Name: New Century Collision Center
In the collision repair industry since 1955, Bud Harlow has learned every aspect of the trade – from working as a line tech and a shop manager to being a shop owner and, at one point in his career, selling frame-straightening equipment.
But even with all his experience, Harlow still wasn’t quite prepared for what was asked of him last year: to build a 32,000-square-foot automotive/collision repair facility.
It happened something like this: In 2000, nine insurance companies approached Harlow – who was managing a dealership body shop – to build and manage a premiere autobody facility in Winchester, Va., located between the Allegheny Mountains and Washington, D.C. It’s not every day that insurance providers seek out individuals to handle their claims, but the volume of work was piling up and their hands were tied. Reputable shops in the area just couldn’t keep up with their demand.
“We built this shop because we have the support of the insurance companies in the area,” says Harlow. “They know we’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done, and we’ve built a reputation over the last 25 years to earn their trust.”
Working closely with insurers was nothing new to Harlow, whose track record with insurance companies has been spotless – right down to the last penny.
“If we need a supplement on an estimate, I simply have to call [the insurance company]. It’s never been a problem,” he says. “I’ve been honest with every one of them. If they’ve paid us too much, they get it back. As a DRP shop, you act as the insurance company’s appraiser. As long as you don’t abuse that privilege, it’s good for everyone.
“Why would I jeopardize hundreds of thousands of dollars over a year for a few hundred bucks on one job? It’s just not worth it.”
What is worth it to Harlow is building a state-of-the-art facility equipped to handle anything customers – and insurers – throw his way.
All in the Family
Operating a shop this size, Harlow isn’t standing alone. With a full staff of technicians, two painters and a front office run by his wife, Shirley, and daughter Lisa, New Century Collision is like an extended family. And then there’s Harlow’s son, Curtis, who’s the head body technician. “He could go anywhere he wants in the industry,” says Harlow. “Shops constantly seek him out to be their lead tech.”
But no other option has ever been as appealing to Curtis than working with his father. “I knew from when I was 8 years old that being a bodyman was what I wanted to do,” says Curtis. “I admired my father for what he did, no matter how hard he tried to keep me out of the business.”
And try Harlow did, once giving Curtis a scraper and a shovel to prep a rusted and “colorful smelling” horse trailer for painting early in his career. Undaunted, Curtis has since built a solid reputation for quality and timely work.
The philosophy at New Century Collision is that employees are the business’ biggest assets – whether they’re family members or not. “When employees aren’t happy, the customer isn’t happy,” says Harlow. “We treat our people [with respect and consideration]. For example, if a technician dings a door accidentally, we don’t harp on him. We know he didn’t intend to do it and he already feels bad about it, so why run him through the ringer for it?”
On-going training is another benefit for Harlow’s technicians. In two years, all New Century Collision techs will be I-CAR certified, and the shop plans to be I-CAR Gold Class certified in three years. Mechanics will also be offered ASE certification.
In an industry with a shrinking workforce, Harlow values the technicians he has. But he knows good technicians may be hard to come by in the future, so he’s been meeting with local schools to discuss a training program with his collision center. He hopes to bring students to his shop for a work study program.
“This is a fading trade,” he says. “The older folks are getting out of it, the current workforce is losing interest and the new techs just aren’t coming into our trade. If we don’t start training new technicians who really want to learn, we’ll be hurting for quality techs down the road.”
Fully Equipped & Ready for Business
When shopping for equipment for New Century Collision, Harlow selected what he felt were the best products available. At the International Autobody Congress & Exposition (NACE) last December, Harlow and his key staff members headed to Orlando to see and purchase most of the equipment for the shop. “We walked the floor and shopped around, and then we chose the best equipment for the money,” says Harlow.
In April, the final testing of the paint booth, prep station, frame rack, measuring system, welder, alignment system, wheel balancer, tire changer, shop management systems and 11 lifts was completed – and the shop was now ready for business.
Though Harlow’s experience with insurance companies has always been good, he’s well aware that insurers allow less time for repairs than they have in previous years, forcing body shops to find faster ways to complete their work. The trick is not sacrificing quality for efficiency – a trade-off that isn’t an option for New Century Collision.
“I learned years ago that there’s only enough money to do the repair one time. The second time around, the shop loses money,” says Harlow. “That’s why we do the job right the first time.”
Holding fast to this standard, Harlow says that if there’s a better piece of equipment that makes his technicians’ jobs easier or makes a repair better or faster than before, they’ll get it.
For example, Harlow and his staff installed an enormous, 65-foot-long downdraft paint booth. In fact, New Century Collision has the largest auto and truck booth on the East Coast. A four-million-BTU burner heats the space to 180 degrees within a few minutes, and a door can separate the booth into two rooms with lengths of 39 feet and 26 feet. A double prep station attached to the system is also heated and downdraft.
With truck fleets passing through their backyard on the corridor of highways to the East Coast, the trucking and bus companies are excited about Harlow’s new facility. “There are only a few options in the area for truckers to service and repair their tractors and fleets,” Harlow says. “The only other heavy body work for medium- and heavy-duty trucks is 65 miles away.”
With an expert painter, several qualified truck mechanics, a seasoned manager and a shop full of new equipment, New Century Collision is equipped to handle any work that comes its way. While the automotive side is driven by direct repair programs, the truck and bus business relies on fleet lines and independent truckers in the area.
“It was more of a gamble, but I fully expect the truck side to take off,” Harlow says. “The market is there, and we have the best people in Winchester for the job.”
The Next Step
With top-notch equipment, an impressive facility, a multi-talented staff and the support of area insurance providers, all the pieces of the puzzle are in place for Harlow’s new shop to succeed.
After the shop is up and running at full capacity, Harlow plans to hire additional technicians and purchase even more equipment – a step, he says, the shop will be ready for soon. But Harlow’s longer-range plans include taking an even bigger step. Gradually, he plans to hand over the management responsibilities to his son, Curtis, and daughter, Lisa, and to retire from a life-long career in collision repair.
Though retirement is ahead, Harlow isn’t preoccupied with planning for his free time. A part of the industry for a quarter of a century, he still has collision repair foremost in his mind.
“I hope the last 25 years of honest, hard work will pay off,” he says, “and that New Century Collision will prosper and build on the respect and trust I’ve established.”
Of all the factors that come into play with building a new service and collision center, technology plays an integral role in streamlining workflow and helping New Century Collision achieve a turnaround time of three to four days. Two shop management systems have been installed to develop, track and report all repairs. The new computer systems also integrate all aspects of the repair, including imaging and on-line delivery of information to insurance companies and customers.
Equipped for Success
Writer Bob Meinert is the advertising director with Chassis Liner.