Insurer Perspective in an Independent Shop
Alma Gonzales never imagined she’d be an advocate for change in the auto repair and collision industry. For that matter, she never imagined she’d work in collision repair at all. But in both cases, she gave it a shot and found success.
As president of the Kern County chapter of the California Autobody Association (CAA), Gonzales has made it her mission to get repair professionals directly involved in issues like steering and environmental laws. That same personal drive keeps Gonzales’ business skills sharp as she thinks about new directions for Service First Collision, the shop she co-owns with her husband, Henry, in Bakersfield, Calif.
Through industry organizations, legislative action and community involvement, the Gonzaleses have mapped out a clear path to success.
A WINDING ROAD
Gonzales first got involved in the industry when she married Henry in 1987. He had a 9-year-old body shop, so it made sense for her to learn the business and help him out, she says. Over the next few years, however, the shop struggled; the couple decided to shutter it 1993. They headed for the insurance industry, capitalizing on what they’d learned about that side of the business while running their shop.
“We were basically dealing with the same issues, but we were just on the other side,” she says. “Henry was an appraiser, and I was an adjuster, and I loved the work, because I felt like I could always help the people I was working for, which were the customers. Some people come into our shop now and complain about their adjusters, and I understand, because I worked with people who were good, and I worked with others who were lazy.”
Eventually, the strain of big company politics and anxiety about employee lay-offs prompted the Gonzaleses to leave the insurance business. She and Henry wanted to be in control of their own destiny. They returned to their collision repair roots, opening Service First in 2006.
INSIDE THE SHOP
Service First is a 15,000-square-foot shop that repairs about 80 cars monthly, and there are plans to expand in the current building. The couple’s 20-year-old son, Rick, is among the shop’s 12 employees. He’s in charge of production now and will likely take over the business when his parents retire.
Gonzales didn’t think either of her sons would be interested in the industry, but once Rick joined Service First, he attended a number of I-CAR classes and began talking about what type of changes could be made. He’s interested, for instance, in taking over three other companies that operate in the building’s complex. That move would expand the shop’s services to include things like offering rental cars and doing alignments.
“There are services that we sublet that would be nice to have in-house,” Gonzales says. “In the current economy, that might take some time, but Rick has a lot of plans.”
One thing that won’t change, however, is the shop’s attitude toward customers. From the first shop owned by the Gonzaleses, through their insurance industry work, and on to the present day, the couple has been devoted to service. Basically, their shop’s name is also the bedrock of their business philosophy.
“We want customers to feel like they’re talking to family when they’re talking to us,” Gonzales says. “We have a good rapport, and that’s what we stress, because if they’re comfortable with us, they’ll be comfortable leaving their cars here.”
While getting Service First going, Henry began researching legislation and laws that might apply to the industry. A local jobber came in, Gonzales remembers, and casually mentioned that there had been a CAA chapter locally. It had died down, the jobber said, and he wanted to get it going again.
As an immigrant to the United States—Gonzales was born in Mexico, and became an American citizen in 1983—she understood the importance of community involvement and having a voice. With her husband’s encouragement, she brought her talent for organizing and “getting things done” to the board of the local chapter.
The Gonzaleses were interested in making sure that the insurance companies couldn’t become more powerful. They felt that customers were getting less-than-spectacular service at times because of financial considerations determined by their insurance providers. Gonzales says, “The insurance companies are allowed to get together to make their policies and talk about what they’ll allow, but the shops can’t do that because it’s against the law. So, we get together and discuss innovative ideas instead.”
Gonzales’ organizational ability propelled her to the role of president of the chapter in 2008, and she’ll continue in that capacity this year. She relishes the opportunity to meet with other shop owners to discuss legislation, as well as new technology and training, and other collision repair topics.
“Some people say, you’re giving out all your secrets,” she says. “But if [their shops are good], they’ll survive, and so will we.”
—Alma Gonzales, co-owner, Service First Collision Center
Anti-steering is the big issue this year, she believes, and it will likely be the primary focus for the entire state. But there are smaller issues clamoring for attention too, such as an insurance company proposal that collision repair customers receive invoices that list the cost of every part involved in a repair. “It takes so much time to do that, and it doesn’t make sense,” Gonzales says. “They always create so much red tape and expect us to put in this extra time, but they’re not willing to pay us for that time.”
Another issue that she expects to tackle this year is labor rates. Gonzales notes that the state’s insurance companies do a periodic labor rate survey, but look only at DRP shops, which Gonzales says often don’t have Workers Compensation or other benefits that might factor into the equation.
“There’s a lot of participation at the state chapter meetings, but this year, I’ll work on getting more participation at the local level, because I believe it’s important for people to be involved. I know that running a shop takes time, but if you don’t get involved, you can’t complain when legislation negatively impacts your business.”
CONNECTING TO THE COMMUNITY
Beyond having a voice in the industry, the Gonzaleses also have a deep commitment to community involvement. “We do as much as we can to be involved with our community,” she says. “Whether that means our professional community, through CAA, or our customer community, we want to give back.”
For example, the Gonzaleses speak Spanish, and their business reflects that: About 90 percent of their customers are Hispanic. They advertise in the local Hispanic Yellow Pages to strengthen their profile within that community, and they belong to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. They’re also very active in the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.
When customers arrive at Service First, they are well cared for: comfortable seats, a TV, an ample supply of fresh-popped popcorn (the popcorn machine is “Henry’s baby”), and a promise that customers won’t have to linger there for long.
“We treat customers the way they want to be treated,” Gonzales says. “We explain the whole process to them, and tell them they can choose whatever shop they want. We even give them a ride home if they need one. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 miles away; I’ll take them personally.”
Hispanic customers are particularly grateful for the assistance, since the claims process isn’t always explained to them accurately by some adjusters, Gonzales notes. “They’ll be told they’re not entitled to a rental car, when they are,” she says. “They need someone to look out for them, and they know that we will.”
The Gonzaleses also get involved in community events to raise the shop’s profile—Henry is an amateur photographer, and often takes photos at local events. His photographs are regularly published in an area magazine. The Gonzaleses also participate in volunteer activities for their church.
“We want to be involved in our community as a whole, because we’re so grateful for what we have,” Gonzales says. “We want to make sure we give back, not just because it affects the business, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
A LITTLE BIT OF LUCK
When the Gonzaleses returned to collision repair with the opening of Service First, they relied heavily on their community connections, and their participation in the local chambers of commerce was a boon. They also benefited from a little bit of luck, which put them on national TV.
Henry and the shop’s manager, Tom, were watching “Little People Big World,” a show on The Learning Channel that highlights the challenges and successes of a family led by Matt Roloff, a man with dwarfism. In one episode, Roloff and his sons discuss an old yellow Volkswagen Bug that had been in the family for four decades. The Bug was junked in a field.
“If you’ve ever seen that Bug on that episode, you realize it’s something that Henry and Tom shouldn’t have even thought about restoring,” Gonzales says. Still, the pair proposed a restoration, and the show staff agreed. That led to a 10-month project that went far beyond a typical repair and restore—and yet typified the business philosophy that the Gonzaleses believe in. Henry lovingly attended to every detail, and when Roloff and his sons came to pick up the car, many in the shop felt emotional.
The project provided a nice little business boost, too. In the shop’s waiting area, Service First now replays the show episodes that feature the car, and some customers have said they came to the shop specifically because of that Bug.
“[That restoration] really shows how we do business,” Gonzales says. “We work on getting everything right, on looking at the details, and I think people recognized that. Our customers know that we care about every car like that.”