September 27, 2013
Title: Efficiency builders from the field
Subtitle: Bodyshops from across Canada share tips
The automotive aftermarket and more particularly the bodyshop business is a mature industry. That means while individual outlets may have good or bad years, overall industry growth is closely tied to the economy. True, bodyshops tend to pick up during recessions, when people hold onto their cars longer to save money. However that trend tends to quickly reverse during recovery periods.
That means to boost sales and profits, bodyshops need to improve the way they operate. During the past year we’ve published a slew of articles about how to do that. These range from our September 2013 cover story on lean practices, to pieces on the latest advances in industry software and the efficient use of abrasives (see page XXX).
In this issue, we take a slightly different tact. Rather than doing a “top down” piece sourced in tips from industry experts, consultants and suppliers, we went into the field, to gather thoughts from bodyshop personnel on the front lines.
Building efficiency every day
One thing is clear: streamlining operations is a major priority in shops across the country. “We are building efficiency every day,” says Cam Akleh, owner and operator of Carstar Collision & Glass Service centers, in Pickering, Ajax and Scarborough Ontario. “Competition is so tough, so you have to consistently improve to stay in the game.”
Akleh is a veteran industry pro, who learnt a long time ago that collision repair efficiency is all about having the right people. So that is where he has made his biggest investments. “We grab kids when they are still in school and get them into apprenticeships with us,” says Akleh. “Everybody wins. They get a free on-the-job education. We get to have a good look at them in a real work environment, so we have a good pool of potential hires.”
Akleh is particularly proud of three kids that the company trained through a work-study program organized by Dunbarton High School, a local institution, to which his staff taught tasks including painting, bodywork and vehicle assembly and disassembly.
“If we spot one who is really good, we hire him when his course is over,” says Akleh, who credits government training grants that the company managed to land, with easing the process. “That way we get someone who knows how we do things, and is comfortable with our systems and procedures. We don’t have to undo bad habits someone may have picked up elsewhere.”
Building efficiencies through acquisition
According to one industry expert, most collision repair businesses only small administrative burdens. This means that gains to be had by building through acquisition are not as large as in manufacturing industries. However according to Lorenzo D’Alessandro, general manger of 427 Auto Collision - CSN in Toronto, which acquired a second collision center downtown two years ago, there can be some gains – if the process is done right.
“We did make small, but not exorbitant, savings in centralizing accounting and training operations,” says D’Alessandro. However the biggest efficiencies were achieved through our ability to “load level” between the two facilities. “When one locale is busy and the other isn’t, we the shift work. This is far preferable to paying overtime in one place, and sending people home early in the other.”
Acquiring the downtown locale also generated other, less easy to quantify efficiencies says D’Alessandro. These include getting more exposure amongst the general public to the combined operation (which leads to increased customer traffic), coupled with the opportunity to acquire downtown licence. “It’s very hard to open a shop in certain areas. So from that standpoint alone it was worth it. However combining two operations is not easy,” He warns. “Getting the hoped-for benefits requires consistent oversight.”
An owner-managed shop
That said, according to another industry veteran, building efficiency is much harder in small custom or owner-operated shops. “In our shop every car we work on is different,” says Richard Schoyen, owner of Rainforest Woodies and Custom Cars in Parksville British Columbia, which in addition to body work, produces wood bodies and sheet metal fabrication for older vehicles. “People have been customizing cars for decades. That means once you have developed a certain level of skills as a craftsman, further progress is not easy to achieve.”
Hard, but not impossible. Because the Rainforest Woodies and Custom Cars handles such a wide variety of assignments, ranging from woodie vehicle and concept car design and construction, to frame restorations and full service paint and body work, Schoyen has become a bit of an expert at adapting to new challenges. He also keeps his eyes open to the latest industry developments. “Switching from solvent to water-based paint was a big productivity booster for us,” says Schoyen. “Paints by manufacturers such as Dupont and PPG for example, now include coat-and-a-half capability, which enables us to put on just one layer of base coat for certain applications, whereas in the past, we had been putting on two or more.”
Partnering with a major chain
One way for an individual to boost efficiencies is to partner with a major chain. That’s what Dennis Agar, owner of Agar Paint and Auto Body did, when he recently aligned his bodyshop with the FIX Auto chain. “When I first started I was just a technician,” says Agar, with a laugh. “I went into it with my eyes closed, and learnt pretty much everything there was to know in the college of hard knocks.”
However teaming up with the FIX Auto group was a big eye opener. “They have excellent management and quality control systems that we were able to adopt rather easily,” says Agar. “For example we are now much better able to track spending, have a better and more efficient supplier base, as well as standard production methodology, which makes it far easier for insurance companies to send business here.
That said, making the initial jump took a lot of guts says Agar. “We had built up a pretty good customer base which had come to rely on our personalized service,” explains Agar. “So I was initially worried whether our client base would move over with us when we joined FIX, or even if they would know that I still owned the place. In the end it all worked out alright. The shift was more than worth the effort.”
Richard Schoyen, of Rainforest Woodies and Custom Cars
Cam Akleh (third from left) in front of Carstar Collision and Glass Service center
427 Auto Collision – CSN’s Toronto shop is kept busier through load sharing with its recently acquired second locale.
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