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Invest in a Car Hauler

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While attending a management course several years ago, Chuck Zimmer was tasked with creating a unique business idea to set his shop apart from the competition. His bright idea was to offer drop-off service using an enclosed car hauler. He wanted to offer a first-class experience for the customer by dropping a rental car at their home, transporting their damaged car to the shop for them, then returning it when the repairs were complete and collecting the rental. Zimmer got good feedback on the idea in his training course, so when he opened Auto Body Direct in 2004 in Geneseo, Ill., after 10 years of managing other body shops, he immediately began offering the service.

The hauler, Zimmer feels, has exceeded his expectations. It allows him to provide great customer service. It has helped him secure an additional direct repair program (DRP) agreement and win jobs from neighboring towns. Better still, the hauler is a huge marketing plus for the shop. Every time a trailer is on the road, potential customers see the company’s logo, which is plastered in big, can’t-miss letters across the side of the hauler. Zimmer considers the purchase of the car haulers (he has two) a great business decision—both for his customers and for his shop.

Training employees how to operate the haulers is simple and only requires about two hauls.... No special permits or requirements are
needed to operate the trucks and car haulers.

DOUBLE DUTY

Using the hauler to deliver a rental car, then collecting the damaged vehicle is a one-man job. That saves time and boosts productivity at the shop. The car haulers also allow Zimmer to transport cars between Geneseo and Peru, his second location. That saves a lot of cash. Vehicles involved in hard hits are sent immediately to Geneseo, which has more expensive and sophisticated equipment.

Being able to transport cars back and forth between the two shops with the haulers prevents Zimmer from having to double up on expensive equipment. “I’ve got $100,000 worth of frame equipment at Geneseo,” he says. Instead of spending the same amount on equipment for both Peru and Bettendorf, his new location in Iowa that opened in late May, he has only spent $15,000 on each. “I save myself $170,000.”

Another perk? The haulers impress insurance companies. Zimmer gained a DRP because the drop-off service allows him to draw customers from neighboring towns that lack preferred body shops. “We’ve increased our repair market quite a bit by gaining a DRP,” he says. “Instead of just referring me people in my own ZIP code, [the insurers] send me customers from other towns that were small and didn’t have a body shop.” Though some towns are up to 50 miles away, Zimmer doesn’t mind driving the extra distance to get more business in the door.

"People see the hauler going down the road. It's total top-of-mind awareness versus my competitors."
-Chuck Zimmer, Owner, Auto Body Direct

GOOD SERVICE, GOOD MARKETING

To launch his unique drop-off service, Zimmer invested in two diesel trucks and two 22-foot enclosed car haulers. He purchased a 2500 Chevy Silverado for his shop in Geneseo, which is 15,000 square feet. For his second, smaller location in Peru—5,000 square feet, 50 miles from Geneseo—he bought a 2500 Dodge. He paid $6,000 for each of the two car haulers and about $70,000 for the two trucks. “It’s quite an investment,” Zimmer says. He helps justify the cost by using the vehicles as his regular shop trucks as well. Last year, Auto Body Direct earned about $2 million in annual sales.

Some 20 percent of Zimmer’s customers take advantage of the free drop-off service. “A lot of people say, ‘We live right around the corner, so I’ll just take my car in,’” he says. But for those who do opt for the car hauler, “it’s the ‘wow’ factor.” Better yet, they spread the word. “Since we’ve opened, our repeat and referral business has grown each year,” he says. “In 2008, over 55 percent of customers at Geneseo were repeat customers or referrals. Simply offering the car hauler shows we’re focused on customer service.”

Zimmer set up a concessionary agreement with Enterprise Rent-A-Car that permitted him to transport their rental vehicles in the haulers. In addition to using Enterprise, he has five of his own rental cars.

Zimmer spends about $400 a month in monthly fuel costs for the truck and hauler at Peru; he spends $550 for the two vehicles at Geneseo. That includes the fuel cost for regular shop transportation needs, too.

Routine maintenance for the trucks and haulers is minimal and cheap. “In Illinois, you have to have the trailer and truck inspected every six months,” Zimmer says. He pays about $50 for each inspection.

Training employees how to operate the haulers is simple and only requires about two hauls. Zimmer says, “The only thing you have to train is how to hook it up, unhook it and tie down the car.” Additionally, no special permits or requirements
are needed to operate the trucks and car haulers.

The costs incurred from the service are more than worth the investment, Zimmer says. The biggest reason being that the shop’s logo—displayed on each of the trailers—serves as a moving billboard. “It basically pays for itself in advertising,” Zimmer says. “People see the hauler going down the road. It’s total top-of-mind awareness versus my competitors.”

THE PAY-OFF

Five years since hitting the road, the enclosed car haulers still bring big benefits to the shop—and are still a popular sight on streets. “It creates a little buzz,” Zimmer laughs. “[People] think it’s cool.” They also appreciate the convenient service. Zimmer receives thank you notes from customers, explaining how grateful they are for the shop’s drop-off service.

Zimmer knows that happy customers mean better business: “When you ‘wow’ your customers, they become your unpaid sales force.”

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