Keep On Keeping On
It's 1982, and 22-year-old kari Solem is a single mom with two small boys, trying to make a living—and a life—in California. She’s buying her first home, and having taken on a gamut of side jobs to cover the mortgage, the bills and the needs of her family, Solem takes a bookkeeping position in a small body shop that is owned by a friend and tucked away in an alley.
As Solem becomes more involved with the shop and the industry, she offers to buy into a partnership in the flailing business, selling her home to cover the costs of leasing an appropriate location and purchasing good equipment. In 1989, however, her partner, who’s since become her husband, falls ill and tells Solem, “The best thing for you to do would be to close the front door.”
Fast forward to today. Having refused to close the doors, Solem has remarkably expanded the single four-person location into a three-shop, 62-employee enterprise. Advance Tech Collision, the third-largest shop in Sonoma County, Calif., is on track to be No. 2 by year’s end.
Through determination, head-on confrontation of challenges and surrounding herself with good technicians, employees and industry mentors, Solem and her team not only turned the business around but are also making it one of the most successful independent shops in the county.
In fact, without those challenges, Solem might never have found the solutions and tools that have helped build her business. Here, in her own words, is her story of survival, and ultimately, success.
Having sold her home to invest everything she had in the shop, Solem is left sole owner of a struggling business, with the added responsibility of supporting two young sons and an ill husband.
“Our shop was tiny—2,500 square feet with three technicians working for me. It was either sink or swim, and I just basically had to make it work. So, the kids came to the shop after school and did their homework while I managed the business. I didn’t have any more money to invest in the business. I borrowed money from my parents and reinvested everything I could. I put in the time to gain the expertise I needed in this business, attending I-CAR classes and earning a nomination as a founding board member in our area. I am now fully certified and Advance Tech is an I-CAR Gold Class designated business.” Certifications: I-CAR and ASE.Core Customers: Repeat customers, customer referrals and direct repair clients.
In the ’80s the typical image of the autobody industry was a greasy shop with lots of girlie posters and calendars. Advance Tech was no different at the time, but Solem saw the need for change and set out to change the shop’s image to better attract customers.
“As a shop office worker in the ’80s, you usually had a greasy little chair to sit in, and you were lucky if you had a desk. I quickly fell in love with the industry. But I felt there was a super need for change. We needed shops that women, as well as men, felt comfortable to go in—shops that didn’t have girlie pictures and grease. So I started making changes well before it started to become the industry norm.”
With the business up and running, Solem was eager to grow it in order to create greater opportunities for herself and for her staff.
“My first year in business, I grossed $67,000 and I was thrilled! But I realized that to grow, I would need to do something different. I realized I would need to partner with the insurance companies. At that time my friends in the business told me not to do it, saying “They are not our friends!” I didn’t see it that way. I felt these alliances would be beneficial, and I made partnerships with a number of agencies. That move, along with sheer determination and the people I’ve hired around me, are what I credit for my success. It’s all about the contacts, trust and being willing to take a risk. By 1992, that was paying off: I had doubled that first year’s gross. I put the success back into the business: I try to give back to my employees who give so much to me by providing better benefits each year.
This year my employees receive fully paid medical, including payment for all co-pays. Every year, I attend the International Autobody Congress & Exposition (NACE) and I update my equipment with whatever is the latest, greatest, state-of-the-art. Despite these expenditures, I have no debt for equipment: I pay everything in cash. My goal is to become the largest autobody shop, so I can provide the greatest benefits to my team and to the community.”
Being a female business owner in an industry dominated by men is tough, especially when the bias comes from all directions.
“Just about every letter I’ve received confirming a new account has been addressed to “Mr.” Solem. And even though I am I-CAR certified, I’ve often had to find a man to take along when dealing with an issue related to a repair process; the customer doesn’t want to deal with me, he wants to talk with a man. Being a woman in the autobody industry can be tough. It can be a real challenge getting the good ol’ boys club to realize that this work is not gender specific.
The difference in attitude toward a woman’s character can make it difficult as well. If a man is stern and firm, he is considered to be a good businessman; if a woman is that way, we are considered to be a you-know-what. But if we try to be sweet, then we’re
Finding the right balance between giving back to the community and respecting the environment while trying to build a profitable, multishop business isn’t easy.
“I believe it is very important to give back to the community. We maintain loaner cars for our customers, and as the older cars are retired or upgraded, we pass them on to single mothers in need. I’ve been a single mom; I know how it is.
I also work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We completely restored a Pontiac LeMans for a boy with cystic fibrosis. The car, which was so deteriorated that you could reach through the trunk to the ground, had belonged to the boy’s father, who also had the disease and had died from it. Restoring that car for that boy was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
To do our part for the environment, we became a waterborne facility a year-and-a-half ago—before the regulations requiring it came into play. We became Sonoma County’s first green body shop. We go a step above to run a completely green shop, including use of solar panels, testing of filters for recyclability and recycling of everything we can, right down to the ink cartridges in our printers.”
Tragedy struck in 2006, when Solem’s 15-year-old daughter died. Overcome with grief, Solem was ready to walk away from the business. While there were those in the industry who supported her, others took advantage of her sad situation and attempted to lure away Advance Tech’s people with signing bonuses.
“I’ve always placed a high value on hiring good people—especially those who are smarter than me—and taking care of them. Some of them have been with me for 16 years, and even when the attempt was made to lure them away, most stayed. The loyalty of my employees says a lot to me about my company.
In addition, we hold I-CAR training at our facility and run an apprenticeship-type program with ITT Technical Institute in Sacramento, Calif., matching an apprentice with a journeyman to help provide opportunities for those new to the industry. I recently acquired my third shop, and I am in the process of opening another one on land I am buying in Windsor, Calif.” diversity has been a frequent companion to Solem during her years in the collision repair industry. She’s consistently risen to the challenges she’s encountered, proving time and again the truth of one of her core values: “I believe if you give, it comes right back to you.” For Solem, generosity has come back to her in the form of new customers, new shops and a solid industry reputation:
•New Customers. With its reputation for quality service, Advance Tech’s clientele has grown through word-of-mouth marketing. “My business is based on referral,” Solem says, explaining that she does very little advertising, yet her customer base continues to grow. “I have a really old-fashioned motto: I believe the customer is always right.”
•New Shop. In 1997 Solem was approached by a shop owner who said, “I hear you’re very competent and you know a lot about the industry. ” And he offered her his shop—what is now Advance Tech’s Todd Road location—with no money down. The deal was that Solem would keep all the receivables and take over all payables on the shop.
•Stellar Reputation. In 2005, Harry Strouse of Prism Auto Body came to Solem, praising her sheer determination and offering her the opportunity to buy his Santa Rosa business. “That body shop was completely successful because a few shops in the area had dropped [direct repair] accounts, and I picked them right up,” she says. In fact, Solem was told that it was the fastest that an auto body shop had ever attained a direct repair account—something she credits to the reputation and quality service of her business.
And so we arrive in 2008. In 25 years, Solem has gone from a single mom bookkeeper to an esteemed business owner whose three-shop enterprise helps provide for some 62 families in the region. “Right now we are the seventy-second largest shop in the country,” Solem notes. “My goal has always been to be the largest.”
But, she adds, “My vision is to do it without destroying the environment and to be able to do it in a totally technical way—all state of the art.”