offers some quality paint classes, and ASE offers a valuable certification test for refinishing. These are credentials that no professional painter should be without.

Clinics put on by your local distributor are another valuable way to spend an evening. We’ve gotten into some lively and meaningful discussions at our store.

Although there’s usually a topic on the agenda for the evening, ample time is available for people to discuss problems and possible solutions. Your peers are a valuable source of information, and you might be surprised what you can learn from others in the business. And every little piece of information contributes to your current and future value.

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If your business works on conversion vans, motorcycles and specialty cars, classes are also available that address custom-painting issues. While there are some very talented artists out there painting vehicles, you can still learn some basic skills that might help your shop get business it didn’t think it could handle. You might have to spend some evenings and weekends practicing to get sellable results, but when your new skills assist the front office’s selling efforts, you’ve absolutely increased your value.

In addition to knowing your shop’s paint system and taking action to improve your painting skills, you should also have a thorough working knowledge of the tools and equipment in the paint department.

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If you have a downdraft booth:
• Do you know how to monitor the different filters? There are usually three stages of filters on a booth, and each of them has a different life cycle.
• Do you understand how to set the pressure correctly?
• Do you know how to adjust purge, bake temperature and time correctly for the paint products that were applied?
• Do you know how to most effectively schedule time in the booth so it coincides with promised delivery dates?

A booth is usually the largest single investment in a paint department, and managing its use is a function of the painter.

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Estimating Skills
It’s hardly enough anymore just to be a technically sound painter. The folks at the top of the profession have rock-solid painting skills, a consistent work methodology and a willingness to learn more about the business of painting.

Paint shop revenues begin with a damage estimate. Hopefully, the estimate includes every operation that’s required to restore the vehicle to pre-loss condition. But if it doesn’t, how would the painter know? How would the owner know?

It can be valuable for the painter to have a full working knowledge of the shop’s estimating system. Subtle differences exist in the way data providers allow for paint-related operations. And whether or not these operations are entered on an estimate can have a dramatic impact on shop revenues. The best situation includes the owner, estimator and head painter regularly reviewing estimating technique.

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Obviously, if you remove moldings and handles to do a quality repair (as all the major paint companies and vehicle manufacturers say you should), it’s important these operations are identified on the work order. And when you have an understanding of how the system works, you can identify additional operations that may be necessary to finish a vehicle. The shop can then charge for them.

Shops should be compensated for everything required to restore a vehicle to pre-loss condition. And when you can bring management’s attention to additional, justifiable revenue, you’re once again maximizing your value. These kinds of things will also typically maximize your paycheck.

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Communication Skills
Being skilled communicators comes very easily for some people yet is very difficult for others. But it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say the future belongs to those with the best communication skills. To relate to management and with other employees and for personal growth, there isn’t a better area to invest in.

Reading is one way we can expand our knowledge and ability to express ideas, and community colleges often have courses available to improve communication skills. The vintage Dale Carnegie class has helped millions overcome their inhibitions and be more involved in sharing thoughts and ideas.

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Closer to Home
I’m astounded at the amount of change in painting during the last 10 years. And the ride is far from over.

The pressure on shop owners to adapt to a wildly fluctuating market continues to intensify, and what good shop owners need are technicians who are willing to accept responsibility for personal growth, which will solidify the shop’s total offering to insurers and vehicle owners.

Yes, the finger of responsibility is pointing right at you if you’re a painter.

Don’t be afraid to be a part of the solution. If you’re proud of the trade you’re in, act like it. When you have a solid grasp of the paint products and equipment in your shop, go a step further: Take some classes at a local college or adult-education school to learn something about computers and communication. Let your boss know that you’re one of the people he can count on to help his business grow. Most importantly, recognize that the future will belong to those who gear up for it now.

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Writer Michael Regan is president of The J.J.R. Company in Cleveland, Ohio, and a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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