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The Road Ahead

It doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict the future — the challenges awaiting shop owners aren’t a mystery. The mystery is whether or not shop owners will prepare for tomorrow’s challenges.

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PRESS RELEASE — 01-08-2018

Washington D.C. — The United Vehicle Workers (UVW) President Rocky Sanderson said today that the UVW has just been elected to represent the 31,000 technicians of the Consolidated Coalition. Since 1999, these workers have been working without a master labor agreement. The new contract ends a bloody revolution that has taken the lives of 677 workers and management employees. The contract calls for an immediate 300 percent increase in base wages as well as lifetime medical and educational benefits for members and their families. Sanderson remarked at the press conference that, "It’s finally time for the average vehicle technician to get what he’s entitled. … You can’t buy dignity, and you can’t buy pride. In the last 17 years, these consolidators have made the robber barons of the industrial age in America look like princes. Now it’s their turn to pay."

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I think it’s merciful that time works in only one direction. We can often reminisce about a pleasant memory but, when we look ahead, we can only speculate. If we could accurately predict the exact consequences of a given action, we could lead the league in discretion and really have a hand in the fate that awaits us.

But no one can really predict the future, right?

Right. But it’s fair to say that there certainly seems to be a group of people in every field who have a knack for making good decisions. And many of the not-so-fortunate look at the successful and attribute it to luck. These same observers are quick to furnish excuses for their own inability to make forward progress.

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Many in this industry are too quick to spread the blame around. That’s not to say there aren’t serious issues that need resolved to keep us all moving forward. But the way to achieve sensible, positive resolution is through education, communication and dedication — not blame.

The most successful people in every facet of the collision repair business are the most communicative. Any shop owner, adjuster, paint rep or educator in this business who wants to be more successful can start today by learning what he has to do to become a part of the solution.

What are some of the key issues that need to be solved or understood?

• Shop consolidation;

• Claims procedures;

• Training; and

• The state of vocational education.

Industry Consolidation
The forces at work across the country are creating a new "layer" of collision repair facilities. M2 Collision Centers, True2Form, Caliber Collision Centers, Collision Team of America, Sterling Collision Centers — to name a few — have contributed to big money and big business coming into the collision repair industry. And there are enough big names involved and enough big money invested that you should take notice.

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If you happen to be doing business in a market that’s home to one of these groups, you should be working diligently to professionalize your own operation and maintain close contact with your customer base. A well-funded consolidation effort in a marketplace can dazzle the vehicle-owning public with advertising and impressive facilities. The fact is, you’re competing for the same repair dollar as these guys. And for them, it takes a tremendous amount of cash to buy television and radio time and to pay the salaries of several layers of management.

We’ve been taught for years to look at our own businesses and create a franchise model. And America is full of independent shop owners who have done just that. Quality, ethics and sincerity create strong word-of-mouth references that carry a lot of weight. It’s ludicrous to assume that it’s time to give up the ship.

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Case in point: The most dramatic consolidation in American business history took place in the automotive industry. Republic Industries, led by H. Wayne Huizenga and Steven Berrard, started a buying spree in 1997 that has catapulted them to No. 1 in the country with a reported 211 dealerships. Ward’s Dealer Business Magazine reported in September that 1997 revenues for Republic were nearly $51/2 billion. Still, despite this seemingly phenomenal growth, thousands of dealers around the country continue to grow in their own markets.

So can you.

Educate yourself and your employees, and be a true professional. Attend industry association meetings, such as the Collision Industry Conference (CIC), and meet representatives from the insurance industry, data providers and leading shop owners from around the country who are involved in determining policies and measures that will make the system work more efficiently. Some of the best minds in the industry are present at these meetings — and you’ll find that these people are willing to communicate with you.

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Claims Procedures
"The pen is mightier than the sword."

You’ll get further faster by learning every subtlety of your estimating system. (I’m presuming you have the car at your shop, and your customer wants you to do the repairs.)

How you approach the job-writing process will have a significant impact on your P&L statement. "But," you say, "it doesn’t matter what I write. The adjuster will only pay for what he wants to pay for."

Many of us who interface with the industry hear that plea all the time, but what we see in our individual markets is that some shops don’t ascribe to that thinking:

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• They’ve amassed a great deal of knowledge about the repair process;

• They have the educational credentials necessary to support what they write;

• They have the business savvy to make solid arguments on behalf of their customer (the vehicle owner);

• They have a clear understanding of their state laws that apply to the claims process;

• They know what their state allows for insureds or claimants, they have regular internal staff meetings that outline their policies so all employees involved in the claims process are on the same page;

• They schedule meetings with insurance-claims management personnel to review and discuss discrepancies in procedural positions; and

• They know very clearly that progress comes slowly. But their success supports the conclusion that progress does come.

When you make the decision to make progress in this area, profits will follow.

Training Your People
Tremendous strides have been made in the collision repair industry in the way of training. Affordable training for the shop owner and front-office staff is available from a myriad of sources. I-CAR, paint companies, data providers and independent classes are accessible to anyone who realizes the power that comes from education. NACE also gives you the opportunity to attend a number of seminars in a few short days.

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There’s really no excuse for anyone who wants to be considered a professional businessman or technician not to be involved in continuing education to make him better at his craft. Once again, those of us who interface with the collision industry see dramatic differences in attitude and productivity in those customers who’ve made training a priority.

Challenge yourself. Make a commitment today to spend the next 12 months pursuing appropriate training for each person on your staff. In the front office, review responsibilities and have each person attend at least one training session that will expand his knowledge of his position. Have your technicians attend training that will enhance their understanding of the repair process, and meet with your people to discuss how this new-found information can enhance productivity. Technicians can offer valuable input to those who write estimates and work orders.

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Also, management needs to communicate to the body and paint departments the need for "done once, done right" execution. There really is no room for mistakes in today’s highly competitive climate. A sincere commitment to education for your people will allow you to control the quality of your business future.

The State of Vocational Education
If we want to have a future, we must involve ourselves in the vocational education process. The majority of these schools around the country need a strong relationship with the local repair community if they’re to fulfill their goal of preparing young people to enter our trade.

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Parents of high schoolers are still reluctant to encourage their kids to learn a trade. And we’ve got to do something to change that thinking.

What’s ahead? A future without an infusion of young employees is no future at all. At this very moment, business owners with a strong customer base are reluctant to invest in expansion because they fear they’ll be unable to staff new shop space. We’ve got to do something to ensure our future.

How can you help? Do you have a high-school-level collision repair program near your business? Consider the following:

• Get to know the teacher;

• Get to know the vocational coordinator and principal;

• Ask to review the lesson plan. If it’s antiquated, offer input into current training needs;

• Ask to be on the advisory board;

• Ask to speak at career days;

• Invite the instructor and students to visit your facility;

• Ask to speak at a PTA meeting on the need for entry-level students;

• Ask to speak at Kiwanis or Lion Club meetings for the same reason;

• Ask the instructor to attend local association meetings;

• Encourage your vendors to get involved;

• Help with a fundraiser and earmark money for the autobody class;

• Encourage your association’s national office to consider grants to vo-ed schools;

• Hire a student on a work-study program. This allows him to attend academic classes in the morning and work part time the rest of the day. Students eligible for this should have attendance and grade requirements in place.

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• Encourage your peers to also get involved.

We’ve been told that every journey starts with a single step. As we journey into the future of our industry, every one of us needs to take a step to ensure we have an employee base ready to walk with us. There are a lot of bright young people out there who we need to reach. When they see that we aren’t schmucks, when we communicate the opportunities and income available to tradesmen and when we can share with them our sense of pride, we’ll have made a great leap forward.

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What Lies Ahead
While only time will tell if my predictions at the beginning of this article will come true, the immediate future isn’t nearly so unpredictable. People in this industry already know, for the most part, the challenges that await them in the not-so-distant future. These challenges are discussed in seminars (such as those held at NACE or at manufacturer conferences), they’re discussed in BodyShop Business, they’re discussed by associations and organizations (such as I-CAR, CIC, ASA, SCRS), etc. They’re discussed everywhere. All you have to do is want to learn about them.

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The people in this industry — or in any industry — who always seem to be one step ahead of the challenges don’t know anything that you don’t know. The only difference is, they do something with the information. They learn the issues, they determine how the issues will affect their businesses and they change their businesses — or their way of doing business — accordingly.

It’s been said that knowledge is power — but that’s not true. Applied knowledge is power. You may know a car is coming and that you’re standing in the road, but if you don’t apply that knowledge and move, you’re still going to get run over.

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Same goes for your business. The future is coming. Will you be in its way or will you be leading the way?

Writer Michael Regan is president of The J.J.R. Company in Cleveland, Ohio, and a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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