May 31, 2013
Concours Collision Centers~CSN grabs Bodyshop of the Year 2013 award
Ken Friesen wins this year’s top industry honours due to his relentless quest for perfection and commitment to industry.
Collision repair is filled with professionals whose lives are devoted to the industry. However Ken Friesen¸ president of Concours Collision Centers~CSN, one of the sector’s most highly visible professionals, who refers to the three Calgary based shops he built, from the ground up, over the past three decades as his “three babies,” takes everything to a new level.
However this dynamic industry veteran, whose 60 employees serviced about 4,000 cars and generated $12 million in sales last year, was quite surprised when Concours Collision was nominated “Bodyshop of the Year” for 2013, due to its efficient manufacturing practices, ongoing growth and Friesen’s ongoing industry contributions.
“That last part is a bit exaggerated,” says Friesen, with a tad of modesty. “I learnt long ago that the more you interact with your community, including competitors, the more you get back. These things are never a one way deal.” Friesen isn’t kidding. Concours Collision Centers supports a slew of local efforts such as the Alberta Guide Dog Services, the provincial apprenticeship program, and the company makes a conscious effort to be good environmental stewards. However these efforts pay off, generating a higher profile, more traffic and a qualified, young and stable work force whose average age is just 30.
However it was Friesen’s long-time participation in industry “20” groups,” (such as PPG MVP and CSN Collision & Glass) in which stakeholders from a variety of shops gather several times a year to exchange tips on how to more effectively service clients, which have generated the biggest returns.
“I learnt long ago that you can’t do much to change labour rates. But what you can do is operate more efficiently,’ says Friesen, a founding member and the first chairman of the Canadian Collision Industry Forum (CCIF), who is frequently called on to give management presentations to other industry professionals. “In 1998 I got involved in the Coyote Vision Group, where I became increasingly aware of the Toyota production systems, Theory of Constraints (TOC) and other productivity enhancing techniques. Since then our shops have been increasingly run using lean practices and the Japanese-inspired “Kaizen” philosophy of continuous improvement.”
From the ground up
Friesen, who has been toying with cars since he was 13, built his business from the ground up. He started in the industry at 17 and quickly became known as a Corvette specialist, a car he loves to this day. Although Friesen never completed high school, he quickly earned an honorary doctorate from the College of Hard Knocks. By 21, he had already founded his first facility and gone bankrupt, a process that proved to be exceptionally painful.
“I spent four years paying my bills back,” says Friesen. “But it is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Because it took so long, it forced me to think of all of the things that I did wrong. I vowed that if I ever started up again, I would learn from those mistakes.” Those reflections formed the foundation of Friesen’s later fascination with lean strategies, which are applied in his shop from end-to-end. “Keep it simple. Grow slowly. Don’t spend money that you don’t have,” says Friesen. “Much of what you need to know about running a business comes down to simple common sense and applying a little self-discipline.”
By the age of 25 Friesen was back in business again, first with a partner Larry Forest, with whom opened Professional Autobody & Fiberglass Ltd. Three years later he sold his stake in the business which remains in operation to this day. In 1981, Friesen opened the first locale of what would become Concours Collision Centers (then known as Concours Autobody). In 1990 the company moved to a 30,000 square foot building on 42nd avenue in Calgary. The opening of a second 18,000 square-foot outlet adjoining the Crowfoot Shopping Center in the northwest part of the city followed in 2001. Last year Concours opened a third collision repair center, a 16,500 square-foot facility in the Royal Oak area.
Married to the business
Like almost any industry, collision repair has a bad habit of often overlooking back-office and non-line functions, which are often just as crucial to smoothing workflows as the operations themselves. For example 39 of Concours Collision Centers employees are shop floor technicians, but 21 perform other functions, ranging from running the office, dealing with insurance companies and generating new business.
In that respect, Friesen has a key ally in his wife Fiona Maxwell, a Certified Management Accountant, whom he credits with a large part of the shop’s success. “She is extremely detail- oriented and has become a trusted advisor, who often comes up with insights that I missed,” says Friesen. “It is a valuable partnership.”
One of the couples’ biggest challenges has been navigating Concours Collision Centers through the continuous changes constantly reshaping the industry. “Car construction has evolved considerably over the years, from full-frame to unibody structures and tolerances which are far lower than in the past. These have significantly enhanced quality. That means less business for repair centers,” says Friesen. “But the result has been increasingly complicated technology. Even headlights are now often computer-controlled. This all requires increasingly expensive machinery and equipment to maintain and so it takes much more capital to open a shop than it once did.”
Looking towards the future
As with all major milestones that he reaches, Friesen is taking advantage of his reception of the Bodyshop of the Year award to reflect on his accomplishments and to begin setting new goals. Although his “college of hard knocks” curriculum included few books, Friesen has long made up for that by reading extensively on his own. He also takes an active interest in professional development and education. For example he recently allowed an MBA student to run a case study about Concours Collision Centers, and claims to have likely learnt as much from the questions that the student was asking, as the student learnt from his answers.
In keeping with Friesen’s moderate attitude, future goals will no doubt consist in large part with continuing to generate operational efficiencies at Concours Collision Centers, particularly at its Royal Oak facility. “The center has been doing exceptionally well from the get go,” says Friesen. “But we won’t take that early success for granted. We need to make sure that new clients not only remain clients, but also that they refer new business to us.”
One milestone that Friesen is looking at with less concern is his approaching 60th birthday, which he regards as just another number. Thoughts of retirement, or even of just slowing down a bit, are rare. “I love what I do. I love the people, the industry and the constant challenges of dealing with change. My biggest problem right now,” he jokes, “is that while I am proud to accept this award, I now have to figure out how I am going to top it.”
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