Kevin Caldwell discusses his hopes for the industry, his concerns about third-party influence and his inability to remember punch lines.
Hard work is nothing new to Kevin Caldwell, vice president and COO of Autobody by Caldwell in Laguna Hills, Calif. Whether he was scrubbing pots and pans at a small restaurant, delivering the local paper door-to-door or working as a “petroleum transfer engineer” (gas station attendant), no job’s been too small.
Proving that’s still true, on busy days at the shop, you can find Caldwell sweeping the shop floors or washing cars outside the shop. Whatever it takes to get things done.
Besides Caldwell’s strong work ethic, another personality trait began to emerge during our conversation – honor. He talks about doing the right thing and knowing right from wrong. And it’s that sense of honor that’s translated into his work and motivates him to work for the betterment of the industry through organizations like the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
BSB: How’d you get started in collision repair?
Caldwell: “I started helping prep cars in our garage at home in high school before we opened the family business.”
BSB: Who opened the family business?
Caldwell: “It started in 1979 after my dad [Jack] got tired of the rat race of corporate life. We hung a shingle, rented a building, and my dad and brother [Kerry] were the first full-time employees. I was working part time till we got some work in here and they could afford me because I had a family.
“We were at that location for 20 years as a tenant. Then, about five years ago, we purchased a building and renovated it.”
BSB: What was that like?
Caldwell: “We went first cabin on everything. Spent way too much money. … I questioned the investment because it was a significant one. It ain’t cheap to build a store.
“When the first load of copper pipe for the roof came, and it was 15 grand, I went, ‘What are we doing?’ ”
BSB: And are your dad and brother still involved?
Caldwell: “Dad’s semi-retired now. Kerry does production in the back, and I look at the office issues. My sister, Kelly, does the books.”
BSB: So how long have you been in the industry?
Caldwell: “I started in 1979 on the body shop side. I was in the mechanical field during my high school years.”
BSB: What other jobs have you had?
Caldwell: “I’ve held numerous odd jobs including lawn care business, paper routes, dishwasher and cook in a small restaurant, petroleum transfer engineer [worked in a gas station], mechanic, fabricator in the heavy-steel industry, built parts for power plants, lot boy, parts man, bodyman, painter’s assistant, estimator, manager and janitor.”
BSB: What industry positions do you hold right now? What got you involved in the various organizations?
Caldwell: “Chairman ASA board of directors, ASE board vice chair collision, I serve on Mitchell & Motor advisory boards, Orange County chapter of the California Autobody Association (CAA) Board and on the NACE attendee advisory board.
“I saw an opportunity to grow with the industry and saw it as a chance to work to improve the collision industry.”
BSB: What goals have you set as chairman?
Caldwell: “To make everybody aware of what the association does. We really do care and we are trying to improve the image. And we’ve made significant strides.”
BSB: What else?
Caldwell: “To go in a positive direction to bring unity to the industry. The splinter groups that have formed over the years aren’t good for anybody. When you’re entering the legislative arena, everybody needs to be on the same page – not a half dozen groups from the auto industry – because the legislatures look at you like, ‘Why can’t you guys get it together?’ Manufacturers, vendors, repairers, whatever, they all have to be on the same page. It’s the automotive industry. We can agree to disagree but when it comes down to it, we have to have a common goal.”
BSB: What’s it going to take?
Caldwell: “It’s going to take everybody to realize they don’t need to have a turf war. It is the ‘automotive industry.’ I wear a lot of different hats and belong to a lot of different groups. Someday my goal is that they’ll all get along.”
BSB: What volunteer work do you do?
Caldwell: “I attend numerous meetings that relate to the collision industry, and I participate in focus groups and committees comprised of many business owners from the collision and mechanical industries. I also volunteer with our local youth football program.
“On the practice field, I meet many parents who are customers, vendors and work in the automotive industry. It’s amazing how many people make their living because of the auto industry.”
BSB: What do you see as the most pressing issue in collision repair?
Caldwell: “Domination by a third-party influence in how business as we know it today is conducted. Second is information availability from the vehicle manufacturers.”
BSB: What’s being done to address them?
Caldwell: “There are lots of people working to identify issues and attempting to resolve them. It’s a huge undertaking. Both sides need to build a true trusting relationship built on integrity. Keep the checks and balances there, but understand that this is a very technical industry and the majority of us out there want to fix vehicles correctly. We’re emerging from a ‘cottage industry’ that started as a hobby for many of us. We buy the tools and train our people to make sure they have everything they need to do their job correctly.
“Legislation is being attempted every day on a national and state basis to level the playing field. I can look at things initiated in California by the CAA and things done in Washington D.C. by ASA as benchmarks for others to follow.
“See the press releases about the information availability bill. Look at the historic agreement [regarding service information availability] reached between the automakers and the repair industry. It levels the playing field, but allows us to continue to stay in business. Without a sharing of information, how can we return the vehicle to the road?”
BSB: What still needs to be done to address these issues?
Caldwell: “Actively participate and support the issues. Get involved. Join an organization that does positive things for the cause, not just beats people up. Grass-roots campaigns have proven effective in getting the attention of the lawmakers.”
BSB: What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Caldwell: “Do what you charge for and charge for what you do.”
BSB: As a kid, did you want to be in collision repair or did you have another career choice?
Caldwell: “I’ve always had a passion for the automobile and tried to find ways to make a living to support it. In my late teens, I wanted to become a fireman, but the opportunity to get involved in a family business came along and I abandoned it. It had to be one or the other.”
BSB: What changes have you seen at Autobody by Caldwell?
Caldwell: “We’ve grown many times over since we started. I’ve watched the amount of money spent on technology to stay on top and wondered if the investment would ever come back. The expenditures have been enormous, and we’ve become more efficient. Unfortunately, the age-old excuse of prevailing practices hasn’t kept up with our investment. It’s always a struggle, but after a while, the costs have been recognized, and it’s been easier to negotiate what we need to repair a car. “Moving down the street into our own building made me look at things differently. The mortgage is due every month and you can’t walk away from responsibility.”
BSB: What’s your favorite book and author?
Caldwell: “The many works by John Grisham, David Balducci and the early Tom Clancy.”
BSB: Are you married?
Caldwell: “Yes. I’ve been married to my wife, Carol, for 51/2 years.
BSB: Do you have children?
Caldwell: “Yes. Christina is 28, Brian is 23, Branden is 16 and Kyle is 13. I also have two grandchildren, Mikalya is 6 and Gabriela is 2.”
BSB: And will you find any of them hanging around the shop?
Caldwell: “My younger son occasionally washes cars when he’s not in school. My older son and daughter have worked here in the past. My son decided he likes turning a wrench better, so he opened up his own business lifting and raising vehicles – trucks and things.
“My daughter got tired of it and went to beauty school. But she’s burned out on that, too.
“The 16-year-old doesn’t have a clue. He thinks skateboards and waves are where the future is. He works at a surf shop.
“The little guy – that’s the one. He’s the one who washes cars here. And he earned enough money here to buy probably the most expensive clod motorcycle you can buy. Just by hustling.”
BSB: Would you recommend this business to your kids?
Caldwell: “Sure. There’s always work in this industry. Even if it gets slow, there’s still jobs to be had. It’s not recession-proof, but it’s the next best thing.”
BSB: Where do you see the industry heading?
Caldwell: “Up. Education is helping my fellow shop owners understand that in order to grow in the future, you have to invest in technology and training to be there. It also shows them that you have to remain profitable to stay alive.”
BSB: We’ve heard you’ve been known to sweep the floors of the shop.
Caldwell: “That’s true. And I still wash cars when it gets backed up outside. It lets the people who I work with know that I care about the quality and appreciate their dedication.”
BSB: Now for a more serious question … What’s your favorite joke?
Caldwell: “One that was told a couple of minutes ago – before I forget the punch line.”
Writer Cheryl McMullen is managing editor of BodyShop Business.