When Blane Saarie opened his collision repair business in Freeman, S.D., in 1987, he was very young and had very little money, but he had a dream. Three months later, his dream went up in flames.
"My shop burned to the ground because of a careless employee," says Saarie. "I had just enough insurance to cover what I had borrowed from the bank, so it wasn’t a good day."
But Saarie was impressed with the firemen who worked so hard that day to save his burning business. "They couldn’t save the building or the vehicles in it, but [they did save] a lot of tools because they put so much water on them.
"I admired them, so I applied and got on the fire department in 1988."
Today Saarie serves as the town’s volunteer fire chief — in addition to running his second shop, Saarie Auto Body. Saarie was recognized for his efforts with a PRIDE award from the National Auto Body Council (NABC) in 1997.
The community in which he lives also recognizes his efforts — by patronizing his business. "I give a lot of classes and tours through the fire department for little kids," says Saarie. "That’s probably the highlight of my job. Then when I go down the street, and they’re with their parents, they’ll say, ‘Hey!’ The kids know me by name, and then they’ll tell their parents. The parents really appreciate it, and they’ll come up and and thank me, saying their kid really enjoyed the tour. [Volunteering definitely] has benefits."
Wouldn’t a similar reputation benefit your community image?
Give — and You Shall Receive
I often tell the story of a local service station in my hometown. The owner would donate a prize to raffle off for your worthwhile cause, no matter what it was. If you were trying to raise money for your neighborhood school, your soccer team’s uniforms or new books for the elderly, he would offer a set of tires, a new battery or a full tune-up as the prize. And these prizes helped to encourage the average Joe to buy a raffle ticket.
Word spread, of course, and every charitable cause you ever heard of stopped by to see what he’d give them. And every time, he gave a nice donation.
I know for certain he was motivated by the opportunity to help others. I also know that you often have to wait in line to buy gas at his station. Who are all the people lined up at his pumps? The members of the church group, the PTA, the Heart Association board, and cheerleaders’ parents who saw his name in their programs and admired his generous donations.
Does your involvement with a local charity make people think more kindly of your shop? Does helping the less fortunate help your business grow? Will telling others how good you are improve the image of the industry?
Everyone I spoke with who performed good deeds did them not for personal gain, but to make a difference in someone else’s life. If there was positive fallout from their community involvement (and most felt there was), it was secondary to the opportunity to give back to their communities.
From providing disaster help to repairing vans for non-profit agencies to collecting food for the hungry, body shops across the country are giving back to those who need their help. If you can’t already count yourself among these generous folks, maybe you should find a suitable cause and get involved. One sure way to differentiate your shop from your many competitors is to join up with other community-minded business people and offer your help. Whether you’re located in the Big Apple or next to a big apple orchard, someone in your market needs you to pitch in.
What sort of community projects did I find body shops involved with? Most of the same opportunities you’ll find in your town. Charitable causes included The United Way, March of Dimes, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), Cancer Society and Make-A-Wish Foundation. More local opportunities included board member or advisory seats for the YMCA, hospital/health clinic, Habitat for Humanity and Meals-on-Wheels. Projects included things such as reclaiming a bad neighborhood, cleaning up a stretch of highway, and even constructing and painting new playground equipment. Several shops also put their unique expertise to use by repairing and painting vehicles at no charge for the fire department, the hospice home or the charity of their choice.
Jerry Dalton of Craftsman Auto Body in Sterling, Va. — who passed away in August — was an example of how good deeds for others are the essence of volunteerism. After reading a "Washington Post" article explaining how the Washington D.C. Police Department had been the victim of such budget cutting that it couldn’t afford to repair its vehicles properly, Dalton — along with others from the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association — volunteered to repair the police vehicles. In 1998, Dalton was recognized for his efforts when he won a PRIDE Award from the NABC.
Let’s take a look at others in the industry who are going above and beyond the call of duty:
• Smokin’ Volunteer Efforts — In a town small enough to rely on a volunteer fire department, Ron Bjerke of Ron’s Equipment Painting in Milbank, S.D., sets a fine example. He’s served on the fire department for 18 years, six as captain, three as assistant chief and the last six as chief. He admits the fire calls don’t always come at the most opportune times; he not only leaves his bed in the dark of night but leaves his business in the light of day. One of his employees has been a fire captain for 20 years, and when they both run to their neighbor’s aid, his business grinds to a crawl. "Being able to help people when they need it is nice," says Bjerke. "I believe they appreciate it and will use my services when they can."
• The Body Shop Sing Along — In Fort Myers, Fla., the Sam Galloway Ford group works hard at being a good neighbor. The group’s body shop covers an entire city block, houses six spraybooths and 50 employees, and does work for four dealerships at this one location. The entire group participates in traditional charity events — like sponsoring the "hole in one" giveaway at the United Way golf outing — but they show some imagination at Christmas time. For the last 10 years, they’ve rented a convention center that holds about 3,500 people, hired professional light and sound technicians, rounded up assorted choirs and singing groups from around the area and produced the "Galloway Family Carol Sing." It’s an old-fashioned Christmas singing event with both the audience and the regional choirs singing carols. The local television station shows a half-hour excerpt from the program on Christmas Eve.
The admission to this sing-a-long? A donation of a couple cans of food.
Last year, the group delivered their "profits" — a truckload of canned food and cash donations of $3,000 — to the Florida needy.
Is the exposure worth the expenditure? "We can’t track it directly, but we’re very community oriented and have grown our business to more than 500 employees," says Greg Stetson, advertising director for the group. "I believe it helps us, but this is mostly because our local owners are very family and community minded."
• Going to Bat for Your Community — Many shops are involved in causes that help others and improve their exposure in their communities. Every Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Lions Club or Elks Club needs volunteers. Common sense says that if you work the food line at the pancake breakfast or offer your facility for a car wash, the other volunteers will visit your shop when they need body work.
There’s also community sponsorship. Jane Moore, the office manager of Martin Oldsmobile-Toyota of Colonial Heights, Va., says the dealership has bought youth-league baseball uniforms for the past 32 years. "All the parents watch the kids run around with your name on their backs," says Moore. "We hope that reminds them to shop us for a new car or collision repair."
• Hungry to Help — Brian Gemeroy — a PBE jobber at Auto Paint Specialty in Seattle, Wash. — has farmed for the last nine years. He owns 21 acres and plants five acres of sweet corn, which he harvests and donates to the food bank. "I work the farm strictly to give the food away," says Gemeroy. "I didn’t get involved in it for commercial reasons."
Gemeroy grew up in the city but says he’s always loved the country. "I’ve taken all sorts of classes on how to [farm], and I have farmer friends," he says. "When you give it away and get no money for it, it’s fun. When you start taking money for it, then, it’s a job."
Gemeroy also hosts a Harvest Fest that brings two busloads of disadvantaged children to his farm for a day in late summer, where they pick their own corn, have a barbecue and fish on Gemeroy’s tab.
"It’s really exciting to see how happy they are," he says. "They don’t generally experience that. … Last year, they went through 500 cans of pop, 250 hamburgers and 200 hot dogs. Then before they go home, they take whatever corn they want. I also have 25 Asian pear trees and 50 or 60 apple trees. They can take whatever they want from those too.
"All my friends told me, ‘Don’t have those kids over. They’re going to rob you and break into your house.’ ’
Gemeroy wasn’t worried. "They’re such good kids," he says, adding he doesn’t do any of it to benefit his business. "It’s the community. I want to give back."
• A Safe Bet — The Birmingham chapter (10 shops) of the Alabama Collision Repairers Association (ACRA) donated time and money to a local hospital’s child safety-seat program by hosting a free clinic that ensured the seats were installed correctly in parents’ vehicles, They also purchased proper seats for the needy.
"We’d like to get more shops involved," says Truman Fancher, owner of Fancher Auto Collision in Pelham, Ala., and president of the ACRA, "but many are slow to see the value. We could all stand to raise the image of the industry. We think it’s time well-spent."
Fancher recommends notifying the local media early in the planning stage to get their support so the event receives the attention it deserves.
What You Can Do
I’ve already mentioned a number of activities and causes you can become involved in, but in case you weren’t paying attention — or if none of them tickled your benefactor funny bone — here are a few more:
• Any activities that expose young people to our industry are especially valuable. As you know, we’re running out of technicians at an alarming rate, so finding suitable replacements is an important job for us all. I’ve served on the advisory board of my local community college’s autobody program for 29 years and consider it time very well-spent. Not only did we work the vocational days that encouraged high school students to choose this career, we spoke to the students in the program about the skills necessary to succeed. Those who came in on time, worked hard and practiced the repairs carefully went on to become well-paid bodymen and painters. Several have even opened their own shops and many become my customers, partly because of our early involvement.
I know for certain that some of my fellow advisory board members use their association with the college’s program to pre-select the really good students. Once they know who they are, they bring them into their body shops part-time while they’re still students and then hire them full time the day they graduate.
Your local technical college needs your help. If the students don’t have the skills you desire, volunteer to help change the curriculum. Your support of the local collision repair program will benefit the students who hear you speak about the real world and will provide the labor pool your shop needs to grow into the future.
• Most service clubs are actively looking for informative lunch speakers. Study after study shows that the average consumer knows very little about collision repair. Volunteer to be the speaker, and tell the service club members how repair work is done.
Public speaking unnecessarily scares a lot of people. Simply come prepared to tell your audience about your business. Talk about how an estimate is created, about how the car is constructed, about your equipment and about your trained technicians.
Rather than write a speech that you’ll spend hours trying to memorize, just tell the Rotarians the same thing you’d tell them over a beer. Bring a few visual aids like a spray gun or a clearcoated panel half. Your customers are curious about the repair process — and so are these folks. Show pictures of your frame bench and your spraybooth. You spent big bucks for them, so show them off. (Only bring pictures of your facility if they show hospital-clean work areas.)
• I think charitable sponsorships are some of the very best promotional money a body shop can spend. What can you sponsor? How about a little league team, a peewee football team or a junior softball league?
You can also sponsor an event. My advice, however, is to give generously or not at all. For example, when the Shrine Club or Lion’s breakfast offers you a single line mention in their program for $10, a business card ad for $25, a 1/4 page for $50 or a page for $100, cough up the $100 and look like a big guy. They’ll make good use of your money, and people will recognize that you gave a worthy contribution to their favorite cause.
Show You Care
As every small-business person knows, there’s no shortage of worthy causes. In fact, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the phone calls and solicitations. But remember, you make a living from the folks who live within 30 miles of your shop. And if these folks see your name on the roster of firms who’ve supported their cause, they’ll be more likely to think of you when they need collision repair.
Even more important, the less fortunate who benefited most from your time, effort or money will appreciate your help — even if you can never trace a single sale to your good works.
So the next time someone calls you about a worthwhile cause, think twice before saying no. Better yet, ask, "How can I help?"
Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s been a contributing editor to BodyShop Business since 1988.
Taking Pride in What You Do
NABC provides a series of press releases and positive articles to be distributed on a regular basis to the media — your local paper included. A list of their suggested activities for repair facilities includes:
The NABC is a not-for-profit association that exists solely to improve the image of the collision repair industry and to recognize the pride and professionalism of its members. The Council also guards against the worst stereotypes of the industry, such as when shop owners have been portrayed as tattooed, fast-buck con artists or when a single shop suggests in an advertisement that they’re the only ethical shop in the area.
The NABC strategy is two-fold: to encourage all industry members (from car manufacturers to paint companies to insurers) to be proud of their own professionalism and fine work, and to assist consumers in recognizing all the reputable professionals in our business. A proud industry demands and receives respect.