Rains, Planes and Dames - BodyShop Business
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Rains, Planes and Dames

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Name: J&L Auto Body

Location: Summerville, S.C.

Owners: John and Linda Disher

Established: 1981

Square Footage: 10,000

Number of Employees: Nine

Repair Volume: 12 cars per week (collision)

Average Repair Ticket: $2,000

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September 1989: The winds picked up. The heavy rains came. The
ocean went crazy.

Wreaking havoc on lives and properties, Hurricane Hugo stormed
into the Caribbean Sea and the Carolinas – making history and
etching itself forever into the memories of many.

John Disher, owner of J&L Auto Body in Summerville, S.C.,
remembers the storm – and its destruction – clearly. Not because
he profited from the storm – which brought a lot of business his
way, backing up his shop for six months – but because the dollars
he made were minimal compared to the headaches, hassles and hard
work.

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Why all the pain and no gain? In his own defense, Disher points
out that other shops made big profits because they were "wham-bamming"
cars out of their shops – not worrying if the vehicles were done
right or not – and that no insurance estimate ever included overtime
pay. Regardless, the reason Disher didn’t profit is evident to
him: "We weren’t as efficient as we could have been or should
have been."

As a matter of fact, for years, the shop had a month or two backlog.
Disher says he used to be smug about it, saying that he could
slam the door, lock the gates and keep busy for two months. "But
that’s not the way it should be," he says. "People shouldn’t
have to wait a month to get their cars fixed."

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When Disher looked back on October, November and December of ’88,
he found that the shop did almost as much business and made almost
as much money as it did the first three months after Hugo. Inefficiency.

What Disher remembers most clearly about Hugo, however, is that
it was the beginning of his business burnout.

Fly, Fly Away

"I would’ve walked out of here if someone guaranteed me that
they’d make sure my employees had a job," says Disher, referring
to his post-Hugo attitude. "I’d have probably taken a quarter
and sold them the whole place."

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After being in the business for 40 years, Disher had decided he’d
had enough – enough of the insurance companies, parts problems,
employee headaches, demanding public, etc.

The problems, though, weren’t the problem – Disher and his family
had known hard times before. In fact, they flung open the doors
of J&L at the height of the recession in January 1981, and
by April, they were on food stamps. But business picked up, and
they started doing warranty paint work for a local car dealer.

No, the true problem was Disher himself. "I just didn’t want
anything to do with it," says Disher. "And when you
get that way, it affects everything."

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Ready to take flight, Disher – and his business – were saved by
wings of another type: Disher got involved in what he, today,
calls his "sanity project." He decided to do something
he’s wanted to do since he was eight years old: build an airplane.

"If you looked at it realistically," Disher says, "on
the surface, it looked like one of the poorest business decisions
I’ve ever made because here I am, with my business declining,
and I go out and spend $28,000 on a toy."

But more than a toy, it helped Disher turn things around. Disher
remembers going to bed at night, flipping and flopping on the
pillow because he just couldn’t get his problems out of his head.
But, when he started to build the plane – a two-passenger, single-engine
kit – he would think of what he was going to do on the kit the
next day. "I’d be asleep in 30 seconds," he says.

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It was during this focus shift that Disher began to feel differently
about everything and got reinvolved in his business, deciding
to make it fly.

Says Disher: "I probably could have spent that much on a
therapist, and it wouldn’t have done as [much] good as [building
the plane] did."

Incidentally, it took Disher about a year to build the plane –
and he had so much fun building the first one, he’s building another.
(He’ll own three when he completes the next one.) And yes, he
does fly them.

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Getting Grounded

Since Disher’s change of heart, business has grown about 30 percent
(during the last four to five years), and he recently added on
about 3,600 square feet to the shop.

He says J&L is now at an awkward size. Somewhere between $750,000
and about $1.2 million per year, he explains, a business gets
to a place where office requirements rise to the point of almost
being overburdening – yet the shop doesn’t have enough business
to justify a lot of what’s needed. His administrative requirements
have grown about 300 percent in the last four to five years –
but he has faith that his business will continue to grow.

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Changes Disher has made -besides changing his mind – include becoming
an I-CAR Gold Class shop, increasing technician education (most
of his employees are ASE certified) and starting an active advertising
program.

He’s never advertised the shop in the Yellow Pages, but he has
sponsored a couple Little League teams and, presently, does some
radio advertising. As a matter of fact, a radio station jumped
on something last year: It played up the fact that J&L has
an all-female paint shop. And to the best of Disher’s knowledge,
his shop is the only one in the United States that can make this
claim.

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Behind Every Good Man …

"I have to admit," Disher says about having all female
painters, "I got into this accidentally because they are
my daughters, but women are really better suited to do paint work
than most men."

Why? Disher says women have better manual dexterity, pay better
attention to detail, are more particular and usually aren’t color
blind – "but most men are." When at NACE or national
meetings, Disher says he hears shop owners saying they don’t want
women employees in their body shops. In response, Disher tells
them they’re passing up a real opportunity.

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Unfortunately, this mentality extended to J&L: Disher couldn’t
find male helpers. "They were too intimidated," he says,
adding that to solve the problem, he simply hired female helpers.

Disher’s daughter, Myra, started working at J&L when it first
opened. Debbie, another of five daughters, joined her sister in
the paint shop about eight years ago – starting out as a helper
and evolving into a painter. At first, the job was a struggle
for Debbie. "She wasn’t as interested in it as her sister,"
says Disher, "but she’s worked very hard at it and has been
extremely successful."

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In addition to his two daughter painters, a shop-foreman son-in-law
and office-worker wife, Linda, are involved in the business. In
total, the shop employs nine, which includes four body men, another
office employee and Disher, who’s the general manager, sole estimator
and office helper.

When it comes to hiring, Disher prefers not to hire anyone who’s
ever worked in another body shop. As a matter of fact, up until
three months ago, none of his employees ever worked for someone
else. Although this preference makes it extra tough for Disher
because he has to train every employee, it’s less work than breaking
bad habits. He says what he sees happening in other shops – flat
rating repairs, improper repairs – he doesn’t want to see in his.

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Driving Miss Daisy

As if having an all-female paint shop isn’t enough, Disher seems
to have a way with older women – just ask his wife, Linda, who
jokes with him about his "cult" following. "Oh,
my little old ladies," as Disher kindly refers to them.

In the late ’80s, it seems, Disher and his wife noticed that there
were a lot of "little old ladies" coming around. This
Disher "fan club" came into existence not because Disher
tried to lure in seniors with special advertising and not because
of his all-female paint shop. No, that’s not it at all. According
to Linda, the reason is because Disher takes the time to explain
things and doesn’t talk down to people.

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The real start of his little-old-lady fan club, says Disher, was
when he fixed the car of the Summerville elementary school principal
– about 14 years ago, when there was only one elementary school.
The lady was well-known and liked throughout the community. When
she retired, every now and then, she and some friends would be
out playing bridge or whatnot, and they’d stop by to say "hi"
to Disher. She’d introduce her friends and tell them, "This
is where you need to bring your car if you ever have a problem
with it."

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"It was kind of embarrassing at first," says Disher,
"but it was neat. There’d be four or five of them – all dressed
up with their hats on and the whole nine yards.

"It shows you that you’re doing something right, and it shows
you what you’re doing right – so you make sure you pay attention
to it."

Writer Eileen Benedict is associate editor of BodyShop Business.

Becoming Business Minded

Many years ago while he still had a shop in Ohio, Disher received
some helpful advice from a friend, who was tired of hearing Disher
moan and groan about his financial position. At that time, Disher
was faced with acquiring money to build a shop because the facility
he rented dirt cheap was needed by the landlord. Disher didn’t
have any money, though, because it was all tied up in race cars.

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To this predicament, Disher’s friend said: "John, your problem
is that you’re just not a good businessman. A businessman goes
into business, he lives in the back of the shop, he wears old
clothes and he drives an old car. He walks. And every time he
makes a dollar, he sticks .90 cents back into the business. When
he’s got all the money for inventory and for facilities and everything,
then he goes out and buys the Mercedes. He’ll get done in five
years what would take you 20 years to do."

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John took this to heart when he started over in South Carolina.
For the first eight or 10 years, he stuck about .60 cents for
every dollar of profit back into the business. "And it is
amazing," says Disher. "In five years, I accomplished
what I did with the other business in 15."

From a Business Standpoint

The collision repair industry, despite what some may still think,
isn’t just a bunch of guys in coveralls working on cars and getting
their hands dirty – it’s big business. To focus on this business
side of things, we asked John Disher some business-specific questions:

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BSB: Do you consider yourself a shop owner or a businessman?

JD: "If I wasn’t a businessman, I don’t think I would’ve
gotten this far. Back in the early to mid-’80s, when I got involved
in the ARMS program, was when I [realized the] necessities of
being a number cruncher and a business person. … I was way ahead
of my time, and so you stick out as a rabble-rouser. You’re talking
about things that you need to get paid for that nobody else is
[talking about]. … When you’re the only one singing these tunes,
people look down at you.

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"Ten, 12 years ago, you start talking about job costing and
no one knew what you were talking about. There are still a lot
of [shop owners] out there who aren’t job costing, but they’re
going to have to.

"I was forced to become a business person. It was either
that or be on the street."

BSB: What do you do with profits? Do you reinvest in the
business or invest in stocks, etc.?

JD: "Most of the profit we’ve made has gone back into
the business to expand and grow. I’ve bought a few stocks. I probably
own $3,000 to $4,000 worth of stock, but most of that is industry-related
stocks – and I bought those for information sources. It’s amazing
what you can find out about a company when you own stock in it."

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BSB: Do you receive financial advice?

JD: "It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. At the point
we’re at, we’d probably do well to look at some advice on that."

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