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Eying Aluminum Certification? Envisioning the Future

Becoming a certified aluminum repair center isn’t easy and may not be worth
it for some, but it may prove necessary
to stay ahead of the game

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Lee Amaradio Jr. is the president and founder of Faith Quality Auto Body Inc. in Murrieta, Calif. His 32,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility employs 35 full-time employees and grosses $7.5 million in sales. In business since 1979, Lee attributes his success to having a great team of quality people supporting him.

Listening to all the technical information needed to repair some of today’s vehicles can be downright discouraging. And there’s a double-edged sword repairers face today: If we invest in the training and equipment required to repair some of the new vehicles on the market, what will happen to our already diminished profits? If we don’t make the investment to keep up with the latest technology, what will happen to our future?

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Is It Worth It?
The question I always ask myself before I spend a large sum of money is, what will be the return on my investment? In other words, is it worth it? Unfortunately, the answer I think for most repairers is that it may not be worth it. And I speak from experience – I’ve invested well over $150,000 in certifying my shop as an aluminum repair center but have yet to be paid one extra dollar for working on any vehicles that require such specialized repairs.

I’ve been surprised to find that insurers are more prone to total these vehicles that require specialized repairs, even though these vehicles are well within the parameters the insurers would normally set for repair. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because aluminum repair information, even though it’s readily available, is something they know little about. I think they’re afraid that they might be taking on a huge liability by allowing a shop to repair some of these vehicles. Although I’m merely speculating at this point, I also believe that insurers don’t want to set a precedent for paying the higher labor rate required to repair these vehicles. I also think that salvage values and customer wishes play a big part in the totaling of higher-end vehicles. All I know is that I’ve had several high-end aluminum vehicles total for no apparent reason.

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So if you ask me if it was worth it for my shop to become certified in aluminum repair, I believe it’s too soon to tell. Some things in our industry may not be the best investment, but they’re necessary. If you want to stay with the leaders of our industry and stay ahead of the competition, you must do these things. It can be compared to purchasing a computerized measuring system when a mechanical measuring system can accomplish the same goal. One is so much more impressive than the other and can be used to market your company as “different than the rest.”

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Will I need to have an aluminum repair certification to survive in the future? I don’t know, but I would assume the answer is no. I don’t feel that aluminum will be used exclusively by most manufacturers but only by a select group of high-end companies. You must make the decision for yourself, knowing that if you don’t make the investment in the necessary training and equipment to accomplish aluminum repairs, you’ll won’t be able to fix those vehicles without assuming a huge liability.

So first take a look at your customer base and figure out what type of vehicles are in the market you’re after. If you work on a lot of European vehicles such as Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar or BMW, then setting up an aluminum repair department should be at the forefront of your plans. If you work on mostly Japanese and domestic vehicles, then it may be smarter to hang on and wait for awhile.

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Either way, aluminum repair can be a great marketing tool if you have an advertising campaign to accompany your investment. As a body shop owner like the rest of you, I believe that the best place to invest your money is in your own company because it will compel you to take care of it. Put your money into advertising, training and anything else that will help you stay ahead of the game. Always count the cost and use baby steps to test the water before you jump in with both feet. Aluminum repair is no different, and investing in what it requires is substantial. And, unfortunately, the results could go either way.

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I looked at a management program for more than two years before I purchased it because it wasn’t absolutely necessary. That gave me plenty of time to choose what the best one was for my company. There’s plenty of time for you to decide if aluminum repair is your next step. If you decide that time is now, read on and I’ll share the process we went through.

Getting the Certification
First, I-CAR aluminum certification is absolutely necessary. Whether you plan on working on aluminum vehicles or not, this certification will help you avoid the trouble you can get into by working on something you shouldn’t. I-CAR is a great place to start because it can certify your technicians and teach them how to identify the aluminum used in today’s vehicles.

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Once you get the I-CAR aluminum certification, you still won’t be able to say you’re aluminum certified because you still need a clean room and the necessary tools required to repair aluminum vehicles. This is why you’ll need to proceed to step two: getting OEM certifications so you’ll be qualified to work on most European vehicles. This is where the $150,000 to $200,000 investment comes in. BMW and Mercedes both require a clean room but with an
equipment list that’s brand specific to
each manufacturer.

The problem with this investment is you have to invest first, then apply for the OEM certification. Like the line in the movie, “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.” Only in this case, you might build it and they may never come. I call this the “faith” factor because I’ve always believed that faith is the key to success. Sometimes you just have to take the first step and then everything else will all fall into place.

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Obtaining a Sponsorship
I decided to convert a wing of my shop and dedicate it to aluminum repair, so I met with the Mercedes people at the International Autobody Congress (NACE) two years ago and asked them what was required. The entire aluminum certification process took us about two years. It wasn’t easy, but we were able to accomplish it by remaining focused.

Before you can apply to become a certified aluminum repair center, you must first find a Mercedes dealer willing to sponsor you. The same goes for BMW. This is the most difficult part of the process, and many will find it impossible to obtain that sponsorship. I encourage you not to give up because you’ll be surprised what can be accomplished if you’re diligent. I recommend that you get this sponsorship commitment before you go any further because without it, you may find yourself dead in the water. I wouldn’t want anyone to invest the time and money involved in setting up an aluminum repair center first, thinking that a dealer sponsorship is automatic. It’s definitely not, and you must have it to move forward. Things may change in the future, but today a dealer sponsorship is required for most OEM certifications. Ask the dealers you do business with if they’d be willing to sponsor your shop for their training programs. If the dealer you’re doing business with isn’t able to help, start looking for one that will.

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The European manufacturers can be difficult to attain a sponsorship from, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you continue to ask, it may happen. Remember I said it took us two years from beginning to end. We made a choice and decided that this was the direction we wanted to go. We built our clean room and partially equipped it before we had any commitments from anyone. Then, when the sponsorship came, we were over 50 percent ready and really excited to get it completed.

The Wave of the Future
Aluminum repair is becoming as
much a part of the collision industry as the uni-body became in the early ’70s, and, to be certain, the aluminum structure will change the way we repair vehicles. If you’re not ready to invest in an aluminum repair center, it would still be a wise decision to learn about aluminum repair. With I-CAR and other training available, there’s no need to continue wondering what the future holds. Get the knowledge and then you’ll see clearly which direction to take in the future.

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I would still become aluminum certified over again even though we haven’t realized any profit yet. Why? Because we’ve marketed ourselves to the insurers in such a way that, when the time comes, they’ll know where to send their aluminum repairs. And that time will come.

Writer Lee Amaradio Jr. is the president and founder of Faith Quality Auto Body Inc. in Murrieta, Calif. His 32,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility employs 65 full-time employees and does $7 million in gross sales. In business since 1979, Lee attributes his success to having a great team of quality people supporting him. Lee says that he “sees the handwriting on the wall” and believes that “now is the time for us to reclaim our industry, before it’s too late.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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