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Schulenburg on Educational Opportunities

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As a 19-year-old in search of a career path, Aaron Schulenburg was writing estimates for an auto body shop. It didn’t take long for the industry to win him over. He’s since held estimating and management positions with shops in Arizona, Delaware and Maryland.

In 2007, Schulenburg left the shop scene to help head up the Database Enhancement Gateway (DEG) as it was being introduced to the collision repair industry. When the position of executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialist (SCRS) opened, he saw an opportunity to be involved with an organization that he believes has the potential to make a significant and lasting difference in the industry.

Here, Schulenburg—who says he feels lucky to wake up each day excited about work—weighs in on the industry’s newfound unity, emerging educational opportunities and the importance of being professional.

 

It’s hard to hear, but clearly, economic times are still tough. You’re seeing some unity in the industry that’s giving you hope. Could you tell us about that?
There is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to sustain through these increasingly difficult times. Some of the banding together that we at SCRS feel is taking place seems to stem from these economic conditions.

Over the past year, businesses have had to keep a heightened awareness about both their internal practices, as well as the external elements that impact profit margins. With this renewed focus, more collision repair businesses are paying greater attention to such practices in their markets. I think many of these practices—attempts to steer customers, depress retail labor rates and control repair decisions—have led to a significant increase in pressure on both the insurance field staff and the collision repair shops.

If there is a silver lining here, it’s that we’re hearing and feeling much greater unity in the sentiments expressed by the collision repair market. That unification is bringing these very important issues to the forefront of the industry.

 

How has this uptick in industry unity influenced SCRS advocacy work?
We’ve put a great deal of focus into our repairer advocacy efforts, which in many cases have translated into position statements or calls to action. In cases of our positions on Damage Assessment and Written Cost of Repair and on Steering and Deceptive Referrals, we’ve provided a national perspective that [helps] substantiate our affiliates’ positions.

In other cases, such as the SCRS letter written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, we joined the efforts of others in the industry looking to pique the Department of Justice’s involvement in investigation and enforcement of market practices taking place today. There has been a tremendous amount of work done over the years to build relationships with the DOJ by many in the industry. In our opinion there is a much more united feeling within the industry as it relates to this issue. And the change of political administration has hopefully provided an opportunity that may not have been as viable in the past. SCRS will continue to work with our affiliates and other groups involved in making inroads in this forum.

 

Advocacy has actually long been a focus for SCRS, as has education. What should we watch for on that front?
We’re developing and delivering much more in the way of educational opportunities. SCRS has worked with Sherwin-Williams to bring some outstanding seminars on Lean Management to markets in California, Washington, Georgia and Pennsylvania through the remainder of 2009. We are also developing additional business workshops that try to capture the “magic” that the ARMS (Auto Repair Management Systems) classes of previous years held for so many of today’s successful collision shop owners. We will likely be rolling those out early next year across the country.

We’re also continuing efforts to address the data used by collision repairers in the estimating process. Both the CIC Database Committee (formerly the Database Task Force) and the Database Enhancement Gateway have given SCRS the opportunity to work alongside the two other national collision associations, ASA and AASP. There’s great value in having the industry work in unison on very important issues.

 

It seems that the squeeze created by the economy and the pressure from questionable market practices are pushing the industry to become more sophisticated. Are collision repair shops professional enough?
There has been a tremendous growth in the perception of the industry and the professionalism it has.

SCRS recently participated in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics update of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. What was so uplifting about this report was the light in which it portrayed the industry, with a highlight of the professionalism and the need for ongoing education and training of the technicians and employees within the workforce.

 

How important is it to be seen as professional?
As collision facilities across the nation advance, the professional image does as well. Every effort we involve ourselves in at SCRS is done with the ultimate goal of improving the businesses we represent. That in turn raises the perception of the business, and the trade, within the business’s community and among their consumers.

"So many shop owners and managers still make very emotional decisions... They don't often understand the impact those decisions make on the financial return..., or the impact they may have on the marketplace in the future." -Aaron Schulenburg, executive director, Society of Collision Repair Specialists

In addition to becoming more professional, what can shops do, right now, to improve the odds that they will survive—perhaps even thrive in—the duration of this depressed economy?
Quite simply, by understanding the business versus just owning it, or worse, letting it own you. So many shop owners and managers still make very emotional decisions, especially in these difficult times. They don’t often understand the impact those decisions make on the financial return the business realizes from the services it provides, or the impact they may have on the marketplace in the future.

Collision repairers have accepted so many roles and responsibilities to fill the shop, or to handle transactions that are not theirs to handle, that it has in some cases distracted from the core responsibility of the business owner—to provide a service for a profit, which allows the business to be healthy.

I believe that most repair facilities across the country are experiencing a downturn in the amount of work that comes through the door.

For many shops, this could and should be the perfect opportunity to utilize the additional time to increase training of their staff, or to perhaps implement process changes that they have been considering.

Take advantage of the tools available: Get your estimators to start utilizing the DEG (degweb.org) to improve the accuracy of the data they are using. Sign yourself and your production manager up for one of SCRS lean seminars. Get involved in your local trade association and network with your colleagues in the market. Just be involved in continual improvement. The worst thing that any shop owner can do in a time like this is to cross their fingers and hope for the best.

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