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2013 FenderBender Awards

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For six years, we’ve asked readers to share with us the collision repair professionals who have made a difference in their lives and the lives of others.

Void of strict criteria, our request was developed to identify individuals who represent all of the qualities that make the industry great and drive it forward. Talent, commitment, innovation, passion, goodwill—we have recognized professionals who possess all of these traits and more.

This year, the industry again answered our call for nominations and we faced the always-challenging task of selecting winners from many deserving candidates. The individuals on the following pages have gone above and beyond to improve the lives of their colleagues, customers and communities. Meet the 2013 FenderBender Awards winners.

 

PEOPLE ORIENTED: Mike Caruso, here with daughter Marissa (lower right), makes a point of knowing all of his roughly 100 employees by name and keeps an open line of communication with all of them. Photo by Mike Whealan

Mike Caruso

president and owner, Central Collision Center, Chicago
 

Head of the Family

About five years ago, Mike Caruso sat in the lobby of one of his six Chicago-area facilities, and he didn’t like what he saw.

He founded the business as a 23-year-old in 1981, using money borrowed from his family to purchase a small facility in Peotone, Ill.

“I had to come up with $40,000 at a time when it felt like $40 million to me because I didn’t even have 40 cents,” he says.

Throughout its extensive growth, Caruso has always wanted the shop to focus on one thing: Maintaining its small-town, family feel that helped build its reputation.

But, as he stood in that lobby five years ago, Caruso became worried.

“We just seemed robotic with our customers, just going through the motions,” he says. “That wasn’t acceptable.”

It was an issue that was brought up in every management meeting, every customer service representative meeting, every overall company meeting for the next year. It became an emphasis of training, and it became a priority to monitor for each of the shop’s managers.

“We can deliver the best product in the industry, but if our service and warmth and compassion aren’t expressed to the customer, none of it matters,” Caruso says. “Now, I think we have it dialed in again.”

And that right there may be Caruso’s largest contribution to the industry—or at least his lasting legacy, says his daughter, Marissa, who nominated him for a FenderBender Award.

Despite its large scale, the focus of Central Collision—and the focus of Caruso—is and always has been about its people. It’s a true family business: Caruso’s entire immediate family is involved in the company’s day-to-day operations: His wife of 34 years and business partner of nearly as long, Nancy, manages the accounting department; his three children (Michael, Matthew, and Marissa) each have specific managerial roles in the business as well.

And that family extends outside of the Caruso name. He is heavily involved in the hiring process of each employee and works to have an open line of communication with everyone in the company. He visits each shop multiple times each week (he normally stops into three facilities on an average day), and he stops by each area of the shops to check in on his staff.
“I probably work 80 hours a week, but it’s because I absolutely love it,” he says. “I don’t have to be at every shop and doing it. I want to. I want to be there.”

Central Collision is also heavily involved in the communities in which it operates. The company runs an annual Thanksgiving food drive, it hosts golf fundraisers and sponsors parades. It is also involved in the 3M Hire Our Heroes Campaign, something close to Caruso’s heart as he’s a military veteran.

Really, Caruso says, the goal with everything they do is to provide a service to the people who come through the shops’ doors, and to provide much more to the people who work for him.

Creating a culture like Central Collision is difficult, says Marissa, but it’s something Caruso works toward every day. The company is truly a “family,” she says.

And for proof, she says to look at last year’s holiday party. Caruso made a point of addressing each employee, in front of the rest of the company, by name at the party—all from memory.

Only a few months before the party, Central Collision had acquired its seventh facility and 17 employees with it. Before the party, Marissa asked if he wanted flashcards to get the new employees’ names down. He brushed her off.

“I told her the day I need a cheat sheet to remember my employees’ names is the day I’m retiring,” Caruso says. “We have about 100 employees, but if I can’t know each person by name and who they are and what they do for us, then we’ve lost the culture we want.”

—Bryce Evans

 

PUSHING FOR IMPROVEMENT: Kevin Lovell made dramatic changes at Lithia Paint & Body of Des Moines after being recruited to save the floundering facility. Photo by Jill Fleming

Kevin Lovell

manager, Lithia body & paint of Des Moines in Grimes, Iowa
 

Righting the Shop

Two years ago, Lithia Body & Paint of Des Moines was unlovingly referred to as “the garbage disposal of shops” in Grimes, Iowa. Vehicles would come in, and never come out; or at least, they didn’t come back out looking too nice, says the shop’s estimator, Jeremy Shuey.

The shop had a 14-day cycle time, repairs were below basic quality standards, and work was slowly disappearing.

“Ironic enough, our slogan was ‘like it never happened,’” Shuey says. “That must’ve meant ‘like we never fixed your car,’ because it didn’t stand for ‘like pre-accident condition’”

The shop’s own dealership wouldn’t even send it work, and it had to survive off small jobs like painting doors and eaves, and doing sublet work for another paint shop.

Then in December 2011, Kevin Lovell was hired as the shop’s manager. And make no mistake, he was brought on with one clear purpose: Save the shop from inevitable failure.

In less than two years, he did just that.

Lovell helped the shop cut a full 10 days off its cycle time and raise its abysmal CSI scores to a consistent level above 97 percent. Sales went up (the shop now sells 96 percent of its work), and the shop’s perception is changing.

“[Lovell] took something that was falling apart and turned it into something golden,” says Shuey, who nominated Lovell for a FenderBender Award.

Lovell, 55, changed Lithia’s fortune by focusing on quality—the quality of repairs, the quality of customer interactions, and how those things affect the quality of the shop’s reputation.

With over 35 years of industry experience, Lovell had worked in almost every body shop role by the time he came to Lithia. He started his career as a bodyman and worked his way to management. He built a reputation for himself in the Des Moines area based on his leadership and ability to get his shops to produce.

That’s what led him to Lithia. Because of his reputation, the shop’s owner recruited Lovell to come in and turn things around. It was a big task to say the least, and Lovell was a bit hesitant at first.

“But the more we talked about it, and looking at what was going on there, I just saw that it was possible,” he says.

After coming aboard, the first thing Lovell changed was the way technicians viewed quality.

“It was about showing them that ‘good enough’ just wasn’t good enough,” he says.

Lovell had his team redo repairs over and over until they met his specifications. He implemented procedures and processes to get the work done more efficiently, and slowly the work improved.

“Quality repairs are everything,” he says. “If you don’t have that, you have no chance to be successful.”

And the change in quality led to a change in customer perception. The shop started to win over the community. Eventually, Lithia’s own dealership began sending the shop work again, and other dealers in the area started referring work to Lovell’s team.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Lovell says of changing the perception, “but we’re almost there. I’d say we’re 75 percent to where we want to be.”

The shop is now working to get certified by a number of European manufacturers.

The training, tips and lessons Lovell has given his staff, though, may be the biggest thing he’s brought to Lithia, Shuey says.

“I remember him telling me for a couple months that it’s going to take some time but it will get better,” Shuey says. “He is … a great mentor and leader.”

—Bryce Evans

 

RETURN OF THE TECH: Jeff Treloar worked his way up to management before deciding to return to technician work four years ago, utilizing everything he had learned to do the job better. Photo by Shawn Kinney

Jeff Treloar

lead body technician, Ballard Collision CARSTAR, Seattle
 

Starting a Revolution

Jeff Treloar is a man on a mission. As the lead body technician at Ballard Collision CARSTAR in Seattle, Treloar has a singular vision: to revolutionize the technician position.

And his efforts are impossible to ignore: Treloar consistently performs at an efficiency level of 250 percent. Nominator and CARSTAR area director of operations Brent Biggerstaff describes his comeback rate as “negligible” in a shop that generates $2.5 million annually, and his implementation of a team concept increased productivity by 75 hours a week.

But besides his remarkable numbers, it’s Treloar’s passion for innovating that has contributed to his rise as a leader in the industry.

“It is a rare occurrence for a body technician to initiate change in a shop,” Biggerstaff says. “Needless to say, this is an excellent example of Jeff’s leadership abilities.”

The way Treloar tells it, his career in car repair was one big accident. Growing up, Treloar always had a difficult time in school and was eventually diagnosed as dyslexic. When he signed up for an automotive repair class in high school, however, something just clicked.

“I’m a tactile type of person,” Treloar says. “If I can see it, touch it, feel it, I can understand it. Moving parts and the systems in a car just made sense. It’s the way my mind works.”

From there, Treloar started working his way up, before eventually becoming a mechanic, estimator, production manager, and shop manager. Roughly four years ago, Treloar decided to go back on the line as the lead body technician at Ballard Collision CARSTAR. But this time, armed with a wealth of knowledge about what it takes for a shop to survive, Treloar’s outlook was on the bigger picture.

“Working in the office and with customers, understanding what it takes for a business to survive and what customers expect, what insurance companies expect, has given me first-hand knowledge that [serves as] more tools in my toolbox,” Treloar says. “You learn more rules to the game that you’re trying to play.”

Treloar took his return to the production line seriously, and became I-CAR platinum certified, Chief certified, and ASE certified.

“I don’t like being stumped,” he says. “These cars are changing every day. I don’t like being caught in that corner where I don’t know. When you’re in a production environment, you want to have as much knowledge as you can to get you down that road.”

Treloar recently attended an I-CAR lean production class, where he had what he calls a “light bulb” moment. He came back to the shop and worked with the shop’s management to implement a team concept consisting of three technicians who work together on one flat rate. The team concept has increased productivity by 75 hours a week. Treloar also monitors the team’s progress on an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of cars, quantify the results of the team concept, and identify bottlenecks.

Treloar subscribes to the philosophy of “work smart, not hard” and is a meticulous planner with a unique ability to see a clear path to achieving a larger goal. Treloar says his willingness to learn and be proactive boils down to a love for the industry. “A lot of it is just interesting to me,” he says. “When it’s what you do for a living, it doesn’t hurt to know what you’re doing. Like they say, knowledge is power.”

—Anna Zeck

 

CUSTOMER CONSCIOUS: Trevor Seguin, office manager at Cascade Collision Repair, is dedicated to creating the best customer experience possible. Photo by Torsten Bangerter

Trevor Seguin

office manager, Cascade Collision Repair, Provo, Utah
 

Achieving a Common Goal

For Trevor Seguin, office manager at Cascade Collision Center in Provo, Utah, going above and beyond has always been second nature.

Kristy Chestnut, accounts receivable and accounts payable manager at Cascade, recalls an example: When an elderly customer came into the shop and mentioned that a loved one’s head stone had been delivered to her home and she had no way of transporting it, Seguin didn’t think twice about lending a hand.

“Without a second thought, he just went out and grabbed the wash boys from the shop and followed her home and had them load it,” Chestnut says. “He just knew she needed help and he helped her.”

That willingness to help, along with a strict dedication to exceptional customer service, has made Seguin a leader in the shop at only 28 years old.

As the office manager, he does all of the company’s outside sales, writes estimates, manages repair jobs, helps with training needs for insurance companies, and conducts follow-ups with customers. But most of all, Seguin sees his role as a people pleaser.

In fact, Seguin says he is baffled by the general lack of customer service he frequently encounters. “I think that, at the end of the day, true customer service is something that just isn’t really expected anymore,” he says.

That’s why Seguin goes to painstaking lengths to make sure every customer that walks through the doors of Cascade leaves not only satisfied, but appreciated.

“When choosing a career path, I always want to do the best I can and whether it’s great auto body repair or a great hamburger down at the burger joint, I believe so much in the customer experience,” Seguin says. “The customer is the lifeblood of our business.”

But to create the best customer experience possible, Seguin realized he had to get the whole shop on board.

“A happy employee will create a happy customer,” he says.

Seguin says he works closely with the shop staff and makes it a point never to lose touch with the day-to-day operations. “It’s not unusual to catch me washing a car on Friday night,” he says. “I try to stay very hands-on and coming up through the ranks step by step has given me an appreciation for what these employees do on a day-to-day basis.”

Another source of inspiration came from Cascade’s recently deceased founder, James Nichols. “He was someone that I looked up to in so many ways because James was one of those people who, whenever he came in the room, he brought the light with it,” Seguin says. “You could always feel when James was in the building. He always made it a point to stop with every employee and say, how’s your day going?”

Seguin says he has never forgotten how much Nichols’ efforts meant to him as an employee, and he works to create a similar relationship with every employee.

“I see and spend time with these people more than I do my family during the week,” Seguin says. “I want to go in and make them my family. That’s essentially what we’ve built all three locations on: becoming a family and working together for a common goal.”

—Anna Zeck

 

GAME CHANGER: Matthew Ohrnstein helped many shops improve through his business savvy and personable approach. Photo courtesy Marcy Tieger

Matthew Ohrnstein

managing director and founder, Symphony Advisors LLC

A Legacy of Giving

When one person says it, it can be looked at as hyperbole. But when multiple people from all segments of the industry seem to share the same view, it feels more like worthy praise. 

Matthew Ohrnstein passed away on April 30, leaving behind a legacy few can match in the collision repair industry. Between his time at the helm of Caliber Collision Centers to his work as the founder and managing director of industry consulting firm Symphony Advisors LLC, Ohrnstein’s career impacted many, many lives.

“If he wasn’t the most respected person in the industry, then he was right up there with anyone,” says Mike Giarrizzo, president and CEO of DCR Systems LLC.

“Matt was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, but he was completely approachable,” says client and friend Mike LeVasseur, president and COO of the 12-location Keenan Auto Body based in Philadelphia. “He was someone I could talk to like an older brother or a confidant—someone I felt I could get a sincere answer from and who’d never make me feel like an idiot for asking.”

Ohrnstein earned an accounting degree from Penn State and a master’s in business administration from Pepperdine, before he began his career working in finance. He then worked for a number of years in the insurance-technology segment of the collision industry, and was part of the founding team of Caliber Collision in 1997.

As CEO and chairman for Caliber, Ohrnstein helped lead the company from the ground up. By 2004, Caliber had 68 total locations in California and Texas with 1,600 employees and more than $200 million in annual revenue. In recent years, he helped share some of that experience through seminars and speaking appearances at trade shows. He also helped start the now annual MSO Symposium held during ASRW.

“He was really a game-changer,” LeVasseur says. “He was one of the pioneers with Caliber in showing how to really grow a collision business.

“He wasn’t in auto body his whole career, but he was just such a sharp guy.”

It was when he started Symphony Advisors in 2004 that many around the industry really started to experience Ohrnstein’s true impact. Working alongside his wife, Marcy Tieger, the two helped shops across the country to improve their businesses.

Giarrizzo says Ohrnstein “had an incredible knack for seeing the future of the industry,” and putting together strategic initiatives for businesses to adjust. It was less than a year ago that Ohrnstein sat down with LeVasseur to help him hash out his company’s strategic plan for 2013.

“Every time I’d sit down with him or work with him on anything, I’d get so much out of it,” LeVasseur says. “The impact he had made us better; he made me better as a person and our business better overall.”

It was that personal guidance—his friendship—that both Giarrizzo and LeVasseur say left the deepest mark on them. And Tieger says that’s the aspect of the job that meant the most to her and her husband of 19 years. He truly viewed his clients as friends, she says. “No matter how cliché it might sound, at the end of the day, businesses are about the people, and it’s their money and their lives on the line. It’s going to be a very, very personal thing.” 

“The impact he had on me as a business leader, and just as a person, was so profound,” Giarrizzo says. “He had this unique way of helping people, gentle but strong. Just to talk about him is tough—he’s so profoundly missed already.”

—Bryce Evans

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