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From the VP: So You Want to Open Up a Body Shop?

Times have changed, cars have changed and the equipment needed not only to repair modern-day vehicles properly but make you efficient has also changed.

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Lou Berman is vice president of sales for Collision Care Auto Body Centers. He also consults (out of market) nationwide. He can be reached at [email protected]

I recall the days when technicians would use chains, put a car in reverse and straighten frames off a telephone pole – all while holding up traffic on a busy street, repeating the process over and over until it “looked” right.

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How about the lost art of metal finishing with liquid metal, slathering it onto a damaged panel that was grinded? Or perhaps if you were really savvy, you could re-chrome your own bumpers.  If you were painting, a room or area with some ventilation was all you needed.

Try any of these things today and you won’t be open very long. Times have changed, cars have changed and the equipment needed not only to repair modern-day vehicles properly but make you efficient has also changed. We’ve progressed to the point where your equipment also dictates your efficiency. If you’re a mass production shop and don’t have a plastic welder, you’re leaving much opportunity for increased profit and cycle time reductions on the table. However, if you would like to take advantage of this potential for profitability, it comes at a price.

Changing Times

Years ago, equipment consisted of tools and lifts, etc. Your shop was judged by its craftsmanship. Time was never a factor. Quality repairs were the benchmark by which you were judged. It’s sad to say, but I believe those benchmarks have passed us by. Customers expect a quality product. Years ago, a customer would often choose a shop based on repair quality and reputation. Now, consumers are choosing based on insurer recommendations, factory recommendations, convenience and location. Consumers are using resources like Yelp or the Better Business Bureau to help them decide if you can cut the mustard. Once that decision is made, you better have the equipment that can do the job…and fast!

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We’re in the age of instant gratification. Think about it…no one wants to wait in a supermarket line more than one deep. Most of us will start looking for another cashier to take care of us if there’s a person in front of us. It’s the same way with cars. Customers expect us to have the proper equipment to get the job done fast…because they always have that friend or relative who was in a wreck and “their car was done in three days!” How many times have you heard that one?

Big Investment

If you were to purchase all of the equipment you would need today, even for just a small shop, you could very well be close to $500,000 or more, depending on what kind of cars you want to fix. Many exotic cars, such as Jaguar, require specific brands of frame machines to perform repairs. And if it has structural damage, you better be certified, otherwise you may not be able to get parts from your local dealer. Take, for example, the new all-aluminum Ford F-150. The F-150 is the all-time best-selling vehicle ever. Unless things drastically change, it’s likely to remain that way. Who’s going to fix these vehicles? I can tell you that Collision Care is certified and equipped to repair the new F-150, and the cost of doing so is broken down as follows:

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  • Aluminum wet/mix extractor: $10, 000
  • Aluminum hand tool kit: $5,000
  • Aluminum repair dent extraction station: $4,000
  • Dedicated repair area (curtain, wall, etc.): $3,000
  • Training (I-CAR, FORD): $1,500-plus
  • 220V pulse MIG aluminum welder: $20,000-plus

Total: $40,000-plus

That’s right, f­olks. Want to be equipped to properly fix the best-selling vehicle of all time?  It’s going to cost you a minimum of 40 grand. That means that pretty much the only thing in your shop that you can currently use to help you with this repair is your frame machine and paint system. Oh, by the way, the frame on the F-150 is high-strength steel, so you’ll need training on those replacement/repair procedures to ensure proper and safe repair.

Some may argue, “Well, I won’t be fixing them. I’ll just fix everything else.” You could elect to do that, but you’re going to exclude yourself from the best-selling vehicle of all time? Think about all of the exclusions that already exist for vehicles such as Jaguar and Audi that are pretty much dealer-body shop repair guaranteed. You don’t even have a shot at those repair opportunities, unless you’re factory certified.

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Collision Care is also Nissan certified. Nissan’s certification process is quite extensive. Take a look at some of the equipment required:

  • 3D measuring system
  • Data subscription for measuring updates for all vehicles
  • Frame machine capable of dedicated holding or universal holding, or a fixturing system
  • 220-volt three-phase inverter type squeeze type resistance spot welder
  • 220-volt MIG/MAG welder
  • R134 recovery system
  • Computer estimating subscription
  • Computers
  • Servers
  • Monitors
  • Paint booth (with forced drying capabilities)
  • OEM-approved refinishing system
  • Lift with 7,000-lb. capacity
  • Pressure-fed corrosion protection material applicator with attachments
  • Self-piercing rivet guns

This doesn’t even cover all of the equipment needed. Every shop needs to budget for equipment purchases/leasing needs.

OEMs and Dealers

Manufacturers are circling the wagons to get their piece of the collision repair pie that has been lost for many years, which is why you’re seeing manufacturer-specific training and manufacturer equipment requirements. If you don’t have the training or equipment, you can’t fix the car, and that car will go to someone who can. And you thought steering was a problem? Get ready to hook up with your local dealer because it looks like that’s where things are headed.

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Dealers have been getting out of the collision repair business, and who can blame them? Consider this: if you had a 10,000-square-foot facility and your ELR (effective labor rate) was $50 per hour, wouldn’t you want to have that square footage to be able to produce, say, $80 per hour? A healthy service department’s equipment requirements are much less than a body shop’s, yet the labor rate is higher. You can turn more hours, faster and at a higher rate, than a same-sized body shop, without the capital investment in equipment. Some larger organizations such as AutoNation are exploring ways to make their dealer body shops stand-alone operations apart from the dealer in which they may be located. Our business is never easy and for many years has been – and still is – misunderstood.

Commitment

In today’s market, your equipment is one of the key determining factors to your success.  The work can come…but only if you have the equipment to fix it!

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