When you’re trying to get a new business off the ground, it helps to have a chip on your shoulder.
Mario Hurtado and David Lackey, owners of D&M Collision Repair Center in Hobart, Ind., say their previous work experience taught them a lot about what not to do when running a body shop. Lackey, a former shop manager, and Hurtado, a former technician, opened D&M Collision in July 2016, determined to learn from those worst practices and get things right in their new business.
“We worked at a shop together,” Lackey says. “We watched how they treated employees and the way they were doing improper repairs, and we both decided that enough is enough.”
A Struggle at First
As with any fledgling business, it was a struggle for D&M Collision in the beginning. DRPs shunned them because the shop was too new (they now have several). And in a small city such as Hobart – where word of mouth means everything – it takes a while for customers to warm up to a new business.
“It was definitely scary, because it put his family and my family in a bad situation,” Hurtado says. “If we fail, we don’t just lose our jobs. We lose houses, cars, you name it – we lose everything.”
But Hurtado and Lackey had a plan, and they believed in what they were doing.
The Right Equipment
Being able to start their own shop from scratch gave them the opportunity to put their lessons learned into practice. It started with the shop itself. They invested in “state-of-the-art” equipment such as an Allvis electronic measuring system and a KT 27 SDD semi-downdraft spraybooth. The goal was to have the capability and capacity to handle any work that came their way.
“I’ve been in shops where they sent customers away because we couldn’t do the work there,” Hurtado recalls. “Here we started fresh and tried to do everything right.”
For example, they made sure their spraybooth was big enough to accommodate larger cars and trucks, which has been paying dividends. Working “hand-in-hand” with a local towing company, the shop gets regular business repairing wreckers.
Training: a Solid Foundation
In addition to having the right equipment, Hurtado and Lackey saw training as a building block of their new business. They paid to have every employee earn I-CAR Gold Class status, “from the detailer on up.” Hurtado and Lackey each have achieved I-CAR Platinum individual status, and the shop is in the midst of I-CAR’s Road to Gold process. Hurtado also participates in Sherwin-Williams training programs.
Not satisfied with the status quo, Hurtado and Lackey want to see their techs earn I-CAR Platinum status as well. They also plan to pursue OEM certifications in the future, “because it looks like everyone is moving to that right now,” Lackey says. “When the industry changes, we’re going to change along with it.”
Focus on Fundamentals
Hurtado and Lackey have taken full advantage of the many lessons learned from their previous experience. One key lesson: Focus on the fundamentals.
For example, a fundamental principle of a successful collision repair shop – or any business, for that matter – is to keep your promises. D&M Collision has been growing its business with local car dealerships in large part because of its key-to-key cycle time, Hurtado explains, and because “we give them a date, we commit to it and we execute on that date.”
“I’ve seen situations where an estimator or manager would call [the customer] and tell them their vehicle is being worked on, and the car has never been touched,” he says. “By the time it actually comes to paint and reassembly, you’re already a week late. So we’ve learned, one, don’t lie.”
They also learned to be efficient in their estimating, blueprinting and scheduling processes. Where Lackey has seen customers wait 10 to 15 minutes for an estimate in his prior experience, he says D&M Collision typically gets them an estimate in six minutes “tops.” For basic repairs, the shop’s key-to-key cycle time is 24 hours; for more complex repairs, two days.
The shop has established a regimented process that guides the vehicle from check-in and estimating to disassembly, repair, painting and detailing. Employees can double-check the shop’s standard operating procedures (SOPs), which are posted in binders hanging on the wall.
The concept of SOPs is one of a number of practices borrowed from lean/Six Sigma that the shop uses to keep the work organized and efficient. Another lean concept is the idea of bringing the tools and parts to the worker. When technicians are working on a vehicle, they’re required to have a rolling cart at their side – stocked with the tools they’ll need for the repair – to maximize their time and minimize the number of wasted steps involved in tracking down the proper tools. If they need a tool that’s not on the cart, Lackey and Hurtado will have someone get it for them.
“I want to keep them in that space until the car is done,” Lackey says.
Cleanliness and good workflow – fundamental principles of lean and 5S – are priorities as well. Once a month, everyone in the shop puts red tags on anything that doesn’t get used, “to prevent clutter and keep our space moving and flowing,” Lackey explains. While a few red-tagged items are put in storage, “90 percent of the stuff goes in the dumpster.”
Every Friday, the team sweeps and scrubs the floors as part of a thorough cleaning. Plus, at the end of each workday, the technicians clean up their respective work areas, “so nothing gets broken, run over or misplaced,” Hurtado says.
Treating Employees Right
Strategies and lessons learned are useless without a motivated workforce to implement them. Well-aware of the technician shortage that’s plagued the collision repair industry for years, Hurtado and Lackey set out to make sure they weren’t repeating the management mistakes they’ve observed in the past.
It starts with paying technicians what they’re worth. At around $25 per booked hour, Hurtado and Lackey believe they’re paying them right. And the owners have gone out of their way to “provide them all the tools they need to be successful,” such as I-CAR training and SOPs, Hurtado says.
They’ve also learned from the little things that tend to get under the skin of shop employees. For instance, they’ve seen techs at other shops get docked for accidentally breaking a part or tool, which “creates a bad vibe between the employee and the shop.” But as long as it’s not happening all the time, they believe the shop should incur the cost of the occasional mishap.
“We understand that accidents happen, because we’ve worked in the back,” Hurtado says. “We know what happens back there.”
Hurtado and Lackey view good communication as the lifeblood of a healthy relationship between management and employees. “Communication with these guys is everything,” Hurtado says. “You drink a cup of coffee with them, walk through the shop, communicate with them, and that makes everyone happy. It really does.”
They’ve structured the workday to foster good communication. First thing in the morning, they convene a brief production meeting to go over the work on the docket. After lunch, they have another brief production meeting. The goal, Hurtado explains, is to keep “everybody on the same page” so there are no surprises.
Perhaps the biggest thing they’ve learned from past experience is to treat their employees as human beings – not subordinates. That means saying hello when they come to work, and encouraging them to open up to them when they have questions or concerns.
“They’re not numbers,” Hurtado says. “The way we look at it is we’re all family. We try to keep a great relationship with everybody. We want them to want to wake up and go to work, and not dread coming to work.”
Adds Lackey: “I don’t even call this work. I call this a career. I want them to think of this as a long-term career, not a job. Anyone can go get a job. This is a career.”
In addition to pursuing more training and certifications, Lackey and Hurtado say they’d like to open up a second shop – with more square footage – in the next year or so. They’re looking for a facility within 25 miles of their current location.
At a Glance
D&M Collision Repair Center
Location: Hobart, Ind.
When established: 2016
Square footage: 4,000
Owner: David Lackey, Mario Hurtado
Repair volume/number of cars per month: 60
Average repair cost: $1,900
DRPs: Founders Insurance, CEI Fleet, CEI, Acuity
Number of employees: 6
Behind the Bays
Scheduling system: Mitchell (Repair Center)
Estimating system: Audatex
Prep station: Col-Met finishing prep station
Spraybooth: Kayco KT 27 SDD semi-downdraft
Lift: Auto Lift two-post lift
Computerized measuring system: Allvis 3-D measuring system
Straightening system: Bison Action 360 tilt rack frame machine
Welders: Hobart, Lincoln
Paint: Sherwin-Williams AWX waterborne paint