Refinish: Don't Leave Money on the Table

Refinish: Don’t Leave Money on the Table

A look at my past production numbers as a painter revealed why I didn’t leave as much money on the table as some shops: supplements.

This industry has treated me well for more than 30 years. It has been a couple of years now that I’ve been on the other side of the fence, working as a trainer and consultant for a jobber.

My past experience as a flat-rate commissioned painter has given me a unique perspective that’s based on real-life, real-world scenarios of paint shop production, not theoretical conjecture.

Additionally, being more than a tad bit nerdy with an affinity for data, I have reams of personal production records from my days in the trenches which are invaluable for statistical analysis of trends, efficiencies and habits. I acknowledge it’s a small sampling, but it’s empirical evidence.

A Better Way?

When auditing live estimates in the shop, I typically see room for improvement where there is plenty of money left on the table – refinish labor operations I would be donating if I were the painter in these shops.

In my youth, I had little patience for some old guy blathering on about the old days – good, bad or indifferent – and how he slayed the dragon. So rather than blather now, allow me to share a month’s worth of my production numbers I crunched and examined. Remember, these were live, actual production numbers from a flat-rate painter.

What was revealed wasn’t too surprising: I supplemented, or rather asked for supplements, on some of these jobs. The surprise came when I extrapolated the numbers over a month, then a year. This led me to contemplate the incredible inefficiency of the method and supplements, and also allowed me to grasp a better way to achieve the same results. Before we consider the “better way,” allow me to make the case by way of mathematical illustration.

Crunching the Numbers

To give the proper context, let me set up the scenario. I had no helper; all priming, painting and polishing was done by me. Additionally, moving vehicles and parts was largely, but not entirely, also done by me. Finally, there was another painter sharing the booth. Obviously, this was not the most efficient operation.

Let’s consider a month from my work history, March 2013. There were 21 working days, and I worked 19 of them. A total of 42 vehicles were painted, 2.2 per day:

  • 372.4 refinish hours
  • 8.9 refinish hours per RO
  • 19.6 refinish hours per day
  • 245 percent efficient

That’s not a bad average month. However, the purpose of these numbers isn’t to pat myself on the back but rather to establish a baseline in order to measure what we left behind.

Thirty-eight percent of those jobs got supplemented. The new numbers reflective of the supplements look like this:

  • 455.6 refinish hours (372.4)
  • 10.8 refinish hours per RO (8.9)
  • 23.9 refinish hours per day (16.9)
  • 299 percent efficient (245 percent)

That’s a 22-percent increase in hours – not a theoretical increase, but an actual increase. There was no additional time in the booth, no additional material and no additional energy input from me. I just got paid for the labor operations I was performing. I was doing them anyway, they had to get done. And no, I don’t believe I ever got paid consistently for every single title of the operation, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing it. It still netted me a 22 percent increase.

So how do you get your painter to participate? Well, let’s look at the numbers again. To the flat-rate painter making $18 a flag hour, an additional 83.2 hours is:

  • $1,497.60 a month
  • $17,971.20 a year

I think we can round that up to 18 grand to the painter…seems like motivation to me. To the shop with a $50 labor rate, an additional 83.2 hours is:

  • $3,993.60 a month
  • $47,923.00 a year

Keep in mind, these are refinish hours, so paint and materials is also impacted. Presuming a $27 material rate:

  • $2,246.40 a month
  • $26,956.80 a year

Please pardon the redundancy, but this reflects refinish hours only, and only one painter’s. Unless you’re a very small shop, you likely have more than one painter and room for more improvement.


Back to the supplement. No one likes them. The painter sees that he needs more time and calls for the estimator. The estimator winds his way to the shop eventually, which results in lost production time, as the painter must wait for the estimator to come and document it. The estimator might be on the phone, writing an estimate or delivering a vehicle, but you, the painter, are waiting.

The easiest time I had with supplements was when I was generating them and the estimator was uploading them. I wrote out my list of missed goodies on a supplement sheet and then took supporting photos with the shop-issued camera, which I turned in each day to my estimator. He extracted the photos and used my sheet to generate the actual supplement. Pain in the ass? Yeah. But with a value of 18 grand to me, you can bet it was worth it. With some exception, the photos were in the booth showing a blend, precision mask, inner structure color, chip-guard, etc. – a critical time in the sequence of production, not when you want to be unproductively waiting for the estimator to take a photo.

A Better Way

What about that better way? You know it as repair planning or blueprinting, or 100 percent teardown. I assure you, if you’re not practicing some sort of repair plan, a lot more than 22 percent is left on the table because, in our illustration here, we haven’t even begun to dig into the body side yet.

Additionally, the inefficient method of “after-the-fact” supplements on the body shop side results in parts delays, which affects touch time and kills our cycle time. If we view the supplement as a tool to identify yet another improvement in the never-ending process of improvement, then it’s a worthwhile investment of our time. If we don’t learn from it as a way to further streamline our process, then we’ve thrown a portion of the supplement value away.

A repair like this will most always have room for refinish add-ons: inner wheel house, package tray, inside quarter panel, pinchwelds, inner structure color, undercoating underside of floor, etc.
A repair like this will most always have room for refinish add-ons: inner wheel house, package tray, inside quarter panel, pinchwelds, inner structure color, undercoating underside of floor, etc.

When I pitch this to a shop as a real-life illustration, I can bet I’m going to hear, “Two hundred ninety-nine percent efficient? How in the world are we going to achieve that?” Well, I didn’t get there on my own, I “only” got to 245 percent. How was that possible? Here are several of my “secrets”:

  • Work hard. There is no substitution for rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. Focus. This, you must bring.
  • Work smart. Observe, read, experiment and ask for new product demos. Rarely if ever are we experiencing something that no one else has, so what can we learn from them? Is there a better way?
  • Accuracy in the operation. Minimizing redos. Any type of redo should be used as a learning tool.
  • Point-of-use carts. Walk less, work more. We techs don’t generate value by merely showing up, and certainly not for walking around. We must be producing. Few tools are better for keeping us in the game and engaged than a P.O.U. cart. There are more pieces to the puzzle which management must contribute, such as:
  • A realistic and obtainable production goal. Clearly communicated expectations work two ways: the target to aim for, and the bump in performance we experience when we achieve the goal. Working on jobs that matter and can be delivered to the customer is tremendously important to us techs. Working and rushing on jobs which then sit around, for any reason, kills morale and motivation.
  • Good, clean work from the body shop. When management ensures a certain quality standard from the body tech to the paint shop, the production flows uninterrupted. If jobs are being returned to the body tech to be re-worked, for any reason, it’s a comeback. Be thankful it was caught before it was painted and use it as a lesson to further improve the standard. An enforcement mechanism of some sort is generally required to obtain and maintain the desired quality standard.
  • Efficiency of the estimate. Supplements need to pay future dividends by identifying areas which improve the process for next time. Many line-items are predictable, and some only after 100-percent teardown. Let’s anticipate the predictable ones up front.
  • Flat rate/commission has a built-in incentive for fast, accurate work. Any sort of “reward-for-work” incentive in the pay plan will likely bear fruit. The second thing I’m sure I’ll be asked is, “What type of labor operations did you supplement most?” We’ve covered some of this before, but it’s worth revisiting, and it’s pretty simple:
  • Blend panels. Too many estimates still reflect a “limited blend” policy. For example, a new fender will often get a blend on the door, but a butt-match to the hood. Just blend the hood, darn it.
  • Chip guard. Fenders, rockers, doors, cab-sides, bed sides and quarter panels are all candidates for chip guard.
  • Inner structure/under-hood colors.
  • Precision mask.
  • Raw plastic prep.

Team Effort

Obviously, it’s a team effort to move the ball and score. Both the painter and the shop management have a portion of the responsibility, and furthermore, they both have a tangible incentive to cooperate.

Again, we only discussed paint shop opportunities here. Go back and look at the potential of what was left on the table. Consider the amount of techs in production you have and the possible bump in gross profit when you bump up your labor percentages. It’s probable that the paint company you’re using has some business development resources available, and with ever-shrinking margins, it’s more important than ever to be efficient and thorough.

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