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Join your trade association. Be an active participant. Your business will be better because of it. I know from personal experience.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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In this month’s issue of BodyShop Business, I have written a story about what the future holds for our industry. I hope you’ll read it.

All those conversations I had about how our business might look in 30 years were very informative. You can’t beat talking common concerns with smart people in the same business. Several of the folks I spoke with were executive leaders in various industry trade associations. I was reminded again how powerful and informative a group of like-minded peers can be.

As a (long) past president of my own industry’s trade association, I can speak from firsthand experience about the value of meeting regularly with other business owners. No one knows more about your business than successful peers. They solve the exact same problems you do each day, and some of them have a better way to do it. Granted, you may find yourself seated next to a competitor at some future meeting, but at least you’ll both be equally well informed by your attendance and participation. Rather than look for an excuse to not join your local, regional, state, national, industry-wide or business-type specific trade association, look at all the advantages if you do.

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Tune In

Whether your firm fixes the auto’s damage, sells the supplies and equipment, or manufactures the supplies and equipment, it’s a small world after all. You know the guy who knows the guy who works with the guy (or gal) in another city. Jimmy Buffet described it as the “Coconut Telegraph” to explain how fast the latest news moves around his island. After 45 years in the greater auto body community, I know we have numerous industry-specific Tom-Toms sending along the latest buzz. Trade association members are tapped into many of those telegraph lines.

So what, you say. Who cares what the latest PBE rumor is? You already run a successful: body shop/paint department/jobber store/paint brand region. What could you possibly learn from a bunch of potential competitors anyway? Well, kids, it’s always the same: you don’t know what you don’t know. Never thought about doing “it” like that before, but clearly others are making it work. You’ll never meet the men and women who are making “it” work so well if you don’t go where they gather. Pssst, they’re gathering at their trade associations’ events!

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Be There

Clearly, I’m a big fan of exchanging ideas with fellow business owners. Sadly, I speak to owners all the time who won’t even consider attending a trade group meeting. Just because you went to a shop association meeting 10 years ago and the speaker was dull and your biggest competitor was bragging about the job he stole from your yard doesn’t mean all meetings are like that. Or worse yet, you’ve never been to a meeting, or you heard from your buddy who did go to that meeting 10 years ago that it was dumb. Don’t bother.

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As any past or present trade group officer will tell you, the more you give, the more you get from any business association. But before I can get you on the advisory board or moving through the officers’ chairs of whatever your target group is, I need to get you there the first time.

Go with a co-worker. If nothing else, you can make fun of the speaker and the food. Before you can reap the advantages of coming together with your business peers regularly, you have to be there the first time. Wouldn’t you like to be better informed about the tsunami of changes swamping our industry? Couldn’t you use someone knowledgeable to bounce around an idea you’ve been considering? Ask your vendor’s salesperson if their company belongs (they should) and attend the next meeting with them and meet the help your business could use face to face.

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20 Groups

Collecting and comparing specific business results rather than sales and marketing success is what distinguishes a 20 Group from an ordinary trade group gathering.

The No. 1 rule in a 20 Group is no competitors. Since each business is going to share, in detail, what their operating results are, no one would do that in front of a current or even potential competitor. Lots of other rules apply as well: you can’t hire from any other member’s staff, you must consistently attend and you must participate in the interim to remain with the group. In these meetings, the members offer specific advice and suggestions to each other: do try this, don’t try that, track it like this.

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Having already explained what a fan I am of joining your local or state association, joining or establishing a 20 Group will be the best thing you’ll ever do for your business. Period. It takes a meeting or two to build up trust among the members, and someone has to wrangle the whole thing from agendas and discussions to hotels and food, but understanding firsthand how another member in the exact same business achieved those excellent results is worth every sacrifice.

Vo-Tech Committees

So you can’t see yourself sharing your business numbers with anyone. You can’t even see yourself attending the trade show, much less the educational part, of the next local trade group meeting. But the part about networking with others in the industry sounds kind of useful. If this is the case, you should try joining the advisory board of your local collision repair program. You’ll be in a room with a variety of other industry players – paint companies, jobbers, tool and equipment vendors, and other shops. Aside from using the group to educate you on the current industry buzz, you can all make the school’s program better too.

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Government Regulation

Many of the trade associations in our industry have a lobbying arm paid by their members to influence legislators at every level about our industry. The next time some far-off bureaucrat passes some annoying regulation you have to comply with, don’t say there was nothing you could have done. If the local association had your dues and your personal participation, maybe they could have reached and educated the decision makers.

Don’t join in the hope that banding together will force some third party to do as your group wishes. Too many body shop associations think that by showing uniformity (“You’re the only one who charges for that”), they can get the insurance companies to pay the labor rate or material rate or parts discount the association is advocating. I always refer those angry folks to the only other industry in the country that’s wholly supported by a third-party payer: health care. One of the best funded, best educated trade associations in the world is the American Medical Association. They have a lobbyist in every state capital and a busload of them in Washington. How are they doing getting the insurance industry to do what they want? Right. We won’t be able to either, so focus on making your business better, not changing someone else’s.

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Summary

Join your trade association. Be an active participant. Your business will be better because of it. I know from personal experience.

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