The first time a hybrid vehicle showed up at Colonial Auto Body in Plaistow, N.H., shop owner Donna Borges was scared to death.
The year was 2003, and the car was a 2002 Toyota Prius, hit hard in the nose.
“At that point we had very minimal training on it and we were terrified,” Borges says. “The insurance company was clueless about how to repair it, so it was totaled.”
But Borges didn’t let the car get away. The same unknown technology that frightened her also fascinated her—and she saw an opportunity to build an expertise that none of the other shops in her market had. She bought the Prius and carefully repaired it with her crew, working closely with Toyota representatives to execute all the proper manufacturer procedures.
When the car was done, she signed up for a Toyota course on hybrid repair. Since then, she has invested more than $10,000 in hybrid training for her staff on a variety of makes and models. Today, the shop is marketed as a hybrid specialist, which has strengthened direct-repair partnerships (DRPs) and made Colonial Auto Body the go-to place for area hybrid owners.
Roughly 2 million hybrid gas or diesel electric vehicles are registered in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration, and more are hitting the roads each day. Shops that can boast an expertise in the repair of these vehicles have an opportunity to win the business of their owners and woo insurers.
FenderBender talked to Borges and another hybrid-savvy shop owner, Steve Morrow of Capitol Collision Center, to find out what it took to become a specialist in the vehicles and how it’s paying off.
At Colonial Auto Body, every employee has participated in training programs on hybrid repair. Borges says she thinks it’s important for all of her staff to understand the vehicles, so every step of the repair process, and every interaction with customers, goes smoothly and upholds the shop’s reputation as a hybrid specialist.
The staff has taken part in I-CAR and Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) training on the vehicles, and participated in a variety of manufacturer programs. Borges says the ASE training offers more classroom instruction, while the manufacturer programs provide more hands-on learning. She works with vendors to find out when the manufacturer training programs are offered and staggers when her employees attend, so the shop isn’t left shorthanded.
The shop is certified in Toyota and Honda hybrid repair, and employees have been trained on most other makes, such as Nissan, Kia, Chevrolet and Ford.
“Not every dealer gives a certificate, but at least the guys have the knowledge,” Borges says. “We feel that knowledge is never wasted.”
That knowledge—much of it has to do with safety, such as how to disconnect the powerful and potentially dangerous batteries, and how to handle a hybrid’s complex wiring harness and other components—has done wonders for the shop’s DRPs. One has been added since the shop received its certifications and other insurance partners make Colonial Auto Body their top recommendation for hybrid repairs.
Borges says 85 percent of her shop’s work comes from DRPs (the shop has six) so strengthening those relationships has been crucial for her success. Hybrid vehicles still make up a small portion of the shop’s repairs, but the jobs are generally more expensive, averaging around $6,000 each.
Most hybrid owners want to go to a dealership for repairs, Borges says, but many of the dealerships in her area don’t have a body shop. When the dealership isn’t an option, customers are comforted by Colonial Auto Body’s expertise, which is advertised on the shop’s website, colonialautobody.net. The website, customer referrals and making DRPs aware of the shop’s specialty are all Colonial Auto Body does to market its niche. It doesn’t need to do more, as it’s at capacity repairing 75 to 100 vehicles per month.
No additional equipment has been required to perform hybrid repairs, though some special tools might need to be purchased for electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt, which the shop is learning about now. Borges says those vehicles haven’t been produced in enough numbers for her to make significant investments in specific tools.
But she says she’ll continue sending her team to training for hybrids as they continue to evolve, even though most courses have cost around $200 per person.
“My husband and I spend a lot of money and take a lot of time to train our staff because we want to be the best in the area,” she says.
Steve Morrow is on a mission to make his shop, Capitol Collision Center, stand out in a saturated market. With 600 shops in Sacramento County, it’s a challenge. But during the last decade, he’s managed to take his facility from $450,000 per year in revenue to $720,000, and with a recent name change from Capital Auto Restoration and a business strategy that includes specializing in hybrid vehicles, he’s gunning for the $1 million mark.
Morrow, like Borges, was afraid to touch the first hybrid—also a Toyota Prius—that came into his shop five years ago. He actually subbed out the work of disconnecting the battery, just to be safe. The car was hit in the rear and needed frame rails, which required the battery’s removal.
That first repair involved a lot of head scratching and consulting with Toyota, and it took a couple of days longer than Morrow says it should have. But it was also an eye-opener. Expecting more of the vehicles in his shop, Morrow decided to seek hybrid certification through I-CAR, enrolling in a program that dealt with general repairs for a variety of makes and models. He also signed up for additional training on General Motors hybrid vehicles.
The training was initially just for the safety and productivity of his shop. But during a marketing group meeting a couple of years later, one of Morrow’s peers suggested he advertise his hybrid expertise.
“I had never given a thought to it,” Morrow says. “But as the volume of the cars increased, I figured that I could easily set myself apart from others because I had the certification.”
Morrow added a “hybrid specialist” section to his website, capitolcollisioncenter.com, that touts his shop’s abilities and outlines why a hybrid owner should be careful about where to take their vehicle.
“Auto body work on hybrid vehicles demands attention to very specific requirements and specifications. Even the cooling and air conditioning system requires special expertise,” the site says. “At Capitol Collision Center, you’ll find our expert technicians readily available to work on all aspects of your hybrid vehicle, whatever make or model.”
Morrow says he has spent less than $1,000 on training and equipment (special gloves and a grounding strap) for hybrids so far. He has limited the training to himself and one other technician. That has been sufficient for the amount of hybrids that have come through the shop so far. About one in every 20 vehicles is a hybrid, Morrow says.
At this point Capitol Collision Center is running without DRPs, but Morrow says word about its hybrid expertise is spreading. Most of the hybrids that end up in his shop come from customer referrals.
“It’s almost like the Apple [computer] cult with hybrid owners,” Morrow says. “They seem to talk amongst each other to find the best places to go.”
The shop also has a partnership with a local mechanical repair center that refers hybrid owners in need of collision repair services to Capitol Collision Center.
Morrow says hybrid-heavy California is the perfect place to boast a specialty in the vehicles, but surprisingly, not many shops do. He expects that to help his business continue to grow.
“I think every shop needs to know the importance of being safe when repairing a hybrid vehicle,” he says. “The growth of my business is an added bonus.”