Shop Life

Tracing the Spark of Inspiration

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AnneMarie Hamant

Even for the shop owners who grew up in collision repair, it isn’t always a sure thing that they go on to choose that career for themselves. It is possible to be called to other things, even if looking back now it’s hard for them to imagine choosing anything else. Sometimes they’ve felt a higher calling. 

Take Greg Lobsiger, owner of Loren’s Body Shop in Bluffton, Indiana. There was a time when Lobsiger, after trips with his church to Sierra Leone, pondered a future as a missionary. But Lobsiger says now he never truly felt a higher power calling him to take that path. He did feel a calling toward collision repair and his uncle’s shop where he worked nights and weekends throughout high school. 

“I remember at 13, helping my uncle swap a frame out on a pickup truck,” Lobsiger says. “So it was just me. I mean, I just knew that's what I wanted to do.” 

But no matter how they came to the industry, one thing that all shop owners have in common is that there was something about collision repair that they fell in love with. It doesn’t have to be a fond childhood memory like Lobsiger, or even necessarily a singular moment of knowing. It might not even have a thing to do with cars. 

Tom Bemiller will freely admit it. He’s not a car guy. He didn’t grow up tinkering with car repairs. He started working in a shop when he was 14 just to get a summer job. And it wasn’t even his first choice. The body shop was just the first place that said yes. 

Bemiller kept coming back to the shop after high school, working there during college summers and then after college as he figured out his next step after deciding not to go to medical school. That was when the shop owner, Dave, gave Bemiller a special project. Take a wrecked car around to some local competitors, see what their service was like, what they quoted. And as it happened, Bemiller had just been in an accident in his own car. 

“That I would say was when I, quote unquote, fell in love with the industry,” says Bemiller, who is the CEO of the three-shop Aureus Group near Philadelphia. “And I wouldn't actually call it love at that time. But it was really more about like, I just saw opportunity.” 

Bemiller in his limited experience only knew how things were done at Dave’s shop. He didn’t know until he went around to these competitors that the employees weren’t always wearing nice, crisp uniforms. They weren’t always prompt to greet a customer as soon as they arrived.  

The experience was just fine at some shops but the disparities at others were obvious. There were dirty offices, unfriendly employees and a total lack of communication and care. Even to someone with little experience in collision repair, it was clear that was no way to run a body shop. 

“When I started visiting these other shops, it prompted me to just start doing some research on the industry like, all right, let me see what this industry is all about,” Bemiller says. “Because even though I had been in the body shop business since I was 14, I never spent any time learning about the industry or the business or anything, right? It was 100% just making money, I’m going to be a doctor. And that’s the end of it.” 

It turned out that it didn’t matter one bit if Bemiller cared about cars. He says he learned very quickly that wasn’t really what the industry was about. It was running a good, quality business that customers cared about. 

“For me, it’s not really about fixing the cars, it’s more about fixing the way we fix cars,” Bemiller says. “And that’s kind of what my company is about, what I’m about. Over time, I would say that certainly has evolved into a love of the industry.” 

Hands-on Experience 

For Sheryl Driggers, formerly the co-owner of Universal Collision Center in Tallahassee, Florida, collision repair was also something she saw an opportunity in. In 2000, she and her husband, both possessing an “entrepreneurial spirit,” she says, were looking for a business to start together. A shop came available, a business plan was drafted, loan secured, and they opened their doors in September 2001. 

“At that point, I can’t say I had a love for the industry,” says Driggers, who now works with Mike Anderson at Collision Advice. “It was a business opportunity I had, I knew I wanted to be in business for myself, I knew I wanted to be in business for more than just for myself. I’m a woman of faith, and so it’s not just about, I guess, finances, if that makes sense. It’s about how we can help other people.” 

Driggers understood the business side of things, having worked in corporate America in marketing, but the actual performing of collision repair was still a mystery. So she dug in and got hands-on. Literally. Driggers would spend days alongside the technicians in her shop like an apprentice would. While she can’t recall a single light bulb moment, it was through doing that work that she formed the passion she now has for the industry. 

“I don’t think there was a moment of, ‘Oh, I just fell in love with this industry,’” Driggers says. “But over time, you do, you just fall in love with this industry, and it’s not just about repairing cars, it’s about making an impact in peoples’ lives. Team members, your employees, what kind of impact are you making in their lives?”  

Ingrained at a Young Age 

Mark Probst of Probst Auto Body in central Illinois did come from a technician background. Falling in love with collision repair was maybe a little bit easier as he had a deep love for cars from a young age. He recalled tinkering with cars in the backyard with his older brother before making cars his career. 

“I graduated high school, went to college for two years to auto body school, started working on semis in a body shop, did that until I was 26 years old,” Probst said. “In the meantime, I was restoring, and I'd get done working all day and then I’d go home and restore cars at night.” 

While falling in love with the car aspect of the business was easy, what made Probst fall in love with the industry came later. It was digging into the small details of the business and growing it and making it better that forged a passion for collision repair. And, as other owners mentioned, the opportunity to help people when they need it most kept him coming back. 

“It was something like, ‘Hey, I can fix that,’ take a wrecked car to fix it, paint it, have it looking like new again, for something that to somebody is, like, tragic, I can take out and I can make their day better,” says Probst. “It’s just a feel-good moment.” 

Ups and Downs 

Of course, not every path to success is constantly ascending. These shop owners may have early moments of inspiration that stoked their love for the industry but that doesn’t mean that love is never challenged. All four could recall those moments of self-doubt or simply being overwhelmed by the demands placed on an owner.  

Driggers faced a challenge from the get-go, with her and her husband’s shop opening just six days after the 9/11 attacks. But they grew through that, learned some lessons, and opened a second shop in 2004. Driggers managed that while also having her first child the same year.  

Going next from two to three shops was a big leap. Around 2010 the feeling of burnout was starting to feel like too much. She says she questioned why she was doing what she was doing and why she was working so much at it. An avid reader, Driggers around this time picked up the book “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek and suddenly something clicked. 

“That was a really good place for me to read that,” Driggers said. “What's my why? Why do I get up and do this every day? And then, that's what propelled me through burnout. Like, then I was energized. Because I knew my why, I got really clear on my why. And that was my focus instead of the stresses that come in with running a business.” 

Lobsiger recalled one of those moments and how it then helped reignite his love of the industry. 

“I was working 70 to 80 hours a week and just killing myself,” Lobsiger recalls. “And finally in 2008, I remember going home in March 2008, a Tuesday night, I went home and told my wife, I said, ‘I don't know what else to do. The only thing I know and understand is collision repair and I’ve got to get somebody to help me.’ And so I came back the next day to the shop and got cold called by a consulting outfit out of California.” 

Through that guidance Lobsiger was able to understand the numbers side of the business better. One of the things he came to understand was what he calls the “four stages of freedom” that every shop owner goes through on their way from starting the business to one day handing over some of the controls. The four stages are: 

  1. The owner is working on cars, ordering parts, dealing with customers, and all the other daily details of running a shop. 
  2. The owner is no longer working on cars, but working in the front, working with numbers, more invested in the business side. 
  3. The owner hires someone to cover the front, and is able to float among the daily operations of the business as needed. 
  4. With solid leadership overseeing all daily aspects of the business, the owner is free to work on the business itself and those higher-level decisions. 

“That was crucial for me,” Lobsiger says. 

Sharing the Love 

As owners begin to step away from the day-to-day minutiae, they’re able to discover new things that they love about collision repair. For Probst, who had a singular focus on growing his business for 18 years, suddenly had a shift in mindset when he opened up a second location two years ago. Even though he was by then an experienced business owner, starting a second shop from scratch still presented new challenges and reignited old challenges he hadn’t dealt with in years.  

In digging into starting the second shop, Probst had to relinquish day-to-day decision-making at his first location over to his staff. That allowed Probst to focus on the big picture and what the business needed most. It turned out he had a love for training and teaching and growing his employees at the second location just as he had done in the first. 

“If I can provide some knowledge or teach an employee, it's a successful day, versus seeing him do something wrong and get frustrated and get mad or yell at him,” says Probst. “... My outlook has changed, and I’ve become more of a teacher and trainer. Some days are easier, some days are harder.” 

Just like how she dug in to learn the finer details of collision repair, Driggers still enjoys learning. She’s now helping pay that learning forward in her work with Collision Advice. Driggers recalls how she had mentors like Anderson and colleagues in 20 Groups that opened her eyes to issues in and around collision repair. 

And she doesn’t plan to slow down her own education anytime soon. Possessing what she calls a “love of learning,” Driggers enjoys staying up to date on the latest happenings within the industry. 

“I don't remember who I told this to at the FenderBender (Management) Conference, I said, I will be a lifelong student, because I love learning new things,” says Driggers. “And that's the great thing about our industry, the way that vehicles change so quickly. You're always learning, like there's never a time where things are not changing that you can't learn something new. And that's one of the things that I love about our industry. It's a challenge, but it's a fun challenge.” 

Like his fellow shop owners, Bemiller too enjoys being a part of growing the next generation of collision repair professionals. As someone who learned the trade through mentorship, Bemiller knows the importance of creating opportunities for employees to craft the career that they want. Bemiller notes how he’s seen the industry change over his decades of experience. When he started, most of his co-workers were in their 40s and 50s and had been in the same roles for a long time. But today’s technicians may have other goals, and nurturing those is going to be key in surviving the current labor market. 

“Most of the technicians that I’ve worked with from previous generations, when they were 15, or 18, or 20, or 22 years old, and they decided that they were going to be a technician, or were a painter, that was a lifetime decision,” Bemiller says. “Now they're saying, ‘Hey, I want to come off the floor at some point, I don’t want to be doing this when I'm 60, I need to, you know, develop the next skill set so I can move into the office and ultimately be a manager or be a leader.  

“… So that’s one major thing that I’ve really started to see that just in the last couple of years. And that does excite me because I think that as an industry, we need more leadership. And anybody that’s willing to take on the mantle of leadership is exciting to me.” 

Learning has been a big priority on Lobsiger’s life and career as well. By his estimation he’s spent roughly $300,000 on coaching since 2008. Lobsiger is an advocate of lean principles and really enjoys digging into numbers, talking shop with fellow owners and helping them understand their businesses better. Being able to take a look at his shop and see where the problems are feels almost like a superpower. 

“I feel somewhat advanced that I can see waste in my shop,” says Lobsiger. “You know, why did Joe walk back and forth here three times today? Well, maybe he was trying to get some fasteners. When he was putting his car back together those fasteners weren't replaced when the car was taken apart initially. Every step that that guy has to take, there's no way that customers are willing to pay for that.” 

Looking Back to Look Forward 

Back when Bemiller committed himself to collision repair, he did all the research he could. This was in 2004, and a lot of the news wasn’t good news, he recalls. The industry had a negative perception. Insurance companies had too much power and didn’t pay shops enough. And enrollment at vocational schools was declining, setting up a shortfall in the number of technicians needed in the years to come. 

“And you know, of course now 20 years later, this is what we're living through,” says Bemiller. 

But despite those challenges, Bemiller was fully in. And he still is. 

“I looked at the industry, and I said, you know, I'm going to clean this place up, I'm going to make quick work of this business,” says Bemiller. “This is going to be awesome. I'm smarter than everybody else. And you know, I'll be retired by the time I'm 35. So that was what I was thinking at 22. Now I'm 40 years old. I'm not retired.” 

Longer-than-planned career notwithstanding, Bemiller doesn’t have any regrets. Fixing the industry is a passion that still drives him today. “Fixing the way we fix cars,” is what his company is all about, Bemiller says. 

“That certainly has evolved into a love of the industry,” he continues. “Even if it wasn't necessarily apparent right from the get-go.” 

The collision repair industry has changed and so have shop owners. You don’t know what you don’t know going in, and even if you have the technical knowledge already like Lobsiger there might be a blind spot you’re not aware of. One of the reasons he’s such a stickler for numbers these days is what he called a period of “lost” years. 

“I took very little business classes in high school,” Lobsiger says. “And as I got out, I'm like, what an idiot. Even if I had taken even some summer classes as far as college courses or stuff on accounting and bookkeeping, and stuff like that, but I thought I don't need to know any of that. And that was a huge mistake.” 

Lobsiger worked for his uncles for 15 years and became in his words a “very, very good technician.” But the business side of the business, accounting, bookkeeping and such, remained a mystery. He learned through that mistake that hard work simply wasn’t enough. 

"When I bought the shop, I thought the way that we were going to really make it take off is just to work harder,” says Lobsiger. “And we need to work less and think more is what we need to do.” 

Looking back, Probst says that if there was one thing he could change about his career it would be to ask for help sooner. In the early days of his shop, he would put everything on his shoulders, putting in the extra hours to ensure a car got delivered on time.  

“This business is a hard road, it's a very, very hard road going alone,” says Probst. “... I didn't get help. I didn't turn over roles. I was very hesitant for a long time. When I started consulting and training, there's when my business changed.  

“… I'm still engaged and I plan to keep growing. Would I give it up? No. I'm not ready yet.” 

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