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From Tow Truck Drives to Computer Drives

He says he saw a UFO, he wears flip-flops and he used to drive a tow truck, but what does shop network-owner Erick Bickett have to say about computers, consolidation and Christmas?

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If it has to do with computers and collision repair, then Erick Bickett can probably tell you all about it. The longtime shop owner is a co-founder of a network of shops called FIX AUTO, and he also founded the Collision Industry Electronic Commerce Association (CIECA), an effort to get computer systems on the same page. But Bickett’s no computer geek. At least we don’t think so. Judge for yourself.

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BSB: How did you get your start in the collision repair industry? Was owning body shops what you always wanted to do, or did you have other plans growing up?
Bickett: I started out in this industry like a lot of people. I had a love for cars, not just because I liked working on them, but also because I loved to drive. My first industry-related job was driving a tow truck for a body shop that owned a towing company. I went from tow truck operator to towing manager to parts/production to estimator to shop manager to shop owner, all over a four-year period.

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I never planned to be in this industry. Originally, I wanted to be an airline pilot like my father, who flew a Boeing 747 for TWA. But I got discouraged when I realized I was looking at four years of college, four years of military service and I’d still only have a 50 percent chance of getting hired. There were too many people who wanted to be pilots in 1975, so I went with the opportunities that were in front of me. It didn’t work out so bad.

 

BSB: What inspired you to create CIECA?
Bickett: I was fed up that I had to buy three estimating systems. That’s three computers for one solution. I was technically competent enough to know the problem wasn’t created because of technical issues. Somebody had to take the initiative to bring these companies together to create standard data formats so that dissimilar systems could share data. A friend of mine, Scott Biggs, said if I was mad about the situation I ought to do something about it. He helped draft the resolution that was accepted by the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) and gave birth to CIECA.

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BSB: What’s CIECA done to make e-commerce more accessible and acceptable?
Bickett: Companies that develop and market e-commerce solutions are now adopting only CIECA- and standards-based solutions because they realize not doing so would be like a fax machine company creating a machine that only communicates with fax machines made by one company. These solutions are the result of the culture that’s been created by the efforts of CIECA, and this lowers the barriers of accessibility and acceptability. We’ve also been preaching for years the importance of becoming technically competent and of seeing implementation of information technology as a primary business strategy. We’ve tried to remove the mystery surrounding information technology and make collision repairers very comfortable with it, rather than afraid it’ll be used against them as it was in the beginning.

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BSB: Where do you see e-commerce heading as it relates to collision repair? Is this all smoke and mirrors, or is e-commerce the real deal?
Bickett: The same way that we don’t write estimates by hand any more, we won’t process paper for transactions with our trading partners in the future. We already see this happening in a big way with estimating and imaging. Collision repair billing, payments for collision repair services, customer status messaging, claims file management, business rules management, materials and supply procurement, invoicing for all procurement, monthly billing statements for invoice back-up and parts procurement will all be implemented (probably in the order listed) because it’s just more efficient. These solutions will only be accepted when they add value and are more efficient. We’ll have pilot programs. We’ll have some vendors that attempt to pull through their solutions by trying to force the collision repairer to accept the solution in order to do business with insurers. But in the end, the solution that adds value to its users will win. So, yes, it’s the real deal.

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BSB: Have you always been a big computer user?
Bickett: Anybody remember the PC Junior, Mitchell matics or the ADP teleterminal with acoustical 300 baud modem? If you do, then you’re over 40. I started with a PC Junior – the first personal computer sold to the public by IBM in 1983 – and bought and added on every device they built for that computer. It looked a little like a Lego creation when I was done. I created my own estimating and repair order writing with Lotus 123 and Lotus Symphony.

I’ve always tried to automate business processes, since I know it creates predictable results once it becomes automated. After I maxed out my PC Junior, I met Ted Hill and purchased the “AutoTec Body Shop Management System” and worked closely with them in the ’80s by bribing programmers and working on the inside to satisfy my need to create better solutions to help my company become more efficient.

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I don’t wear a pocket protector, but if you look closely, you might see a propeller spinning on the top of my head.

 

BSB: How would you describe yourself? How would others describe you?
Bickett: Easygoing, hardworking, somewhat of a visionary (my wife says I spend too much time in the future), passionate about challenges and opportunities and I’m pretty competitive. The second question is hard. Hopefully, I’m seen as credible and trustworthy. I really don’t know, since I’ve never asked. Maybe I’ll do a blind survey. You’ve got me curious.

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BSB: You’re the CEO of FIX USA. What are your duties and role in this capacity? How did you become involved in consolidation?
Bickett: It’s a long story but you asked … In the mid-’80s, through my association with Ted Hill’s Auto Tec, I became associated with quite a few great collision repair operators. We formed a 20 group (performance group, probably one of the first) in 1988. Seventeen collision repairers from around the country – all Auto Tec users – met six times a year to share ideas and help each other improve business. At this time, I also got involved with CIC. Around 1989, Jack Fallucca, Stepan Altounian, Randy Stabler, Dave March, Al Estorga and I formed a company called Caliber Collision Centers. All of my Caliber partners were in the original 20 group together. We ran Caliber ourselves with the help of many great people for a couple of years.

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We brought in Matt Ohrnstien and David Roberts to help us enlarge the company. They attempted to grow our company for a couple of years by selling franchises. Then they decided to raise capital and buy shops rather than franchise them. I provided support to Caliber in my efforts to raise original capital, with the intent of joining the team and executing acquisition consolidation. In the end, I just couldn’t see myself in a corporate environment.

It was an incredible learning experience. I spent six months contemplating the change in my life, and I realized why I get up each day and why I love what I do. I had thought it was for the money and because I was yearning to arrive at a place in my career where my family and my future were secure. The offer to join Caliber was a definite way to arrive at that place. I’d have received enough money for my business and stock in the new company to be financially independent.

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But I realized what drove me was the challenge of creating my own successes. So I decided to remain an entrepreneur. Having spent enough time in the Caliber camp to realize what was ahead of us in the collision repair business, I decided I needed to become proactive and change the product and service I delivered to survive and continue to grow.

In searching for the right strategy, I knew I had to find a way to grow the business, but I didn’t want to do it with corporation-owned stores. I had just grown from one to six locations, and I knew the difficulties in finding good people to grow with. In 1997, I founded FIX AUTO in Quebec, Canada, of all places. It was a group of 70 (now 82) collision repairers – all working in unity under one brand, all independently owned. In this way, they could market, purchase, learn and grow together. So I started FIX USA with the principals of FIX Quebec in 1997.

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BSB: What are your plans for FIX USA? To take over the world, or just North America?
Bickett: Our plans are to do a great job in any market where we operate. We want 20 percent market share in the markets we’re in, and we want business-to-consumer and business-to-business brand recognition. We want our shop members to love us and to love what we do for them, as we grow at a rate that enables us to meet these goals. Having said that, we do have a way to start other chapters of FIX AUTO members, but we’ll only do this with the right entrepreneur leaders in the different markets.

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BSB: If I had asked you the previous question five years ago, how accurate would your answer have been?
Bickett: Five years ago, I thought I’d be retired. Then I discovered the real meaning of going to work.

 

BSB: What are you hoping to get for Christmas?
Bickett: I’m hoping to get presents for my family that they’ll truly appreciate. For me, I can buy myself what I want, when I want, but I always stress out when it comes to getting the right stuff for the loved ones.

 

BSB: Were you the type of kid who’d sneak around the house looking for hidden presents, or did you wait till Christmas morning?
Bickett: Neither. I just simply paid attention to the receipts on the kitchen table.

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BSB: What’s your favorite holiday memory?
Bickett: Warm fires, pretty lights, church at midnight, sleeping by the Christmas tree and being with my family.

 

BSB: Tell us your favorite joke.
Bickett: I can never remember jokes. Ask Randy Stabler. He’s got some great ones.

 

The Bickett Questionnaire
We gave Erick the first part of a sentence, and he completed each one for us.

 

The world would be so much better if drivers didn’t: honk.

 

My all-time favorite Christmas holiday movie is: I’m not sure of the name. “A Christmas Carol”?

 

I think UFO’s are: real. I’ve seen one.

 

I wake up at: 4 a.m., the start of my day.

 

I hope my kids never: feel like failures.

 

My pick to win the Super Bowl is: the St. Louis Rams – and I hate them for leaving Southern California. Georgia Frontiere [the Rams owner], you weren’t nice to rub it in last year after winning the Super Bowl!

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When (if) I sing karaoke, the song I sing is: horribly done by me.

 

My school teachers probably thought I would grow up to be: a very average nice guy.

 

One law I’d like to see changed is: make lawyers who take anything on contingency pay all court costs if they lose and get a maximum of 10 percent of any out-of-court settlement.

 

My favorite book is: The Game of Work. I also love John Grisham novels.

 

If they made a movie about my life, the actor who plays me should be: Tom Hanks, because everybody says I look like him.

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My favorite articles of clothing I own are: my “jap flaps.”

 

The best piece of advice I ever received was: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” “There is a seat for every saddle” and “To each his own,” all of which mean that all people are entitled to different perspectives.

 

My family is: my reason for living.

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