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To Join or Not to Join? What’s the Point, Anyway?

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You’re a collision repairer who wants what’s best for your business. But do you want what’s best for your industry? What about for your competitors? Because in some way, what’s good for them in all things business ultimately will be good for you, too.

One way to find out what’s best for your business—or at least what’s working for some of your most successful competitors—is to join an industry association. Among the largest in the country, the Automotive Service Association (ASA), is comprised of 98 percent independent shop owners in the collision and mechanical arenas. A primary goal of the group, notes Collision Division Manager Denise Caspersen, is to be an information source for its membership; it also has a full-time Washington, D.C., representative working on their behalf. Like other associations but on a much larger scale, ASA’s member shop owners run the organization; its paid staff is governed by member-filled committees that dictate which direction the massive ship should turn.

Smaller associations largely have the same goal—to inform collision repairers—on insurance issues, on making operations lean, on legislation that will have an impact, on repair procedures that are controversial topics. With these ambitions at the forefront, it would seem a simple matter of fact that every collision repairer in the country should want to join.

The industry needs more involvement and not less.
It’s possible to turn the ship around.
—Norbert Zaenglein, founder and president of NCIA

But no matter where you live,—there are more options than one to speak up for your industry, and no two associations are alike. Members of all associations, however, are part of a movement that’s bigger than anything a single shop owner can sustain alone. Whether they are DRP or non-DRP, shop owners who are association members are instantly privy to a bargaining position they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Upon joining an association, shop owners are in concert with like-minded folks who want to simply let the consumer reign and the business fall where it may.

But in all honesty, can an association do this for you? The answer to that question lies within your response to another: What can you do for an association?

EVEN PEBBLES MAKE WAVES

The metaphors and similes representing what an association can accomplish are many, including this one: “No drop of rain believes it is responsible for a flood.”

It’s easy to be convinced that the movers and shakers in your field imagine themselves to be the flood, at all times willing to go above and beyond the efforts of their counterparts to make advances and to curb insurance companies that many think would, given the chance, take advantage of you and take control of your profits. But no man is an island and no shop owner is a flood, and time after time, history has shown that a rock of any size can make waves in water.

So, whether you do better than break-even; whether your shop does $350,000 or $3.5 million a year; it holds true for every collision repairer that giving even a little bit of oneself can do a lot more for the industry as a whole.

The West Michigan Body Shop Association was founded 50 years ago as The Greater Grand Rapids Body Shop Association; the name change came in the late 1980s when interest spread to shops in the West Michigan area. Now, membership varies from 75 to about 95 companies.

“We focus on being an information provider for our members and other interested potential members,” says WMBA Board President Jerry Jansen. The association’s membership is made up of DRP and non-DRP shops, and while the group doesn’t dictate whether or not a shop should participate in these programs, “We do however point out some of the pitfalls of the agreements and trends we see happening which we believe have to be addressed.

“The WMBA is not ‘anti-insurance’ but we are absolutely ‘pro-body shop’ and that is our focus.”

Ten or 15 years ago, Bob Mitchell of Jackson, Tenn., was president of the now-defunct Southern States Auto Body Association—a group whose demise was hastened when a repairer who wanted to talk about labor rates did so in the company of another who was wearing a wire, trying to catch “the industry” red-handed at ignoring anti-trust laws.

“That,” says Mitchell, “put a big, bitter taste in everybody’s mouths.” To this day, there are scores of southern-state collision repairers who are afraid to get together for this very reason.

Early in 2007, Mitchell and a handful of others started the Tennessee Collision Repairers Association, where just over a dozen members attend meetings each month. There are about 70 potential members in the market area, though, and eventually Mitchell hopes to get 25 or 30 percent of them to join.

“In today’s times, body shops that are not involved and states without [an association] are going to be left behind.” Mitchell points to recent efforts by the ASA, the Society for Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) and the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers (AASP) to work together “in lock-step” for the benefit of the industry.

“We need to get everyone singing from the same page,” he says. “The insurance industry will absolutely eat us alive if we don’t do that.”

 

PARTICIPATION IS KEY

Across the country, some of the older associations have withered or are dying, unable to draw new members or initiate activities that keep current members in place.

“It’s a real dilemma right now,” says Gene Hamilton, owner of Sports & Imports in Chamblee, Ga. He is past-chair of the SCRS and on the executive committee of the Georgia Collision Industry Association (GCIA). “It all varies by state; some areas don’t even have an association. Some have one but don’t do anything with it.”

D. Jones

That’s not always due to a lack of trying. Recently the GCIA conducted a labor-rate survey from which they hoped to get 550 responses, but between 130 and 150 shops flat-out refused to participate. This was likely music to the insurance industry’s ears.

“They say they can’t do anything until they have communication from collision repair shops,” Hamilton says. Yet, more than a quarter of the shop owners the GCIA tried to reach simply sat on their hands, rebuffing the group’s efforts to speak in a united voice. “So we’re sitting here getting nothing.”

It would seem that apathy is partly to blame for low participation among shop owners, but Hamilton offers another reason: “It’s fear. If you take the average 4,000-square-foot, 5,000-square-foot shop—he doesn’t know where his next job’s coming from.”

This is a shop owner who believes he or she can’t afford to rock the boat lest they find themselves tossed overboard by local insurance representatives.

Hamilton estimates that just about 30 percent of all associations are active enough to have tried to affect legislation to bolster the ongoing battle with insurers. “The rest of them just seem to set and talk.”

Their actions, or lack thereof, bewilder Hamilton and others who try to steamroll the rough road that body shop owners must navigate, with insurance relationships and declining repairable vehicles as steep upheavals in the pavement. He adds: “The membership in general is very passive. They come to see what you can do for them.” Hamilton is adamant that just a little more effort by a few more people would begin to stir the waters of change. “It could change this industry. But it takes people who want to.”

Nevada is one state where people are trying to effect change through legislation: The burgeoning Nevada Collision Industry Association’s two chapters share a focus on legislative and training issues, inviting guest speakers to address related concerns.

“Understanding that our legislators are working folks like ourselves provides associations a strong voice for presenting the facts and opinions that form the laws that govern us,” says Sam Metz, who is president of the state board. “Our legislators can only make decisions based on information that is brought before them. Imagine yourself making decisions affecting the livelihood of thousands of people without knowing the ramifications of your actions.

“If the collision industry remains divided, it should not complain of being conquered,” he says.

VANGUARDS AND VICTORIES

Norbert Zaenglein heads up one of the latest initiatives for the betterment and promotion of the collision repair industry: the National Collision Industry Alliance (NCIA).

“We set out to have some different perspectives,” he says, adding that it’s sometimes easy to see the obligated relationships between some mainstream industry publications and their advertisers—understandable for those businesses but slightly compromising for unbiased coverage. “The mainstream media’s an arm of the advertisers,” Zaenglein says.

Instead, his organization wants to put out perspectives that otherwise wouldn’t get through the filters that these publications and other mass-communication outlets employ. This is done in part by using its unique structure, which is unlike some administratively thick associations in that NCIA uses technology to allow members to “make real-time decisions” and to do more than simply react to the forces around them.

The NCIA was designed to fill a niche. Its primary role, Zaenglein says, is “to have absolute and complete fidelity for its members.” Otherwise, the level of advocacy becomes compromised from undue influences. In the case of the NCIA, allied members who aren’t shop owners may join, but the ratio to repairers has to stay at a certain low level.

“Right now, it’s difficult to get people on board,” Zaenglein says. “There’s a certain reluctance to support any new entity and I understand that.”

This repairers’ reluctance, however, is self-defeating.

“The industry needs more involvement and not less,” he says. “It’s possible to turn the ship around.”

The Choice Autobody Repairers Association (CARA), a national group less than a year old, is yet another forerunner in the new wave of activism that’s washing over the industry.

“Our top priority is empowering the consumer, because unfortunately, all too often it’s taken out of their hands,” says founder Rick Finney, owner of Finney Automotive in Cadiz, Ohio. Finney has been traveling a lot these days, visiting shop owners and going to regional and national meetings trying to get the association’s message out. “We’re making good progress,” he reports.

Unfortunately, Finney says, a few of the insurance companies, “really have a problem with people being in this association.” He is disheartened by the negativity resulting from this shop-owner dilemma. “We’re both supposed to be taking care of our consumers. It’s sad, really. We should all be working as hard as we can to work for the consumer.”

KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE

Yet another vanguard in the association biz, the Coalition for Collision Repair Excellence (CCRE), has been making huge waves with its vocal opposition to oppressive insurers and absolute dedication to collision repairers and to the consumer. It also turns heads for a propensity to contain business matters within its folds.

Some have called CCRE “The Secret Society,” a nickname that President Tony Lombardozzi embraces because, he says, “We are secretive.” In this sense, they don’t allow insurance companies to be members and only collision repairers are allowed to make decisions.
The CCRE, too, has potential members who say they fear insurance-company retribution if they join. But the straight-talking Lombardozzi says things won’t cha­nge unless repairers embrace a new model of doing business. This includes becoming involved and joining an association.

Even if it’s just a 20 Group or a handful of repairers with business pointers and stories to share, says the GCIA’s Hamilton: “Everybody’s got something to give.”

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