Lirel Holt, a Kansas City owner of a collision repair company, had an idea back in the 1980s to help independent shop owners like himself unite with professional standards, common repair practices, buying power and operational support. That concept turned into CARSTAR and, in 1989, the first location opened – Wicklunds CARSTAR – in Liberty, Mo. The network quickly grew and soon became the first national multi-shop franchise operator in the U.S.
Today, CARSTAR is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with more than 670 locations across North America and sales of nearly $1 billion. And yes, Wicklunds CARSTAR is still in operation, led by second-generation owner Gerald Wicklund.
Holt took the stage with Sam Mercanti (who, in 1994, became the master franchisor of CARSTAR in Canada) and current CARSTAR President Michael Macaluso to share stories about their journey together.
“This was initially an idea to bring a new level of professionalism to the collision repair industry and to offer resources to independent facility owners,” said Holt. “My fondest memories are of creating this model and building the best team. It was hard then and would be 10 times harder today.”
Holt credits the success of the organization to his partnership with Mercanti.
“He was always the smart one and had great insight and experience,” said Holt. “I was trying to build a network through a conversion model, and he was trying to build one through a new-store model. We came together and the rest was history.”
Mercanti heard about the CARSTAR concept from his BASF representative and asked to have a meeting set up with Holt. But the deal almost didn’t happen.
“CARSTAR was an incredible concept,” said Mercanti. “We met in November 1994 at NACE to put together a partnership. We were ready to go but the lawyers got in the way. We threw the lawyers out and made a deal.
“It wasn’t always smooth sailing. I jumped in the water, like swimming from Hamilton to Toronto in Lake Ontario. I kept swimming and it didn’t seem like I was getting any closer to Toronto but I couldn’t go back to Hamilton. So my only option was to keep swimming. That’s what we did at CARSTAR, we just kept moving forward.”
The origin of the CARSTAR name has been a bit of a mystery, and Holt elaborated on the process in creating it.
“I had my team – my wife and son – and we had a list of about 300 names. We wanted one that started with one of the first four letters of the alphabet for the Yellow Pages. We wanted one that began with a hard consonant to show strength, and we needed a car reference to show what we did. Then my son said we had to have a star reference based on one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. So we became CARSTAR.”
Both Holt and Mercanti agreed that they never imagined their fledgling organization, which hosted some 25 franchise partners at the first conference, would grow to one of the largest organizations in the collision repair industry with more than 1,100 franchise partners, vendors and industry members at its conference three decades later.
Key Milestones in CARSTAR HistoryK
- In 1989, CARSTAR Wicklunds opens in Liberty, Mo., as the first CARSTAR franchise partner
- CARSTAR introduced the collision repair industry’s first formalized CSI process in 1989 with the CSI card system
- In 1993, CARSTAR introduces VIP program for insurance companies – introduced the “single point of contact” feature to manage the relationship, customer pickup, loaner cars, administrative support and office space for adjustors
- Lirel Holt joined forces with Sam Mercanti in 1994 to launch CARSTAR in Canada
- CARSTAR was the first company to have a dedicated national insurance team
- CARSTAR was the first national organization to offer a purchasing program for stores, along with rebates and incentives
- CARSTAR was the first collision repair end user (of any kind) to develop a purchasing program with 3M and also the first to develop Six Sigma methodology with 3M
- CARSTAR was the first MSO to develop a rental program with Hertz
- CARSTAR was the first to provide online training for repair standards and shop operations through CARSTAR U, which launched in the early 1990s
- CARSTAR was the first to help shops create standard business and operational process with the CARSTAR Operating Standards launched in the early 1990s by Lirel Holt
- CARSTAR established the first nationwide warranty in 1995
- In 1997, CARSTAR established a relationship with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Canada
- CARSTAR was the first to provide brand standards for shops’ looks and amenities
- CARSTAR launched the first national collision repair website
- CARSTAR was the first to offer 24/7 assistance and national 800 line
- In 2000, CARSTAR signed its first national insurance partnership
- In 2015, CARSTAR unites U.S. and Canadian operations under the Driven Brands umbrella