Repair Volume/No. of Cars Per Month: 70 cars per month
Average Repair Cost: $3,000-$4,000
We’ve seen some crazy things. I’ve actually seen cus-
tomers get down on all fours and look at a panel with their nose a half-an-inch away,” says Anthony Simeone, owner of D&A Auto Body in Levittown, Pa., which specializes in repairing high-end vehicles. “I saw a guy wearing a suit get down on his back in the parking lot and look underneath his BMW. They’re very demanding. They’re professional people and they expect a lot.”
Which is OK by Simeone – who’s never been one to strive for
“I always wanted to set myself apart from other shops,” he says. “There are three things I always wanted to do: I always wanted to have the nicest shop, I always wanted to repair the nicest vehicles and I always wanted to do the nicest repairs on them.”
Serious About Aluminum Repair
D&A Auto Body is about 10 min-utes from Philadelphia and not far from Trenton, N.J. Despite the prime location near such populated areas, the area is saturated with shops.
“Online we have the Super Yellow Pages,” says Simeone. “I typed in ‘autobody repair,’ and when it asked the radius I’d like to do, I put in 10. In a 10-mile radius, there were 193 shops. In a 25-mile radius, it jumped to 848 shops.”
But a little competition never bothered Simeone. In fact, he doesn’t even view other shops as competitors.
“I’ll be honest. The only competition we have is with ourselves,” he says. “I’m a tough critic. I’m tough on myself, and I’m tough on our shop. That’s our No. 1 competition. I don’t worry about what the other shops are doing; I just worry about what we’re doing.”
One of the things his shop has been doing is getting certified by Mercedes-Benz for their aluminum-repair factory program. Simeone is in the process of making an aluminum bay, which he says they’ll also use for BMWs, since the new 5 Series is structural aluminum in the front.
“We’re still in the process of setting up the area for aluminum repairs,” says Simeone. “I’m going to do two bays that are aluminum. I also want to have room for expansion so as aluminum cars become more prevalent, we’re not stuck to one or two bays.”
To earn aluminum-repair certification from Mercedes, Simeone’s shop went through what he describes as a “rigorous process.”
“They look at your shop, at all your equipment and at your financials,” he says. “We had to buy a Celette frame machine in advance. We also had to buy the Mercedes aluminum-repair kit. There were two different types we could do – one for just outer body panel repair or another for full-blown structural. We went with the larger kit. We figured for the difference, we might as well go all the way.”
While the Mercedes-Benz work remains lucrative for Simeone, BMWs make up the largest volume of D&A’s work. To increase his BMW service offerings, Simeone also recently bought BMW’s aluminum-repair kit.
D&A has had an alignment center for several years. They were sending out alignments but, according to Simeone, were finding that a lot of the shops weren’t doing a full alignment. So Simeone decided, why pay someone else to do a job that he can do better himself?
“We like to do everything in-house,” he says. “We really don’t like subletting, especially with the type of vehicles we work on. We like to know that we did the job so it’s done correctly.”
Simeone ended up purchasing an alignment machine, which “was a big purchase at the time because of the training and everything, but it gave us the assurance that everything was dead-on,” he says. “Our frame techs usually do the alignments. Now they do the whole thing, and when we’re done, we know the car is correct.”
But why stop there?
“We also bought a Hunter tire machine to be able to do the low profile rims and the run-flats,” he says. “We were sending those out and some of the tire places, even though they had the machine that you needed (which is an expensive machine), were still damaging the rim. After you buy a few rims at $500-$600 apiece, you say, ‘You know what, let me buy my own machine.’ ”
Just Say No
An emphasis on high quality has always been the foundation of Simeone’s business philosophy. To provide that quality, Simeone is committed to using only new OEM parts.
“I don’t believe in aftermarket or used parts,” he says. “Sometimes we have disputes with the insurance companies, but we just don’t use them. Most of the adjusters who come out understand that.”
While some shop owners may feel they can’t afford to disagree with the insurers they work with, Simeone can – and does.
He also refuses to take part in any direct-repair programs.
“A big reason we don’t do DRPs is the control factor,” he says. “The idea of direct repair is a good concept, but unfortunately, it strays from that sometimes. I don’t need anyone to dictate how I’m going to repair a vehicle.”
What’s been the result of his convictions?
“Even with a down climate in the economic environment, we have a good flow of work,” says Simeone. “We’re still busy. We always have a month and a half, two-month backlog of work.”
To attract and retain customers who frequent BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche dealerships, Simeone enlisted the help of an interior
“I had my interior decorator go in and look at the dealerships and try to take a little bit out of each one and incorporate that,” he says. “We do a lot of work with those dealers so when the people come in, the furniture and the color scheme will feel like they’re at their dealership. … I want them to feel at home so they say ‘This feels just like the dealership.’ ”
The customer area at D&A isn’t the only place that’s been specially designed. Recent renovations to the 35-year old, multi-building facility include individual lifts for each technician in the body shop area. And those lifts look like a million bucks since every bay is tiled. In fact, all the floors and walls at D&A are tiled.
“When I went to the BMW facility in ’92, I noticed that they had a tile floor, and I said, ‘When I do my shops, that’s how I want to do my floors.’ Then one of the dealerships that I do work for actually had tile on the walls. I liked that idea, and I wanted the same thing.
“It cleans up really easy and it looks phenomenal. The customers love it.”
But picking out tile was just the beginning.
“Designing the workstations involved doing a lot of different sketches, going through where things should be and how the techs are going to move around to be able to get different things,” says Simeone.
He also learned from other shops, something that he recommends doing if at all possible.
“Before I purchased my first downdraft booth a long time ago, I visited a lot of shops and got a lot of unique ideas. That really helps, especially when you go outside the area. They’re not worried that you’re competition. You might be two hours away, and they’ll welcome you with open arms and show you different things and how things work for them.”
Simeone says that in his 15 years of being in business, he’s done three big phases of renovations to the facility. The 1,500-square-foot paint shop was phase one. In the building next door, the 6,000-square-foot body shop was phase two. The latest renovation, phase three, has taken place in the building that used to house the body shop – which is now going to be dedicated to aluminum repair.
But with change comes pain.
“We’ve been going through some growing pains,” says Simeone. “It’s a big hurdle, and we’re still dealing with it. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what drives me. Part of the growing pain is the expenditure of everything. And a lot of it is just trying to stay organized and trying to keep the parts situation straight.
“That’s something that’s been an ordeal for us during the growing pains. You get swamped with all these parts orders coming in every day, and now you have to tag them and keep them organized for all the guys to work on the cars. Once it gets away from you – because it has gotten away a few times – you have to start all over.”
To help – and to prevent upsetting fussy customers – he’d like to eventually hire a dedicated parts person.
“We had to deliver one car and the stripes were packaged wrong, and the dealership didn’t have the correct stripes. It was a situation where we were running a little behind so nobody checked the stripes. We’ll eventually hire a parts man who does that.
“So we opened up the stripes and they were wrong, and we were delivering the car and thought, ‘No big deal,’ they’re just vinyl stripes. We told the customer that we’d pick up the car at her convenience with a flatbed and put the stripes on, which would take about 15 minutes. When my driver got there, the lady was jumping up and down in the street. To me, I looked at as, ‘Hey, they’re only vinyl stripes,’ but to her, the car wasn’t completed correctly.”
When he was 19 years old, Simeone had already been working at his family’s radiator business in Levittown, Pa., for seven years. It was around this time that he bought a 1965 Mustang and started restoring it. He enjoyed doing the body work so much that he decided to go into collision repair.
Good news: “I ended up starting the body shop business, and I got busier and busier,” says Simeone.
Bad news: “I never finished the Mustang,” he says. “It’s still outside covered up.”
Simeone started the shop with a partner – “His name is Dino, and he’s the ‘D’ in ‘D&A.’ ” Dino handled the body work end of things, until the partnership dissolved after a year.
“I was still working at the radiator shop and working at the body shop at night,” says Simeone. “I was very apprehensive to take over the body shop. It was a new field for me. I had some people who worked in other shops come in and work for me at night and do side work for me, and I learned from them.”
Simeone also used his common sense. For example, it just seemed logical to take all the moldings off the cars, take out the taillights, etc. Then he went to BMW school in 1991 in Montvale, N.J., and found out his instincts were correct.
“I found that all the things I’d been doing are the right way to do them. … That was the biggest confidence builder. I’d been hearing [back home] that I was a hobby shop, and people would say, ‘You’re taking all the parts off the car, and you don’t need to do that because you can mask the taillamps rather than take them out.’ This course opened my eyes and I felt like, “Hey, I’m on the right track, and the way I’m doing things is the correct way.”
Expanding for the Future
So what does Simeone plan to do at D&A once the renovations are done?
“Now that I’m finishing my expansion, I want us to become as efficient as we can be,” he says. “More efficiency will help us put more cars through the doors. Every year, we try get a little bit more efficient, whether that means buying the right tool or making sure a tech puts the battery charger back where it’s supposed to be so another guy doesn’t have to run around looking for it.”
Another way Simeone plans to become more efficient is by installing a new management system to streamline paperwork. He’s also going to network all the computers at D&A.
And after that, it’s bound to be something else. If you haven’t noticed already, Simeone isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
“We’re never satisfied at our shop,” he says. “We’re always trying to achieve something that’s better. That has a lot to do with the success that we’ve had, both as individuals and as a shop working as a team. We’re always open to new ideas, new equipment and new growth.”
Kevin Lester is the collision repair and automotive refinishing instructor at Gaithersburg High School, located in Montgomery County, Md. Over the 25 years that Lester has been the teacher, he has averaged 40 students in his level 1 class and 20 for his level 2 class. Prior to his tenure at Gaithersburg High School, Lester worked in the industry as a body tech and a painter. He also installed auto glass and worked in upholstery shops during the summers.