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Head of the (Training) Class

As I-CAR’s new executive vice president and CEO, Tom McGee is responsible for developing all of the technical training programs and services. Big job? Absolutely. But it beats the heck out of bussing tables at Big Boy.

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Aside from a foray into the restaurant

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business (his first job – and worst job – was as a bus boy), Tom McGee says employment in the collision industry has been his goal in life. So it’s no surprise that the career path he took has led him to the position of executive vice president and CEO of the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR). But it’s also a path he didn’t foresee when he first started out.

"I never really considered what I ended up doing for a living when I started in this industry," says McGee, who got his first taste of collision repair in a high school program in the Detroit area. He liked it enough that he continued his education and obtained a degree in automotive body repair from Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich. From there, he worked for a company in the Detroit area that did prototype development for the Ford Motor Company. He also ran a small repair shop for awhile.

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It didn’t take long before McGee discovered an aptitude for teaching and became affiliated with I-CAR – first as a volunteer and then, in 1990, as an on-staff technical writer. Positions as technical supervisor, Tech Centre manager and technical director all followed, leading up to the promotion to his current position.

So what’s next for I-CAR – and McGee? McGee plans to position I-CAR for the future, to focus on things like career pathing and distance learning and, on a more personal note, to do a bang-up job so he never has to work at an Elias Brothers Big Boy again.

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BSB: You started out as a volunteer for I-CAR.

McGee: "I was teaching at a school in Detroit that was actually owned by Chrysler. When I hired in, [I-CAR was] looking for a place to run classes so we allowed [them] to use the facility that we had. Then I started helping … and became an instructor.

"I believe that my experiences in this industry with being an I-CAR volunteer and instructor will really help me ensure that we continue to meet the needs of those people who are doing this out [of the goodness of] their heart – they’re not getting paid for it in a lot of cases."

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BSB: Did you always want to be involved in the training side of the industry?

McGee: "Actually, until I got involved with the school in the Detroit area, I never really thought about it. É There are more opportunities [in collision repair] than most young adults who are starting as a tech believe that there are."

BSB: What appealed to you about the training side of the industry?

McGee: "Personal satisfaction of being able to contribute to the improvement of the industry, individuals themselves."

BSB: How did your role as technical director for I-CAR prepare you for your new position?

McGee: "A lot of exposure with working with the volunteers and instructors and continuing to understand what their needs and expectations were, as well as building relationships with the car companies and insurers and many shop owners across the country and in Canada. So a lot of the connections really helped, as well as just being involved with the board of directors and so forth. The level that I was at as a technical director really just provided an extra boost here."

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BSB: Your new position means relocating your family from Wisconsin to Chicago – how’s that going?

McGee: "We finished unloading the truck at 1 ‘o clock this morning."

BSB: So are you glad to finally be settling in?

McGee: "Oh yeah, living out of that hotel down here was getting old. I was doing three or four days a week in Chicago and then doing travel as well. The kids were wondering, ‘Why’d you take the job, Dad, if you’re never going to be home?’ What they didn’t realize is that I was just working in Chicago and that will be home. The stress level’s now gone. Now it’s just figuring out where everything’s at in these boxes."

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BSB: Hopefully nothing’s broken.

McGee: "Actually, right before you called, [we discovered that] the TV won’t turn on."

BSB: Any hobbies? Anything special you like to do with your family in your time off, especially now that your TV’s out of commission?

McGee: "I do a lot of woodworking. [As far as] family stuff, we really started getting into camping again now that the kids are old enough, so we’re looking forward to doing some more of that now. This year with the move, it’s not going to happen. If you could see this house you’d understand." [Laughter from McGee.]

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BSB: Describe yourself in three words.

McGee: "Dedicated, honest, hardworking (and humorous, in my own way)."

BSB: How important is training in today’s collision-repair shop?

McGee: "I think it’s critical. With the changes they’re making in technology and what they’re starting to add to these vehicles, it’s going to be more important, I believe, in the future. A lot of the design changes even in full-frame vehicles are making the repairs a lot more complicated than people thought. I don’t know if you saw that Mercedes that was at the [I-CAR] annual meeting there in Salt Lake City, but there’s a lot of technology in that car that the technician’s just not going to know what to do with without having the training to properly repair [it], whether it’s the roof or the braking system."

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BSB: What are some of the biggest challenges collision repairers are facing today?

McGee: "Technology and materials. Even the materials they’re using to build the cars are starting to change again with going into the hydroforming and now looking at thinner-gauge, higher-strength steels and then into aluminum."

BSB: Do you think collision shop owners today are placing enough importance on training?

McGee: "One of the things that I think we’ve got to look at is making shop owners aware of the return on investment. Obviously, training is an expense to a shop owner. But if you look at the risks of an improperly repaired vehicle and the productivity that can be gained by training – at least knowing where to get information to repair these cars – I think they’d actually find that there’s a major return on investment. We’ve just got to come up with an easy way to explain it to them.

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"I think that’s one of the challenges with any organization: Training is generally not sought regardless of what industry you’re in unless you’re sort of pushed to do it. And I think that we’re in a position now that we can actually start to do some analysis and demonstrate where their money’s being saved and where their return on that training dollar is."

BSB: As far as repair information goes, it seems like that isn’t as readily available as maybe you’d find in a general repair shop.

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McGee: "For many years, we’ve had an 800 number to the I-CAR Tech Centre, and we’ve always tried to support the industry in getting them the information that they’re looking for to repair the vehicle that they’ve got a question on.

"A lot of [repairers think the] information just isn’t available – and a lot of it is that they don’t know where to go look for it. And in some cases, even with the OEMs moving toward distributing this on the Internet, they’re still looking at it as, it’s not free. But it’s not free to develop from the car company side either. They still have to devote staff to it as well. And there still are some OEMs that don’t publish collision repair information. They all have how to replace the starter and how to rebuild the engine, but not all of them put down the collision repair information and publish it."

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BSB: What can I-CAR do to help the situation?

"We’re going to continue to expand our research and validation processes now that we have the repair facility up in Appleton. As far as assisting OEMs and others [to] distribute their repair information that they have available, we use the 800 number (800-TECH-990).

"We’ve had a list available on our Web site that will provide links to where to purchase that information. That’s been there for a long time. We’ve had discussions with some OEMs as far as providing links directly into their Web sites from ours as they begin to place their materials on public-accessible Web sites."

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BSB: What’s your vision for the future of I-CAR?

McGee: "One of the things that we need to continue to do is expand É the Education Foundation and support the career and technical schools and colleges so that we’ve got an adequate supply of entry-level people coming into this industry. As I said before, I never really considered what I ended up doing for a living when I started into this industry, and I think that a lot of career awareness and career pathing is something that we can focus on to help young adults who are entering the industry actually understand that there are many opportunities.

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"We have to continue to look at ‘what I want, where I want it and when I want it.’ Looking at some distance learning, alternate delivery systems and really just continuing to support the industry in any manner. We’re probably going to have to go back and look at a lot of our research work that was done. The reason I-CAR was formed was nobody knew how to repair the unibody, and I think we’re going to find the same thing with some of the new materials and new construction methods that are coming out. I think you can see us go back into a research role.

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"I think there are some support roles that we can play with the new Tech Centre that we never had before with doing projects for the OEMs on future technology, which we’ve started to do the last year or so since we moved into that facility. So I think the role’s going to change. It’s still going to stay with training, but I think what we’re able to do is far greater than it’s ever been."

BSB: Will there still be a need for

I-CAR instructors if distance learning takes off?

McGee: "There will always be a need to have live instruction, and it’ll continue to be our core business. When you look at the availability of alternate delivery systems, the instructors and committee members are still going to need to be involved. [With an Internet-based course], one instructor could teach hundreds to thousands of people at the same time as opposed to 20 in a local area. If it’s a self-study program, we’ll need instructors’ assistance in monitoring chat rooms, bulletin boards, e-mail and the communication with those students who are participating in the self-study-type programs. The role will change, but the need won’t."

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BSB: In our highly sophisticated questionnaire, you said "Caddyshack" was your favorite movie. So how many times have you seen it?

McGee: I just got it on DVD, and I haven’t even opened it. My wife picks on me all the time because any time I’m channel surfing and it’s on, I stop. I bet it’s probably been 20."

BSB: Syndication allows this controversy to continue. "Saturday Night Live" fans still hotly debate Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. You apparently have to be a fan of one or the other. You can’t be both. Where do you stand on this important topic?

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McGee: "I like Bill Murray better. I just think he’s funnier."

Writer Debbie Briggs is managing editor of BodyShop Business.

The McGee Questionnaire

We gave McGee the first part of a sentence, and he completed it for us.

  • If I could have lunch with one famous person, it would be: Gordy Howe. He used to play for the Detroit Red Wings.
  • The one CD I’d take on a desert island would be: I don’t know, I listen to so much different stuff … Bob Seager, Elton John, Billy Joel.
  • The worst job I ever had was: as a bus boy at an Elias Brothers Big Boy. Everything else has been auto related, so I can’t complain about those. What was so bad about it? It just gets disgusting cleaning up after other people. [Laughter from McGee.]
  • The weirdest food I’ve ever eaten is: ostrich. Not that I don’t like it, but it wasn’t something you’d expect to eat. Was it good? It was awesome.
  • The one movie I’ve watched the most times is: "Caddyshack." [Laughter from McGee.] My wife’s laughing. She just knows every time it’s on, the channel’s going to stop there. So I finally bought it on DVD.
  • If I weren’t in the collision repair industry: I probably would have tried for mechanical engineering.
  • When I’m on the road, I hate when people: drive too slow.
  • I respect people who are: detailed.

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