Reaching for the Top
As a vintage Ferrari collector, Larry Smith wouldn’t trust his more than 20 cars to just anyone, and as the owner of seven autobody shops in Pontiac, Mich., Smith doesn’t think that you should have to either.
“You can have someone that owns a $10,000 Ford Focus that’s just as picky as someone who owns a $200,000 Ferrari,” Smith says. “That’s the type of customer we thrive on. I love it when they tell us up front that they’re going to be a pain in the [neck]. We aim to exceed the expectations of all our customers. That’s where we shine.”
Smith, who is now 55, grew up in the heart of the muscle car era of the ’60s and ’70s. In 1975, at the age of 24, he opened his first autobody shop, Autometric Collision, as an import-only repairer. Why imports? Smith says the quality of imports was much higher at the time. And with a mom who was a British import herself, Smith was exposed early on to the quality of British and European cars.
“Muscle cars were such a huge focus when I was growing up, but I found the quality in those cars to be lacking,” Smith says. “Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini were made so much better, and that turned me on to the quality aspect of the automotive world.”
That attention to quality is something that Smith insists on as a part of his business from top to bottom. He enforces a dress code for all employees who work with the public. A shirt and tie for men is a must, and piercings are not seen behind his counter or on his estimators.
“We don’t want to give people the impression that we’re just the next bum shop. Our stores are not overdone, but they’re neat and clean,” Smith says. “We can tell people we’re special, or they can see it when they walk in. Our guys are presentable, with their shirt tucked in and a tie on.”
Occasionally, estimators will ask if they can just wear polo shirts to work, but Smith has held firm to his dress code for more than 25 years.
“As a business, we have a very short time to make a good first impression,” Smith says. “In that first half-second, you have to do things that are going to cement that relationship and make the customer feel good.”
THE MOM TEST
It’s not only appearances that count to the customer, Smith notes, and it’s not always about making more money for Autometric. In his mind, there’s a right way to do things. He calls it ‘the mom test.’
“I think the mom test answers 99.9 percent of the questions you’ll have in business,” Smith says. “It clears the smoke for me and for my people. If it’s a gray area, put your mom in that situation, and see how you’d like her to be treated.”
Sometimes, Smith gets calls from managers and says that once he reminds them of the mom test, they don’t even have to explain the problem; they just say, “OK, I know what to do now.” On occasion, though, he’ll get a call from employees who can’t plug their moms into the situation, and they’ll want his opinion.
“In that situation, I ask them, ‘What do you think the right thing to do is?’ Usually their first answer — as long as they’re not mad or emotional — is the right answer,” Smith says.
That kind of common sense has translated into good business sense for Smith. His seven Autometric Collision shops total nearly 100,000 square feet in shop space, with stores ranging in size from 7,000 to 25,000 square feet. Autometric employs 140 people, two-thirds as autobody technicians. And while they’ve expanded their business to cover domestic cars as well, imports are still what Autometric is known for; they comprise about 60 percent of the company’s business, according to Smith.
Smith admits that he hasn’t done any meaningful repair work in more than 25 years, so he hires the right people with the right attitude to get the job done.
“They’re all smarter than me,” Smith quips. “There is no shop manual that is going to tell you how to do everything, so I want a problem solver in every stall.”
Smith says he doesn’t want buck-passers or employees who just want someone to tell them what to do. Instead, he hires people who have the desire to seek out the right answer, who are passionate about cars and who are empathetic to the customers.
Smith loves cars. His personal collection of more than two-dozen vehicles, including several vintage Ferraris, will attest to that. Even his “daily driving” vehicles speak to his love of the automobile. Smith has a practical side, too — he owns a ’99 Tahoe for those times when, as a body shop owner, he has to move around parts or equipment.
He got rid of his 2007 Suburban because it was just “too nice” to use for parts transport. But Smith’s other daily driver is a “500-horsepower little rocket ship:” a two-seat convertible SL55 Mercedes.
Mercedes has become an important part of the Autometric focus, and the shop has invested equipment, time, resources and personnel to make sure that it is certified for Mercedes repair. There are three components to that process. The first is having the proper equipment, including a Cellette straightening bench. The second requirement is training: Periodically, Smith sends employees — on his dime — to a training program in either New Jersey or Texas to learn the proper repair techniques necessary to live up to the Mercedes-Benz standard. The third requirement is customer service. Smith’s stores must maintain high marks in customer satisfaction, and, since Autometric is independent, the shop’s local sponsoring dealer can have them terminated from the Mercedes program at any time. So Autometric has a clear incentive to meet or exceed the dealer’s expectations.
Autometric also is certified to do Jaguar repairs — both cosmetic and structural — for the XK and XJ series, and Autometric does autobody repair for the local BMW dealership. Since BMW only has a certification program for dealer-owned autobody repair, Autometric technically is not certified. But some employees have been BMW trained, and Smith’s business is also working with Audi, since that manufacturer is launching a certification program similar to Mercedes’. Autometric plans to be one of the first certified body shops under Audi’s program. If that wasn’t enough, Autometric also does all the work for the local Ferrari dealer.
“Most of the time, you really don’t have to be certified to repair a car,” Smith says. “However, with BMW and Mercedes, with their CL composite parts, you can’t buy the parts unless you are certified, and the same is true for Jaguar and their aluminum parts. So the manufacturer controls the parts, which controls the repair process. It’s a good thing because if someone doesn’t have the proper training and tries to repair one of those cars, it’s going to be an absolute disaster. It would be like having your top body man go and remove a brain tumor — you’re just going to have problems.”
There is one other certification requirement for some of the manufacturers, like Mercedes, that also determines if certification is even possible. To earn a certification, you must be sponsored by a local dealership, and if you’re in a market where the local dealer has an autobody department, you are out of luck, says Smith.
Autometric has spent the time and money to know how to fix high-end vehicles. It’s part of their mission to be able to fix a Porsche, a Rolls-Royce, a BMW, a Mercedes, a Ferrari or anything else that comes into the shop; and Autometric has spent more than $200,000 making the improvements needed to work on high-priced vehicles. But, as a business strategy, it’s not really raking in extra business the way Smith originally thought it would — the elite-vehicle portion of the business accounts for only about 5 percent of total sales. Still, says Smith, who markets Autometric heavily, the benefits can’t always be quantified.
“You can’t always look at the dollars and cents,” he explains. “If someone has the interest and the focus and the passion to do things right, it’s a question that gets answered immediately. They’re going to do whatever it takes to do whatever keeps up with technology, but if people start crunching numbers, this may not pan out with a strict dollars-earned for dollars invested.”
For Smith, the investment was more about the fact that it was the right thing to do to keep up with technology and live up to his personal mission of establishing Autometric as the best. Right now, he says, that is enough for his string of seven stores.
“From a marketing perspective, it’s not anywhere near what I thought it would be,” says Smith. “But from a practical standpoint, being able to call [Mercedes technical support] and get any question answered so that we can have confidence in doing any type of Mercedes repair, know that it’s a correct repair and a long-lasting repair — that’s been worth it.”
At the same time, Smith is feeling the pinch that many autobody repair shops are feeling today. Sales for the last three years have been over the $20 million mark, Smith says, but Autometric probably won’t make that threshold this year. In fact, his stores have been slowly declining from a high of $24 million in 2004.
“The business climate has been pretty dismal in southeast Mich.. There’s trouble in Motor City with layoffs; many people have done away with their comprehensive collision insurance; and, with gas costing more than $3 a gallon, people start minimizing their driving,” Smith notes. “And as baby boomers age, they also start slowing down, and cars are now safer, too.” All of those factors line up to create fewer accidents, and therefore less need for Autometric’s services, Smith adds.
But, above all, Smith wants his customers to be able to trust him. And as someone who belongs to several car clubs and is the organizer of the Meadow Brook Concors d’Elegance — a collector car show in Rochester, Mich. — he knows it takes a car guy to fully appreciate that.
“If I was going to take one of my vintage Ferraris in somewhere to be repaired, I would want to take it to someone who owned a Ferrari,” Smith says. “If he does, you know he also has a passion for and can appreciate the cars.”
Smith relayed a story of a recent visit to a Ferrari mechanic in Arizona, where some of Smith’s collector cars are kept. He walked into a dirty shop where a mechanic was sitting behind a messy desk, smoking a cigarette. Even though the mechanic came highly recommended, Smith says he was very uncomfortable leaving his Ferrari in the man’s hands for an engine repair.
Things like that remind Smith of why he sticks to not only making quality repairs, but also maintaining his shops’ standards to keep up on technology and look like the quality repair business Autometric is. After all, he notes, you shouldn’t have to trust your car to just anyone.
Sherry Collins is freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.