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George Avery on the Industry’s Future

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George Avery first discovered his love of cars in high school, while working at a mechanical shop. The bright lights of the body shop always intrigued him, and he eventually became a painter’s helper before becoming a technician and then a painter himself. While performing auto body work, Avery realized he most loved the interaction he had with customers. He decided to pursue career opportunities within the shop office. After moving to Los Angeles 29 years ago, he took a position with State Farm Insurance as an estimator, and nearly three decades later, the vice president of the National Auto Body Council (NABC) still works for the insurer. As an estimating consultant, Avery lends his expertise and passion for the collision industry as a leader of the NABC. Here, he shares how the NABC plans to improve the image of the collision industry, the biggest issue facing the insurance industry right now and how the nation’s economic situation will affect repairers.

 

How is the National Auto Body Council helping to improve the image of the collision repair industry?
The NABC is really trying to pull back the curtain and allow those outside the collision repair industry to see what it’s all about. We want to give people a snapshot of the quality and the sincerity within this industry. Customers need to see what’s going on within the industry—it’s exciting! For example, after Hurricane Katrina, we realized a lot of technicians were displaced because of the storm. We helped move them into a repair facility that wasn’t affected by the hurricane so they could continue working. We bought them new tools. A lot of guys said, “If you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t have been able to work.” It was something the NABC and the Collision Industry Foundation did together.

 

Recycled Rides is a recent NABC program formed to encourage shops to repair vehicles and donate them to families in need. How did this idea come about and how is the program doing?
Akzo Nobel approached us with the idea a couple of years ago. This year, we started off by giving away three cars at our NACE booth. It was a great opportunity to see those who volunteered their time and resources hand the keys to a family in need. Then the official give-away day was the Monday before Thanksgiving when 48 cars were given away by repair facilities. Recycled Rides has pulled the folks who worked on the cars to the forefront. It recognizes the body shop, whoever donated the parts and the insurance company that donated the car.

 

What other programs is NABC working on that shop owners should know about?
My personal experience tells me there are a lot of very smart and talented people who may be interested in the industry—repair facilities, insurance, parts, paint and material, computer technologies. We’re working to get young people into the industry. Let’s say a repair facility needs some new people. Where do they go? The NABC is working on a package to help repair facilities connect with the local community college. We’ll have an example of a letter that you would send and what you should say. “Here’s how you have an open house and how show young people the paint area. Here’s how you take the parents into the office and show them the earnings capability of a painter.” We want to give them the resources to reach out to their community.

 

What are the biggest issues insurance companies are facing right now?
The economy, because no one is immune. It is my observation that some insurers are more conservative and may not be greatly affected by the economy; others may have taken a more aggressive approach and will be affected more.

As things start to unfold, communicating with everyone is essential. Everyone gets panicky, and the frequency of repairs is down. Fewer cars are being damaged. Cars are getting safer. Some may think of insurance companies: “Well, you’re still collecting premiums, and there are no accidents, so that’s great.” But if there are fewer accidents, customers will reevaluate their insurance purchases. As time goes by, premiums will really reflect the risk. People may change their purchasing habits and buy no collision insurance or less collision insurance because their car is safer. Some people aren’t fixing their cars; some are partially fixing their cars. If you’ve developed relationships with business partners, when these times come, you’ve already established that you’re good at communicating and that you care about the customer.

 

How can insurers and repairers work together to improve service to customers?
Focus on the customer. Repairers and insurers are business partners with a common customer—both need to communicate with each other to provide the level of service our customers expect. State Farm, for example, has had an Advisory Council for several years. We invite a number of repairers and industry consultants, and we meet with them a couple times a year. It’s been a really good experience for us. We’ll say, “We think this,” and they’ll say, “Yeah, you’re right” or “You’re way off base.” That’s our effort, to work together. We have changed some of our procedures because of input from repairers. It’s tough: You get some really direct questions, but I can tell you it’s helped, because we’ve carried that information back [into our decision making process].

 

At the end of 2008, then-President Bush pledged that the government would lend $17.4 billion to General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC to provide financial relief. How do you see this decision affecting the collision repair industry?
Given today’s economic situation with the automakers, I believe the concern is ‘what if’ one or more go out of business—how will repairers get parts to repair vehicles? Let’s say you get hit in the right front. You go in to the body shop and your insurance company says, “I’m willing to pay for this, but the shop says they don’t have the head lamp.” What do you do?

The other thing that parts availability will affect is rental cars. What if you have purchased the rental coverage for the typical time it’s going to take to repair your car, but it’s going to be longer now because they don’t have the part or it will take longer to get, and your insurance company tells you you’re out of rental car insurance? Part delays or no parts would be ugly, and it would put stress on a lot of different areas at once, but I have confidence the industry will figure out what to do to help their shared customer.

 

How can shop operators remain positive and still boost their bottom line in a tough economic situation?
When you talk about bad things happening, it all falls back to relationships. Gaining market share is about focusing on your customer and their needs and expectations. You have to follow what the customer wants and the money will come.

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