Recovering From a Plan Gone Wrong
Tom Constant, general manager for McDonald Collision Center in Littleton, Colo., joined a network in 2011 with the hopes and promises that the network would help shops compete in lieu of consolidators flooding the collision repair market.
The Repair Plan Network was formed on the dream of Hecky Heckendorf in 2008. Heckendorf wanted a way for independent shops to compete with the major MSOs. He teamed up with Brad Fukui, a 30-year bodyman at the time, and set out to create a universal repair plan that would help independent collision repair shops repair vehicles with higher efficiency and attract more work.
Constant had just transitioned from working in independent shops to leading a dealership collision repair center. Before he even joined, Fukui and Heckendorf were making strides with the company to change its shop processes, he says.
Constant joined the network because gaining lean advice was hard to come by without help in the industry, he says.
Constant, an independent body shop owner himself at one point when he had opened a shop in 1991, says he saw the duo as more than capable and talented when it came to offering consulting and improving a shop’s culture.
Yet, shortly after Constant and the collision repair center got on board, the Repair Plan Network disbanded.
Constant shares how his center continued to improve despite the unexpected turn of events.
A Stake in the Plan
For independent body shops, implementing lean processes might seem like an easy concept but is hard to start, Constant says.
“We were kind of a guinea pig to get outcomes for them in which they could show others the success of the plan,” Constant says.
Constant’s team joined the network to be part of a test group for it. Since he was part of a test of the network, he paid no fee to enter the program.
In spite of minor conflict within the group, Fukui and Heckendorf maintained a steady stream of success for the shops that were involved. The network ultimately failed when the shops involved started to sell to the consolidators and the network’s presence in Colorado diminished.
Fukui and Heckendorf did not stop their consulting. Instead, the duo formed a new organization, Full Impact Technologies (FIT), to provide shops across the U.S. and parts of Canada with consulting on implementing efficient practices.
Their vision has remained the same and seems to be continuing: offer shop operators ways to deliver returns on investments (ROIs), take what they learned, sustain it and replicate it.
The End of the Repair Plan Network
Between 2015 and 2016, a network of shops looking to improve independent businesses’ efficiencies and lean processes fell apart as consolidation hit the collision repair industry market in Colorado.
Two leaders had ventured out years before to help independent shops compete against larger companies in that specific market. The plan was formed around the idea of getting a group of shops who worked with similar processes and all had similar lean successes to help each other come together in the market, Constant says.
In the end, however, the driving point behind the organization’s formation was also cause for its demise.
“The cause of the end was two-fold,” Constant says. “I think the growth of the consolidators was a contributing factor but at the same time most of the shop owners and managers involved had different views on where the network should go.”
The multi-shop operators and national brands form roughly 80 percent of the collision repair market in Colorado, he says. The other 20 percent is spread between independent repair facilities and dealership collision centers.
Shop owners had disagreements on how to carry out the Repair Plan Network’s processes and who should be ultimately in charge of the network, Constant says.
“There were some that felt like they had more ownership in the process than others,” he says. “There was a lot of head-butting.”
Recovery, in The End
When Constant joined McDonald Collision Center in 2011, the center had approximately 27 employees and was producing on average, $270,000 per month in sales. Since that time, the shop has grown to 40 employees and produces an annual revenue of $7.4 million as of late 2018.
The body shop is trending toward hitting $750,000 per month in sales for the first quarter of 2019.
After the Repair Plan Network disbanded, Constant made the decision to continue changing and reworking shop processes.
While it was a disappointment for Constant to lose the opportunity to consult with shops in the network, he says he still had complete faith in the duo’s consulting skills.
Despite most independent shops losing business in the face of large companies like ABRA, Caliber, Service King and more, flooding the Colorado market, Constant was able to maintain a relationship with Fukui and Heckendorf, which he says resulted in exponential growth for his collision repair center.
“Most of everything is process driven and we’ve grown at what I consider an exponential rate,” he says.
One first step included moving toward a team orientation. The latest steps involve updating the shop floor technology with new tablets and stronger WiFi to enable estimators to work directly and conveniently on the shop floor.
One Fukui and Heckendorf takeaway that Constant has used in his shop has been a unique training method. He says he knows there is not a lot of skilled workers coming into entry-level positions in the industry so he’s developed a training program for technicians.
Weekly calls with the consultants provided still more insight for the shop operator. Constant, in part, decided to consult with the two because he is not a part of any 20 Groups in the area and not a part of any national associations for collision repair.
Focus on Training
“We’re going to teach you the trade and it’s going to take you two to three years but you’ll save on loans,” Constant says in way of his pitch to prospective trainees.
Constant and his team partnered with a local technical school, Lincoln College of Technology and offers people the opportunity to start in an entry-level, C-tech position and work his or her way up. His sales pitch to prospects involves the enticement that the technician will not have debt from going to school to learn the same trade.
If someone is hired on the program and possesses minimal body work skills, then the person can expect to take about five years to get to the B-level technician position, Constant says. For someone with no skills and no background, it might take roughly three and a half years to get to the point of doing minor body work and be hands-on in the shop floor.
One of Constant’s technicians was an apprentice at another shop and came to McDonald Collision Center. The technician spent about six months doing reassembly and teardown, and then was put onto the floor to do minor body work, he says.
Shop Floor Progress
Constant has more recently dabbled in the process of rearranging the shop’s layout. The goal is to have a shop flow in which the vehicle goes through a repair process from the teardown all the way through reassembly, he says.
The change was expected to be finished by late November 2018 (it was October 2018 at the time of this interview).
Ultimately, Constant would like to bring his two main estimators onto the shop floor and out of the front office, he says.
“Technicians used to manage two to three roles,” Constant says. “It was more segmented before and now it is a group effort.”
The collision repair shop consists of a production manager, parts department, paint department, technicians and front office administration. The parts department includes parts manager, a person who is a shipper and receiver, and a floater. Within the paint department, there is a head painter, a painter for the minor and express repair, and three other helpers.
Two technicians are the team leaders and the technician group consists of technicians skilled from C-level all the way to A-level. There are nine technicians in total.
“One thing lacking was having the technology in place,” Constant says.
The team has been working on getting new tablets, computers and workstations running on WiFi. Constant has purchased Dell laptops, and dual-screen monitors for the estimators. Technicians are able to grab the equipment and technology from non-movable work tables and take it anywhere in the shop.