— Joseph Bonarigo, Jr., general manager
Custom 77 Auto Rebuilders
Question answered by: John Shortell
It sounds like you’re tired of losing money on labor and materials due to the old, worn-out 50 percent blend calculations. I’m sick of it, too. Anyone who knows anything about painting today’s vehicles knows that it takes at least as long to blend an undamaged panel for color match as it does to paint a new panel. But the three database providers refuse to acknowledge this fact. Their representatives confuse the issue with inaccurate explanations of procedure differences. Why can’t we get anywhere with this issue? Why won’t the data providers make the necessary changes? Are their time studies proving our entire industry wrong, or is there something more sinister at work?
The Accepted Standard
The current accepted standard among data providers and insurers is that blending an undamaged panel for color match takes only 50 percent of the time of painting a new, undamaged panel. As I mentioned above, anyone in our industry with half a brain can understand that blending takes at least as long, and sometimes longer, than completely painting the same panel. Heck, even some insurance personnel can grasp this concept. It takes more preparation and more skill to properly blend most of today’s metallic colors than it does to cover the entire panel with color. Stick a spray gun in a monkey’s hand and you’d probably end up with a decent-looking paint job. But blending can challenge some full-time painters. There are more than a few vehicles on the road with horrendous-looking blended panels. And these cars weren’t repaired in someone’s backyard either – this work comes out of professional collision repair shops.
When you look at repair and paint times from the three data providers, you quickly understand that they arrive at these times differently, and all three will have different times for the same procedures. But by some divine coincidence, all three use the 50 percent formula when blending an undamaged adjacent panel for the purpose of color matching. How can that be? They can’t agree on how long it will take to paint a fender for a Honda Civic, but they all worship the same blend god and agree that blending that same fender will take exactly half the time they allow to paint it.
The History of Lacquer
If you’re too young to remember lacquer paint, you missed an interesting period in the history of collision repair. Cars came from the factory with lacquer finishes (American cars, anyway), and we used lacquer to repair them. One of the features of a lacquer finish was that you could melt it right into the old finish. Most cars had no clearcoat so you would just paint the repaired area and melt the color into the original finish, let it air dry and then give it a quick polish. With lacquer repairs, you often did paint just half the panel. This was the genesis of the “industry standard” of 50 percent paint time for a blend.
In the early 1980s, when two-stage finishes became mainstream in the collision repair industry, we were all still in our lacquer haze and never noticed. Or if we did notice, we never did anything about the increasing amount of time, labor and materials needed to correctly repair a panel.
You young pups may not believe it, but charging for paint materials is a fairly new practice. Lacquer was so cheap that the industry standard was that material was included in the paint labor charges. Base/clear finishes put an end to that practice. I can remember writing my first estimate where I charged for materials. I don’t believe MOTOR had a formula for figuring materials yet. If it did, I didn’t know about it, so I would just make a figure up. I’d try to guess how much it would cost for materials. That was back in the caveman days of collision repair history.
Materials costs are where you’re really getting hit hard by the 50 percent blend time. Though you may save a couple bucks on the color during a blend, you still use the same amount of clear and hardener. Base coat is cheap compared to the clear and catalyst. So if the materials cost to paint a fender is $75 and you subtract half of the basecoat cost – let’s give insurers a gift and say we save $10 on basecoat – you still have a cost of $65. But the data providers only allow a paltry $37.50.
You could say, “Well, the estimating systems are only guides. You should be charging more for materials.” And I would agree with you. There’s plenty of software out there for figuring true materials cost. I think every paint manufacturer has a feature built into its mixing system. But insurance companies aren’t that responsive to paint materials calculators.
As long as the three data providers continue to publish the current procedures and paint calculations, 50 percent blend time will continue to be the “industry standard,” and it will continue to be a problem and source of lost revenue for collision repairers.
How’d They Figure?
I’ve personally talked with people from each of the three major data providers about their blending formula and how they arrived at it. They all claimed to have conducted time studies to back up their 50 percent formula. One data provider claimed to have done a time study at a nationally known paint company’s training center a few years ago. The company’s painter did the painting while someone from the data provider looked on and took notes. First, they painted a Ford Taurus hood. Then, after it dried, they blended that same hood from one edge. Amazingly, it took exactly half as long to blend that Ford Taurus hood as it did to paint it
John Sforza is a technical representative for Sikkens in my area, and an excellent painter. I asked him about this time study in Troy, Mich., and although he couldn’t comment on this particular event, he emphatically stated that blending today’s finishes is more difficult and time consuming than it was in the past. While he’s never timed the painting process, he insisted that 50 percent is unrealistic. Preparation of an undamaged panel for a color blend is more demanding than prepping a new panel.
I also spoke with Bill Niosi, an account representative from Color Systems, my paint supplier. Niosi is also very knowledgeable and an excellent painter. He was even more insistent that blending is more difficult and time consuming than painting a new, undamaged panel. He also confirmed that the amount of materials needed is at least as much as what’s needed for a new panel. And when using an adhesion promoter prior to the color coat, materials costs are higher.
It’s common knowledge, common sense among nearly every painter in the country, that blending adjacent panels for color match takes at least as long and uses almost the same amount of materials as painting an entire panel. Why are we putting up with the data providers’ bogus formula?
One of the data providers has hired an ex-insurance appraiser to assist in their time studies. Gee, how do you think those results will look? After a long debate with this fellow, he finally came out and said that we were getting paid too much paint time to begin with. Nice, huh?
He backed that statement up by telling me his recent time studies showed that painters were using only one-half to one-third the time allotted by their time guides. Apparently he thinks paint time should be cut in half. I dismissed this as nonsense and he told me that most people in our industry “don’t understand the P-pages or how they apply to
Database problems are not going away, and they’re never going to get better. At one time, you could turn to a collision estimating guide and get a fairly reasonable “guesstimate” of the time it would take to do a certain procedure at the labor rate structure put in place by the insurance industry (with the help, of course, of collision repairers’ lack of knowledge and “don’t care” attitude). It has long been held that collision estimating guide times allowed for the unrealistically low labor rates offered by insurers. Shops could count on beating guide times and working at 150 percent efficiency while still doing quality work. But now the rules are changing. Now the times in the estimating guides are falling closer to real or actual time with no rise in labor rates to offset those lower times. The insurance industry is the only beneficiary of this trend.
But this is not the fault of the insurance industry. It’s not the fault of the database providers. The insurance industry is populated with people who are much smarter than those of us in the collision repair industry. The database providers, every one of them swearing off insurer influence, knows where their money comes from. There are many more copies of estimating software in the hands of the insurance industry than in the hands of the collision repair industry.
What do you think the discussions in the boardroom would be about if one of the large insurance companies (and I’m purely speculating here) went to one of the data providers and said to them, “Look, we’re one of the largest insurance companies in the country, and we use more estimating software than anyone else. We’d like to use your software exclusively but we’re concerned that some of your labor and paint times are excessive. Your increase in sales will be substantial if we switch over completely to your software. What can your company do to entice us to sign with your company exclusively?” And with the insurance industry taking control of more and more collision repair businesses, our industry’s contribution to the data providers’ financial health is steadily diminishing.
Blend Within a Panel
Blend times set at 50 percent is one thing, but an issue that has everyone worked into a lather at the moment is the fairly new practice employed by the bottom feeder insurers of “blend within the panel” designed to hurt the body shop and fatten the corporate bellies.
It’s my opinion that it probably started with one creative and enterprising insurance company fellow who, intent on impressing the company’s higher-ups, pulled this new procedure out of thin air. This person convinced the powers-that-be at his company that, when repairing a panel, it’s unnecessary to paint the entire panel. All the painter has to do is blend the color within the panel and then clearcoat the entire panel. Thus was born the oft-heard phrase, “We shouldn’t be paying full paint time on repaired panels.”
Their argument is that if you’re repairing the front edge of a fender, you won’t be applying color right up to the door, so they should only pay half the base paint time plus full clearcoat. It would be hysterical if it weren’t so harmful.
Some industry organizations have been spending countless hours wringing their hands in an effort to bring about a change to this practice – something akin to Congress forming a blue ribbon panel to bring about a change to homelessness. The solution to this problem is simple: When an appraiser tries to push this new form of blending on you, just say no. I don’t think this is a big problem (yet) because the P-pages of all three data providers contradict this practice. But if enough repairers continue to give in to insurers, you can bet insurer influence will help make changes to P-pages and the “acceptable industry standards.”
Writer John Shortell is body shop manager at Secor’s Collision Technology in New London, Conn. He’s been in the collision industry for more than 20 years and has developed computer software for body shop scheduling called BodyShop Schedule Pro, for subletting towing called Tow Bill Helper and for printing estimates in dollars called Dollars & Sense. For more information, visit www.bodyshopsolutions.com.