California Bay Success Story
With a 10,000-square-foot body shop in the California Bay area and 20 years in the business, Walker’s Auto Body owner-operator Gigi Walker sees the collision repair industry as still male-dominated but with an increasingly female-friendly attitude gradually spreading across the states. Not only has her experience provided her with an expertise and depth of wisdom from which both women and men can learn, but it has led her to small-business success, with a capital “S.”
Secrets to Success
My secret to success is that I don’t have any secrets. It’s all about being out in the open.
I believe my success, though, is based on trust and care for employees and customers. It is important to not worry so much about money, but instead to make sure that employees are well cared for both financially and professionally. I have very loyal customers and very loyal employees. I run a very clear, open operation. We make sure everyone knows that we have nothing to hide here, and I make sure people know that they can look at what we’re doing to their vehicles at any time during the repair process if they want. So my customers know they’re dealing with people they can really trust.
In the 20 years that I have owned my own shop, I’ve see the industry change by leaps and bounds—and not to the betterment of small business. I’ve really been sad to see the number of small shops that have closed in the last two years. It seems that the larger shops are able to rely on volume and the related discounts, but the profit margin is just not there for smaller shops.
But small shops do have advantages in other areas to help them compete. Small businesses need to focus on what they do best—customer service. A small body shop can give more to their customers to make them feel more welcome and loved. Customers can have direct access to the owner, and in fact, owners should make a point of interacting with and getting to know their customers.
This interaction should also take place outside the shop. I really feel that small businesses need to work with their local associations and build their businesses through networking. Belonging to your local auto body association is essential. It’s loaded with a wealth of information; it’s loaded with people who have the same problems; and the camaraderie will help you through.
People used to belong to their local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club. But not today; I think we’ve kind of lost the idea of small business.
Unfortunately, it is causing a self-destruction. It is the networking and customer care that makes small business work. We really need to look again at why we became small business owners in the first place. It’s hard to watch small shops going out of business, but it’s even harder to see that we are doing it to ourselves.
Surviving and thriving
I started in the industry as a teen. I had graduated from high school and was deciding what I wanted to do, when my dad offered me a job in his shop applying my artistic talents as a painter. It was hard work but it soon became my trade. I worked at a number of different body shops, then decided to open my own. We started the business with the hopes of being able to work on passenger vehicles, but because I was a woman and young (and looked even younger than I was), I kept getting shut out by the insurance companies. So I went toward fleet repair instead. Although I would really have enjoyed working on passenger vehicles, I have found fleet repair to have some real advantages, and that is the way I have continued my business and plan to continue it into the future.
The advantage of fleet work is that you get to monitor your craftsmanship. Because the same vehicles often come back into the shop over and over again, you can see how your repairs are holding up. The chances of a personal vehicle coming back into your shop are rare, so you never get the opportunity to see your workmanship.
If you are thinking about starting your own business or even getting into the industry at all, my advice is to try it out first. Visit a body shop and ask if you can hang around, watch what is done and see if it’s what you really want to do. Shadow a shop owner or technician for a day—and ask a lot of questions. Sit in on classes at your local technical school to find out what it is really all about.
Talk to technicians; talk to business owners. Determine if this is really what you want to do before you invest in the business.
Don’t ever be afraid to ask for advice from others in the industry, but be careful of the “charlatans.” The last thing a small shop needs to do is put out money for advice. Nobody has the right to come into your business and tell you how to fix a car when you’ve been doing it for 20 years. I have five friends whose shops are about the same size as mine; we’ve all been running our businesses “lean” since we opened our doors. You don’t need a take a class to know you need to be efficient. Just be smart.
This is really a great time and opportunity for women to get involved in the industry, because women are becoming more accepted at the technician level, as opposed to just the front office and customer service. A lot of women are greeting the customer at car side, writing up the estimates and doing the work. There are more female estimators and shop owners than there have ever been, and this is at least partly because more females are getting involved at the high school level—taking body shop programs and going to trade schools. Enrollment has risen in the last couple years because word is getting out that women can do this! We are changing the whole image for young girls, and giving them new ideas about what they can do.
Unfortunately, however, this is not the case everywhere. In some parts of the country, it is going to be very difficult for a girl to get into a body shop in a condition where she feels safe. That’s just how it is in some areas. On the other hand, I have six employees in my shop, and four of them are women. So it’s really just a matter of finding a shop that will accept and nurture you.
I would never say, though, that there are no differences between men and women. We are different creatures completely. I think that men are very driven to succeed at one task at a time, where women are survivalists. We’re thinking all the time about various areas of focus—taking care of the business, taking care of our employees, taking care of our families, and, when we have time left over, taking care of ourselves. Women are very nurturing by nature, and this carries over to our employee relations as well.
My advice for business owners: The next time a young woman comes into your shop asking about a job, give her a chance. She could turn out to be your best employee.
Sizing up the future
I see our industry, as a whole, being lessened. It is currently going through some major upsets for both small business and for the technicians themselves. There is a lot of friction between the insurance companies and the repair shops, and it all revolves around the dollar. The work we do is not considered to be valuable. Our technicians are not valued, so their wages are not increasing. In some states, shops are expected to fix a vehicle for $32 to $34 per hour! It lessens the value of the technician who has to pay for tools and training—and feed a family.
When I was young, my dad supported a family of five children on technician wages. You can’t do that today. The days of a father passing down his shop to his kids are just about gone. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I would really like to see the industry keep its faith and support small business. And I’d like to see small businesses taking back control of their future by refocusing on their fields of expertise—that is the family-business approach to employees and customers, a rebuilding of their local networking, and the personalized customer care that is a hallmark of small business.