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FenderBender Award Winner: Scott Fabel

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Scott Fabel

Since Scott Fabel was 8 years old, the only thing he’s ever wanted to do was work on cars. 

As a child, the highlight of his week was Saturday morning, when his father took him to the family-owned heavy-duty truck dealership and let Fabel clean the floors, organize parts, and be around the trucks. It took until age 15, and a state permit allowing him to work, before he ever sniffed a dollar for that hard work at the shop. That was quite fine for him. It's the only career he’s ever had and the only one he ever wants to have. 

“I just loved trucks,” says Fabel. “All the equipment and all the parts. Everything was exciting.”

From starting his own business to continuing the family legacy when his father passed, Fabel’s passion and dedication to the industry have fostered success for his Wisconsin-based Fabel Repair and Collision Center.

It’s hard enough to run a successful auto body repair business. A whole different set of challenges are baked into running a thriving heavy-duty collision repair business and a flourishing general repair business for heavy-duty vehicles along with the light-duty auto body repair. Fabel has done it all, and he’s manned the ship the entire way. 

That diversification has been a proponent of the businesses success, not a detractor, and his commitment to his employees and the surrounding community have kept them going through times of expansion and hardship.  

Fabel’s ability to grow, diversify and withstand, all while prioritizing his employees and community, have led him to be named the 2021 FenderBender Awards winner. 


Like Father, Like Son


After attending and graduating from Northwood University in Midland, Mich., studying automotive marketing, Fabel returned and started a leasing company for heavy-duty vehicles. Within three years, the company was competing locally with the big names like Penske and Ryder, and generating $6 million annually in revenue. 

It was during that experience that he built the foundation of shop management, leadership, and business expertise that he would use when he ultimately branched out on his own two years after his father passed away unexpectedly at age 55. Fabel was 26 at the time of his father’s death. 

Because of circumstances with the ownership group, Fabel was unable to continue the business that his dad owned. Instead he started his own business, beginning with a strictly heavy-duty truck repair and collision business in 1991, opening a single location in Appleton, a 12,000-square-foot facility. 

Two years later, Fabel added 10,000 square feet to capitalize on the “lucrative” trailer repair market. Then, in 2000, he added an additional 10,000 square feet and, more importantly, expanded into general collision repair for everyday vehicles for the first time.

It was the first venture away from heavy-duty vehicles. In his operations up until that point, Fabel worked on truck repair and body work, RV repair, alignment work, and towing, but never regular auto body. In 2017, that location became part of the CARSTAR franchise. 

Fabel also expanded outside of Appleton, acquiring a heavy-duty repair business roughly 40 miles east in Waupaca in 2010. That location has been solely used for heavy-duty repair and body work. 

All in all, Fabel has three locations.The heavy-duty truck repair and body shop in Appleton, the CARSTAR location just across the street and the collision repair center in Waupaca. He estimates roughly 70 percent of his business is tied up in the commercial industry with the other 30 percent in the general automotive collision repair industry. 

“I wonder sometimes how he’s able to juggle it and maintain it but he’s able to do it,” says Amanda Ashline, the company’s body parts manager and Fabel’s nominator. “I don’t know how he does it.”


Succession planning already on the mind 

Scott Fabel hopes his business will continue as a family business once he’s gone. At 58, he’s still got plenty of work days ahead of him, but he’s already setting up a succession plan for his son Shea and his son-in-law, Jake, to take over the business, both who are still in their early 20s.

Fabel bought 52 acres of adjoining property at his Appleton locations that he intends to build on and allow his sons to grab a stake in the business. Still, Fabel’s presence won’t be gone anytime soon.

“I’m probably going to be here awhile,” Fabel says with a chuckle, “I love coming to work every day. Why would I stop?"


Recession Proof


With his hands in the heavy-duty auto body and repair spaces along with the CARSTAR facility, Fabel has strategically diversified his business to withstand hardship. His system was put to its first real test when COVID-19 hit. The CARSTAR location took a major hit as accidents plummeted and service slowed. 

However, Fabel never cut hours or laid off a team member at the CARSTAR location. Instead, he transferred all his technicians to the heavy-duty collision repair shop across the street. Because of large contracts he had with several major manufacturers, the commercial business stayed strong. Goods still needed to be delivered, which meant semi-trucks had to run, leaving Fabel’s shop in an advantageous spot. 

“I’m sure I'm like many shops struggling with the auto body shop. But with the diversification I had, that's really what saved me,” he says. 

Fabel has long hoped to become a “one-stop shop” in the automotive aftermarket world. In the heavy-duty space he has just that, with both the mechanical and collision repair businesses along with a truck wash. He’s found in the heavy-duty industry, specifically, businesses get frustrated with having to down the vehicles for multiple reasons and visit different vendors for those services. Being that outlet was more important than ever in 2020, Fabel says, as businesses struggled and looked for ways to streamline operations. With Fabel’s capabilities, jobs could be completed quicker, allowing trucks to get back out on the road. 



Fabel’s Fast Tips for Heavy-Duty 

Scott Fabel has spent the majority of his career working on the heavy-duty side of the collision repair world. From that he’s heard many stories from friends in the light-duty industry regarding concerns of entering the heavy-duty market. 

His top tip for any body shop looking to make the jump to heavy-duty or commercial? Don’t be afraid of it.

“I think that because of the size of these vehicles, a lot of the shops just get a little bit intimidated,” Fabel says. “And I would say that there's not a lot of differences in the body aspects of it and the repair aspects of it.”

When COVID struck and the CARSTAR location saw a decline in car count, Fabel transferred his body technicians over to the heavy-duty side. And despite some initial hesitancy, those technicians turned out to be very useful in enhancing the heavy-duty side of the business.


Out Front in a Changing Industry


Fabel continues to look for his next innovation. When he opened his first shop, it was because the area was in serious need of a shop that specialized in alignment work. The idea to become a one-stop shop, or as Fabel deems it, the “Walmart” of the automotive aftermarket, was his next idea. Within the auto body shop, his attention has focused on certifications.

The shop has certifications for Ford, GMC, Jeep, Nissan, Infiniti, Subaru, Kia and others, most notably Tesla, which the company achieved in June. 

“I wanted to be on the cutting edge and ahead of everybody else,” says Fabel, who approached the EV giant about getting certified. “I feel it’s such a changing industry, I’m always going to try and stay ahead of the curve.”

While there aren’t too many Teslas in his area quite yet, he hopes the knowledge they gained through the certification process will be useful for any type of EV that comes through the door. It also positions him well for when Tesla enters the heavy-duty market. With the knowledge the shop already has from going through the Tesla certification, Fabel plans to jump on the heavy-duty Tesla market right away.

“I haven’t seen anyone so focused on the future without losing the present,” Ashline says.

Fabel said the returns on all the certifications have been mixed so far. Some have worked more effectively than others. Still, with the sophistication of vehicles increasing by the day, Fabel believes the certifications will be a feather in his cap. 

“As cars develop, we want the customers to be assured that we know what we are doing,” he says. 

Fabel also nearly pulled the trigger on installing an ADAS calibration center at the body shop after continual poor experiences at the local dealership, who also happens to be a competitor. 

Fabel was working on final details before a small tire shop nearby splurged and purchased all the necessary equipment. Instead of competing with them, Fabel saw an opportunity. The tire shop needed business and he was one of the biggest in town. Fabel negotiated a reasonable price in exchange for sending work it way, and he avoids the liability that comes with owning and operating an ADAS calibration center.

“It’s the best of both worlds right now,” he says. 

A Worthwhile Investment 

In Fabel’s continuous quest to innovate and modernize, he invested more than $100,000 for gas catalytic drying equipment for his CARSTAR location roughly two years ago. His shop is just one of two shops in Wisconsin to have the equipment and it has been a “game changer,” Fabel says. 

While the initial investment was hefty, Fabel estimates it saves his team 15-20 production hours every day. The equipment is set up in the shop’s dual prep station, sitting on a programmable track that can run in both bays. Its arch shape features 12 separate heating panels that can be programmed to work on the whole car or just a small area. Fabel says his Gascat equipment cures paint in about eight minutes. Then within 10 minutes the team can begin working on the car again and buff it.

“It gives us a tremendous amount of throughput,” Fabel says.

It’s been a pivotal addition to the shop and one Fabel raves about, despite it struggling to gain widespread adoption. It tracks with Fabel’s hope to be on the cutting edge, willing to jump into a new idea or technology. Some investments, like the shop's extensive list of OEM certifications, have not produced a clear answer on whether or not it was “worth it.”

However, the gas catalytic drying equipment is not one of those cases. Fabel says it has been an invaluable part of the business.

"It’s really efficient. It’s unique. It’s state of the art,” Fabel says. “I’m happy with the investment.”

 

More Than a Cliche 


One of the ways Fabel sticks out above any other employer that Ashline has worked for is his personability. He’s quick to give advice about personal or professional issues and makes training a priority. The “my door is always open” cliche is true with Fabel. It’s something past owners have said to Ashline, but she hasn’t believed it the way she does with Fabel.

“Out of everybody I’ve worked for, he’s different. He’s more personable. He treats everyone here like family,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, he keeps a focus and passion with his business but he’s also a very personable person.”

The shop maintains its I-CAR Gold Class status, giving its employees that resource to learn and train. Fabel uses a tier system instead of a class system at his shop and employees can move up tiers—which come with pay raises—based on their level of training.  When I-CAR training is required outside of working hours, Fabel pays for it.  

“He wants to see you grow. He wants to see you expand. He doesn’t want you to just stay content with where you are,” Ashline says. “There’s a lot of things he’s done that I’ve never seen another employee do.”

With that, Ashline says Fabel often lends a hand or a piece of advice for employees starting a side business. 

For one of his employees, a veteran who deals with bouts of PTSD, Fabel sent their direct supervisor to training on how to respond when someone has an episode. 

“It’s very important to give your employees the knowledge and belief that you’re going to invest in them, Fabel says.”

That translates to his pay system as well. Fabel’s employees work on an hourly rate with an incentive commission. If the shop hits a sales goal for a given month, all employees are then eligible for a bonus which is determined based on productivity numbers. This both incentivizes personal and group success, he says. Likening it to a football record, Fabel says the company usually goes 10-2 over 12 months. 


Fabel’s Fast Tips on Leadership 

Through the development of four locations that span from heavy-duty repair work to body work for both light and heavy-duty vehicles, Fabel can’t be everywhere at once. He learned early on that he was going to need to delegate, even as hard as it can be. 

“I’m so passionate about the business and I feel like at times you want to do a lot of it yourself to make it what you want to be,” he says. “But as you trust your managers to fulfill your vision and philosophy of running the business, it becomes easier and easier to step aside.”

Fabel has a weekly meeting with all of his managers, which allows him to continue to give input into the operations without needing to micromanage the day-to-day. That has given him much more time to work on the business, rather than in the business.

In doing so, he’s realized two things. Communication and delegation have been the keys to keeping a cohesive and productive work environment.

 

More Than a Shop  


Despite maintaining a steady overall workflow during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fabel says he donated roughly 70 percent of his mask inventory to the local hospital. When he saw several of his family members who work in dentistry were struggling, he sent sanitizer to them and surrounding local dental offices.

“Our cabinets were pretty much bare,” Ashline says. 

In 2017, Fabel donated a vehicle to Harbor House Domestic Abuse, a nonprofit organization in Appleton that helps victims of abuse and created a separate repair business used to provide free repairs to abuse victims. The vehicle Fabel donated is used as a loaner for the business. 

He’s also given away several refurbished vehicles to veterans through the Recycled Rides Program.

“I just want to find some way to help,” Fabel says. “What’s the point of being part of the community if you aren’t helping when it’s needed?”

Fabel is also very active with his local church, running ads in the bulletin and volunteering his personal time. He donates heavily to the Greenville Fire Department and also sponsors several baseball teams and four race cars at the Wisconsin International Raceway.

“I’ve never worked for someone who’s got such a big heart,” says Ashline.

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