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Transforming a Struggling Two-Bay Shop

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The start of 2009 was a pivotal moment for Paul and Donna Bates, owners of Bates Body and Repair in Culpeper, Va. In January, they opened the doors on a new, 31,000-square-foot, two-story collision center. After a couple decades of toiling in too-small spaces and then a couple years waiting for the right time to expand, Paul Bates reports that he is on track to top $3 million in sales this year. A solid foundation of business principles and customer service led to the creation of this dream shop. Now the shop itself—with improved workflow and room to grow—is poised to be the foundation of Bates Body and Repair future success.

AN UPHILL CLIMB

Just a month after opening, the new shop boasted a record-breaking month in sales when it pulled in $249,000. A number like that would have been unimaginable in Paul Bates’ original digs. His two-bay garage opened in Brandy Station in 1988. Back then, Bates was renting the space, and he took whatever work came through the door just to pay the bills.

The following year, he moved the shop to Culpeper, but things were still tight. The 7,900-square-foot building wasn’t ideal for a body shop, but Bates scraped together the resources and converted it into one anyway. Bates and his staff made do for several years with a single bay and an office before building a separate space to house the paint department. Even with the extra square footage, people and equipment were still very cramped, and things were not as well organized as Bates would have liked. Body men had to walk 250 yards downhill to the other building to get parts before putting them on a truck and hauling them back up that hill.

DECISION TIME

By 2005, the situation had reached a breaking point. “We could no longer work in this controlled chaos,” Bates says. “We were either going to sell or buy a new building.” Never mind the shop’s $2.5 million in annual revenues; the cramped space was taking its toll. “The employees were stressed to the max,” Bates recalls. He knew it was just a matter of time before things unraveled.

If cramped quarters were forcing the issue of a move, the surge in local population was positively supporting such a change. “In 2006, Culpeper County was ranked the 18th fastest-growing county in the U.S.,” Bates says. His business was about an hour south of Washington, D.C., at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where plenty of people were relocating.

Bates worried that a megashop competitor might enter the suddenly appealing market and erode his customer base. So that year, the couple began asking contractors for bids to build on a piece of land they owned 700 yards up the road. The numbers didn’t work. Though disappointed, Bates remained patient, and in 2008, tried again. This time, with real estate and construction feeling the pain of the busted housing market, the numbers were better—by about a half-million dollars. Construction on the new building, which was a $3 million investment, was soon underway.

BUILDING BLOCKS OF SUCCESS

Through the years of struggling as a small shop, Bates cultivated the foundation of his success through three primary personal business philosophies. At first glance, they seem a little folksy, but the smarts behind them is evident:

Crawl before you walk. Bates was eager to expand the cramped facility he and his staff worked in for 20 years, but he waited for the right opportunity. Too many folks start a new business thinking they need to have the best of everything, he observes. “They have all these needs. They don’t realize that when you dump this stuff in a new business’s lap, you have to take it one step at a time.” At the old shop, Bates slowly built up the equipment he had. He waited for the right moment to expand the shop to include a paint department. “I [didn’t] put in all the amenities I’d like from the get-go,” he says. “I didn’t mortgage myself to the hilt. You manage what you have, and growth will come. You may have to work a little harder, but any good business has a lot of sweat equity in it.”

Bates was more cautious still when it came time to break ground on the new shop. He spent months visiting other shops to decide which type of building layout would be best for the new shop. “I took a lot of notes,” he says. “I had a basic footprint in mind, but [I had to work on] fine-tuning it. I’d walk into shops and see what worked and what didn’t.”

Not rushing the construction plans paid off. “Now, I have a super-functional body shop. People are blown away by the flow,” he says of the facility’s horseshoe-shaped layout. The parts department is located between the paint and body shop, and techs can easily move between the two. Deliveries are made at a dedicated location behind the shop. “I didn’t want any deliveries made to the front of the building,” Bates says. “[At the old shop,] you’d be in the middle of an estimate and the UPS truck would pull up.” The new design, he says, gives the shop a more professional look.

“I don’t like to keep up with the Joneses, I want to be the Joneses.”  
—Paul Bates, co-owner, Bates Body and Repair

You either lead, follow or get out of the way—and I’m not much on following. “I want to be cutting edge,” Bates says. “I pride our shop on training and equipment. I’m a firm believer in reinvesting in the business.” The repair center was the first in Culpeper County to have a factory-made paint booth, and in 1996, Bates installed two spray booths with baking abilities, which helped increase production. “If you don’t stay up on the times, you won’t have a job,” he says, adding that if something new is working for a shop down the road, his own shop is already behind the eight ball. “I don’t like to keep up with the Joneses, I want to be the Joneses.”

Bates recently invested in paint equipment for the new shop. He bought two Garmat prep stations, two paint booths and a jamming booth. A new spin balancer, tire changer and a used frame machine were also added, and Bates is also hoping to buy a new alignment machine soon.

Employee education is another element of Bates’ success. The shop’s upstairs includes classrooms for evening I-CAR training. “The closest I-CAR classes were about 45 minutes away,” he says. “To stay current, we’d have to close business at 4 p.m. to get cleaned up and go to class at 6:00 p.m. Why not have the classes here?”

Happy cows make great cheese. Employees are ecstatic about the new shop, and their performance reflects it. “Everyone is walking around happy, and production has gone up 10 to 15 percent,” Bates says.

The shop’s general manager and production manager each have their own office, as do Bates and his wife, who handles much of the shop’s paperwork for insurers and payroll. Each estimator has an office for meeting with customers, and the techs have their tools centrally located now. “All the techs are walking around with smiles on their faces. They’re proud. They talk to their friends about the shop,” Bates says.

The new shop also benefits from having a receptionist on staff. Rather than having everyone pitch in to field phone calls, “there’s a central person, so customers feel they know her when they walk in,” Donna Bates says.

FUTURE GOALS

With the fantastic sales numbers, the new Bates location is off to a great start. Characteristically, Paul Bates sees more room for improvement in paint, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and communication.

Currently, painters are assigned to specific techs, but Bates is no longer sure this is the most productive approach. The buddy system seems to be slowing down cycle time on cars with more extensive damage. “The painter following that tech is sitting around with nothing to do because he’s waiting,” Bates explains.

SOPs need more focus in this new space, too. “The basic job responsibilities are the same, yet the order in which we do them is different,” he says. For example, Bates wants each nondrivable car to get a better start in the repair process. He wants to start with a complete disassembly to enable estimators to write a thorough estimate up-front. “If we can do that well,” Bates says, “the quicker the car comes in and the quicker it goes out.”

Better communication and follow-up with customers are also top priorities. They’ll be emphasized in the new SOPs. “We had them in place before,” Bates says, “but have never stressed them as much as now.”

ROAD TO SUCCESS

Bates jokes that he thought he’d go bald before he’d manage to get the new shop up and running. The transition was often stressful, and he’s grateful that his staff was so supportive of the many changes. “I’ve got a crew I’d put up against anyone else in the country,” he says. “They bust their chops for me and my wife every day.”

Bates is passionate about his customers, too. “I care about every person who comes through our door. I pride myself on being honest and straightforward, and I do everything in my power to help make their bad situation go away,” he says. Twenty-one years after Paul and Donna Bates opened their first small shop in Brandy Station, they’ve made a lot of bad situations go away. And they’ve created a truly great situation for their staff and the folks who need car repair in Culpeper County.

“Many times these days, you’re just another number,” Bates reflects. “I tell my staff, ‘Treat every customer who comes through that door as if they’re the last one you’re going to see.’” Obviously, with a $3 million revenue goal and ambitions to increase market share, Bates isn’t planning on seeing his last customer anytime soon. But with the doors open on his new shop and the business doing well, he is having happier thoughts about the possibilities for retirement—someday.

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