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The 2011 FenderBender Awards

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Our annual FenderBender Awards issue, now in its fourth year, has quickly established itself as an institution at FenderBender. It’s our way of recognizing the collision repair industry’s finest workers in six categories: executive, management, shop worker, administrative assistant, vendor, and wild card (open to anyone in the industry). This year, we received a tremendous response to our call for nominations, with nearly 200 submissions from throughout the country. We whittled that list of impressive candidates down to the six top-tier professionals featured here.

 

Category: Executive

Henry Yach II

Owner, Yach’s Body & Custom, Wausau, Wis.

photo by Brian Taylor

Integrity. Honesty. Quality. In the town of Wausau, Wis., these words have become synonymous with Henry Yach II, who during the past half-century has built a top-tier body shop that serves as an integral part of the community.
Henry Yach III, vice president of the company and one of two individuals to nominate Yach II for a FenderBender Award, says his dad “is one of the finest in the collision repair industry, the community we live in, and frankly the business world in general. My father has poured his life into serving others through repairing damaged vehicles, providing for his family, and making his community a better place to live.”

Thrust into the owner position at 23 to provide for his mother and four of six siblings after his father’s unexpected death, Yach II, now 64, has grown the business year after year. The shop has evolved from a one-and-a-half-car garage generating around $10,000 in annual revenue to a 16,500-square-foot operation earning $2.2 million. The shop is still growing, and plans are underway to expand the business with another 14,000-square-foot facility.

“[Yach’s] believes in everyone here, in all of the businesses helping one another, and people look up to them.”
—Karen Nerison, marketing and programs director,
Wausau Chamber of Commerce

Much of Yach II’s success has come from forward thinking. He developed an assembly-line style production floor in the early 1990s, before anyone was talking about lean processes. His shop invested in a computer management system before many people had a personal computer. That foresight, combined with his dedication to providing a valuable, high-quality service to his community, his tireless efforts to communicate with each customer, and his contributions to local charities and schools, have made Yach’s a household name in Wausau.

It’s hard to believe how advanced the  business is today, considering the city threatened to shut down the little shop in 1971 because it was made entirely of wood and still had dirt floors. But a customer who had been impressed by Yach II’s work offered to build him a new facility and lease it, and so a deal was made that gave the then-young operator his first boost into modern collision repair.

Yach II has also been significantly involved in the broader collision repair industry, namely as a co-founder and past president of the Wisconsin Autobody Association. He has served on I-CAR committees and other industry groups as well.

“I always thought that if any of my experience or talents could help out in any way, I just wanted to pay back to the community and other areas that helped me be successful,” Yach II says.

Pat Blakeslee, an account manager for DuPont who also nominated Yach II for a FenderBender Award, says he’s witnessed the man’s generosity firsthand in DuPont’s statewide 20 Group, of which Yach’s is a member. Blakeslee says Yach II is a true innovator who exemplifies lean mentality.

“Henry contributes a lot,” Blakeslee says. “He shares ideas that help other businesses.”

Because Yach II is so highly regarded in the region, Blakeslee says DuPont gained several new customers who followed the shop owner’s lead when he switched to the paint company a couple of years ago. That respect for Yach II and his shop is also visible within Wausau’s business community.

“[Yach’s] believes in everyone here, in all of the businesses helping one another, and people look up to them,” says Karen Nerison, marketing and programs director for the Wausau Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber recognized the shop with its Small Business of the Year award earlier this year. Recipients are considered based on company history, growth, community involvement and innovative efforts.

But Yach II’s most notable trait, according to his nominees, his staff and others who know him, is his unfailing kindness and respect for everyone he interacts with.

Grace Rondeau, who has worked at Yach’s as the office manager for 27 years, says her boss and the environment he has created have kept her at the business. She says he is quick to make cost-effective investments in equipment that will help employees do their jobs.

And though he’s always busy in the shop, he will drop anything to chat with customers, who often stop by just to see him. In the community, Rondeau says she’s proud to say she works at Yach’s.

“He’s concerned about everyone and about the business, and I’m very fortunate to have a boss that is like that,” she says.

These days, Yach II is very much involved in the day-to-day operations of his business, but he is turning more responsibility over to Yach III, who is following in his father’s footsteps.

“I love this business. It’s been my life, and we’re working on succession planning right now,” Yach II says. “I’m looking to work in the business for as long as I can be productive.”

 

Category: Management

Devin Fischer

General Manager, Fischer Body Shop, Jefferson City, Mo.

photo by Anthony Jinsen

You’d never guess Devin Fischer was once uncertain about a future in collision repair.

In the seven years he’s served as general manager at Fischer Body Shop, he’s spearheaded its growth from a rural one-location business to a thriving three-center, $3.5 million operation anchored in Missouri’s busy capital. He has also managed to launch an in-house glass company, grow the company’s DRP relationships from one to nine, and earn the respect of employees twice his age.

Not bad for someone who took on a management position as a kid barely out of high school.

“Devin is only 27 years old and operates Jefferson City, Missouri’s largest and busiest repair facility, pushing out anywhere from 20 to 30 cars a week and always scheduling weeks in advance,” wrote Michael Miller, manager of the company’s California, Mo., shop, in his letter nominating Fischer for a FenderBender Award.

“Quality is number one with him,
[A job] goes out right or it doesn’t go out.”
—Michael Miller, manager,
Fischer Body Shop’s California, Mo., location

Fischer, who turns 28 this month, says he set off for community college after high school without knowing what he wanted to do for a career. A year later, his father, Curt Fischer, who owns Fischer Body Shop, offered his son the management job.

The position opened after the shop’s former manager swindled a significant amount of cash from the business.

“When that came up, I said I need to take this chance,” Devin Fischer says. He had, after all, enjoyed working at the shop part-time during high school. “I was getting interested in cars,” he says. “My dad used to race monster trucks all over the country. I was always around cars and racing.”

So, with minimal experience, Devin Fischer dove into the collision repair business. Guided by his father, the shop’s staff, and a slew of education courses, he quickly learned the ropes. But it wasn’t easy to prove to employees that he deserved the job for reasons beyond being the owner’s son. That took a lot of time and effort.

Curt Fischer says he had high expectations of Devin, and they were met because of his son’s thick skin, willingness to learn and constant drive to succeed.

“The guys had more reservations than I did,” Curt Fischer says. “There were tough times when techs didn’t want to listen to him, but it really changed quickly for the better.”

Miller says any employee skepticism was swept away when the new manager showed how committed he was to improving the business and making sure repairs were done correctly.

“Quality is number one with him,” Miller says. “[A job] goes out right or it doesn’t go out.”

It wasn’t long before Devin Fischer was running things as if he’d done it all along, and he quickly developed a vision for what the shop could become. At the time, the single facility, which had gradually expanded over the years, was in the small town of Lohman, Mo. It was only about 15 minutes outside of Jefferson City, but it felt farther because of the winding rural road location.

Business was good, but not good enough for the shop’s eager new manager. “My dad was comfortable where he was at,” Devin Fischer says. “He was all paid for and happy, but I kept pushing him until we put on a 9,000-square-foot addition in Lohman.”

Pretty soon, that addition wasn’t enough either, and Devin Fischer started making bigger plans for the current shop in Jefferson City—where the real traffic was. It took some convincing to get his dad on board, but in 2005 the father-and-son team made the move and sank $3 million into a brand-new, 18,000-square-foot repair center. And the growth didn’t stop there.

A few years ago, two GM dealerships—one in California, Mo., and the other in Eldon, Mo.—closed their body shops and offered to lease the facilities. Despite being in the thick of the recession, Devin Fischer convinced his dad to make the deal.

Today, the new shops add more than $1 million in annual revenue to the company and allow the Jefferson City facility to level its immense load. The new repair centers also added eight new jobs and a renewed auto service to communities hit hard by the economic downturn.

Devin Fischer has fueled the company’s growth largely by pounding on doors of insurance companies and maintaining those relationships.

“Not everyone thinks highly of DRPs, but those are the people that feed you the work,” he says.

And following his father’s advice to do as much in-house work as possible, he launched an internal glass company earlier this year, eliminating the need to outsource glasswork. Future plans include another 6,000-square-foot addition and eventually still more locations, he says.

During his brief time running the family business, Devin Fischer has stayed committed to continuous learning. He has achieved I-CAR Platinum certification and  all of his techs are I-CAR Gold certified. He’s always looking for ways to improve.

“I want to be the biggest and I want to be the best,” Devin Fischer says. “And I want to have the best people. Right now I think we’ve got the best.”

 

Category: Wild Card

Rick Starbard

Partner, Rick’s Auto Collision & Service Center, Revere, Mass.

photo by Jared Charney

When it comes to ensuring a strong future for the collision repair industry, it’s hard to find someone as invested as Rick Starbard.

Starbard, 48, got into the industry because his mother was a frequent car crasher and he used to hear his father complain about how much repairs cost. It seemed there was a lot of money to be made in collision repair, he remembers thinking. So after graduating from a vocational high school, he went to work for a small shop and ended up buying the business a couple of years later.

He and partner Jim Lablanc have since grown that shop from 3,200 square feet to 12,000 square feet. It earns roughly $2 million in annual revenue and repairs about 40 cars a month, and Starbard recently added used car and mechanical divisions. But it’s what he has accomplished outside the business that earned him a FenderBender Award.

“I don’t know anyone who has been as dedicated as he is.”
—Tom Rawson, president, Rawson Auto Body Inc.

Starbard just returned to the shop full time a year ago after spending the previous 14 years teaching at Lynn Vocational Technical High School, where he earned his teaching license. About 30 students have gained experience working at his shop—four are now employees.

Teaching was his way of making sure the industry kept moving forward, especially as good techs started to be in short supply. It wasn’t until his business grew to the point where it needed him there to operate that he decided to leave the classroom.

But he wasn’t satisfied with the direction the vocational school was going, so he decided to run for a position on the Lynn Public Schools board, which oversees a 15,000-student system, and was elected.

“Nobody in the school system, school administration or school committees had any vo-tech experience and I wasn’t happy with any of the moves being made in the school,” he says.

Starbard is still serving his two-year term and is running for re-election. One of his main priorities is restoring a machine and manufacturing program that was cut.

Outside of school issues, Starbard has worked hard to improve the industry. He oversaw the merger of the Massachusetts Auto Body Association and the Central Auto Rebuilders Association with the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Massachusetts (AASP-MA) to create a stronger, collective voice. He is now the national AASP president.

Starbard has also been heavily involved in numerous legislative efforts and served on I-CAR committees and on the boards of other industry organizations, including the Database Task Force and Database Enhancement Gateway.

Tom Rawson, president of Rawson Auto Body Inc. in Wakefield, Mass., nominated Starbard for the FenderBender Award. Rawson says Starbard is watching out for everyone in the auto body industry, not just himself.

“I don’t know anyone who has been as dedicated as he is,” Rawson says.

 

Category: Vendor

Blake Harris

President, Blue Ridge Color Co., Roanoke, Va.

photo by Bruce Muncy

Blake Harris left a comfortable, steady job as a paint company representative about a decade ago to take a shot at starting his own distribution business.

He and his wife pooled their money together to launch Blue Ridge Color Co. from scratch in an already competitive market. But Harris, now 46, says they were confident enough in their abilities, and their love of the trade, to make the leap.

“I enjoy selling these products, knowing shops are using them correctly and efficiently every day,” Harris says. “We’re as interested in the customer’s business as they are.”

It was tough at first. Money was tight; expenditures were minimal. The company’s only delivery vehicle, for example, was the same one Harris and his wife used as a daily driver.

“I get to go to work, I don’t
have to go to work.”
—Blake Harris, president, Blue Ridge Color Co.

But the risk paid off big. The four-person company made a modest $400,000 in gross sales in its first year and has since grown into a 45-employee, $15 million-a-year giant. The distributor now has six locations and a vehicle fleet of more than 30.

“Today, Blue Ridge Color is one of the largest distributors in southwest Virginia,” says Barry Graham, territory manager for PPG Refinish, who nominated Harris for a FenderBender Award.

Graham says Harris is actively involved in the industry and his customers’ day-to-day operations—even attending 20 Group sessions with them. He is also incredibly dedicated to continuing education for both shop employees and his own staff.

In response to a desire from customers for more local education offerings several years ago, Harris decided to buy an old body shop and spruce it up as a training facility on a temporary basis. He invited I-CAR instructors, company representatives and others to the site to run classes. His own team also offered courses. The operation proved immensely popular.

So, the company developed a 7,000-square-foot stand-alone training facility, which now offers courses for employees spanning the industry. More centers are planned—in fact, Harris wants every Blue Ridge Color location to have its own training center for customers.

Harris regularly receives requests from his three manufacturer partners—PPG, AkzoNobel and 3M—to open in new markets. He’s weighing several possibilities for expansion and plans to be at 10 shops soon. He also launched a new business, Shop Fix Inc., two years ago to supply repair centers with paint booths, lines and other equipment. That venture simply came from customer demand for the products, he says

Harris is always on the go, and though he could afford to kick back and let someone else do the work at this point, he enjoys his job too much to give it a rest.

“I get to go to work, I don’t have to go to work,” he says. “That’s the thing we try to get our employees to understand.”

And the company’s staff gets it, Harris says. He says his hand-picked crew is what keeps the company strong.

“We’ve gotten to where we are because they are the best people,” he says. 

 

Category: Administrative Support

Humberto Ibarra

Estimator, Gateway Collision Center Inc., Bakersfield, Calif.

photo by Devin Schiro

Humberto Ibarra, 36, earned his first estimator position after just two months as a detailer. In his downtime between washes, color sands and polishes, he’d hang around the front office, soaking up information. So when a couple of estimators quit, he was ready to step right into the job with little training.

The former construction worker, who started working on cars as a hobby years before he could drive, found his calling as an estimator. He’s been at it now for 12 years.

Dale Wolfe, manager at Ibarra’s current employer, Gateway Collision Center, said she nominated him for a FenderBender Award because of his sincere compassion for each customer, his honesty, and his drive to continually improve. Wolfe says Ibarra is well respected among his colleagues and in the community, and has become an irreplaceable asset to the shop.

Customers ask for him by name and he stays the main point of contact from the start of a repair through the end.

“Quality is number one to me; following the guidelines. I love it.”
—Humberto Ibarra, estimator, Gateway Collision Center Inc.

“He’s great with the public and he’s willing to go the extra mile to get business in here,” Wolfe says.

Part of what makes Ibarra so effective with both customers and colleagues is his consistently calm demeanor, says Michael Gonzales, a painter at Gateway Collision Center.

“He’s a people person,” Gonzales says. “You’ve got to be able to talk to customers and not get upset, and he’s that type.”

And Gonzales says Ibarra’s estimates are always thorough and accurate, which makes everyone’s job easier.   

Wolfe says Ibarra’s strong reputation in the industry helped the two-year-old shop gain its first three DRP relationships. He has also scheduled in-house continuing education courses for his colleagues, and he’s always researching the latest industry trends and developments. Ibarra says the rapid changes taking place in the industry are part of what makes it such an exciting field to work in.

“I’m always looking toward the future, at the high strength steels, fiberglass.… new cars are changing a lot,” he says. “That’s what I think makes it interesting, I like to learn and know what’s going on with all of these incoming cars.”

Ibarra has also taken the time to learn other jobs in the shop and he’ll help out with bodywork—even pitching ideas for more efficient processes—when time allows. Though he has the experience to move into a management role, he says he enjoys estimating and can’t see himself in any other role.

He says the gratification he gets from being able to help people in difficult situations is the job’s most rewarding aspect. 

“I like dealing with customers and making sure that the job gets done correctly,” he says. “Quality is number one to me; following the guidelines. I love it.”  like to see good work being done.”

 

Category: Shop Worker

Zachary Utecht

Production Foreman, Offutt Collision Repair, Bellevue, Neb.

photo by LeAnne Braniff

It’s often not easy being the new guy in a body shop. It takes time to prove your worth, learn the routine and develop relationships with colleagues.

Unless, that is, you’re Zachary Utecht, who joined Offutt Collision Repair four years ago and made a difference in the shop almost overnight.

“He came into the middle of the wolf pack and quickly became the favorite,” says Offutt’s marketing director Becca Gilbert, who nominated Utecht for a FenderBender Award. “Without question, the rest of the team was quickly turning to him for advice and support.”

Not only that, but Utecht brought with him a large following of customers, some who drive as far as 45 miles to make sure he is involved in their vehicle’s repair. And he’s consistently growing that base—even asking for additional shop shirts to wear outside of work, so he can advertise his services.

“He brings in more customers than anyone else.
It’s because he’s proud to work here and
his family and friends all know to come to him.”
—Becca Gilbert, marketing director,
Offutt Collision repair

“He brings in more customers than anyone else,” Gilbert says. “It’s because he’s proud to work here, and his family and friends all know to come to him.

Utecht, 47, has worked in collision repair for 25 years. Like many in the auto industry, he started playing around with cars as a teenager. “It’s about the only thing I’m good at,” he jokes.

During his long career, Utecht has worked in three shops. He made the move to Offutt—his competition at the time of his hire—after getting to know shop owner George Rybar.

Unlike many shops, Offutt operates on a linear, or assembly-line style production process: Cars move through the shop in a straight line from estimate to detail, rather than heading to a bay for one tech to repair. Despite the fact that Utecht built his customer base on the one-bay, one-tech model, he’s managed to keep his clients and meld into his new employer’s system.

“Right from the start, Zach bought into the process,” says Rybar. “He understands it and how it benefits him and us.” Utecht calls himself a “floater,” and he stays involved throughout the repair process. He knows how to do everything from bodywork to paint, and he helps wherever he’s needed.

Even as the new guy, Utecht jumped in as a mentor for the shop’s techs—most are younger guys—and he has helped the shop improve repair quality and efficiency. Jobs no longer languish on the floor, Rybar says.

Utecht says there’s a true team focus at Offutt. Everybody works together to create the success of the shop, which generates about $3.6 million in annual revenue. Offutt, Utecht says, will likely be the last stop in his collision repair career: “I think I’ve found a home here.”

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