Over the past year, we asked you to nominate the best in the biz, from shops to suppliers, employees to products. You sent us your picks and it was obvious what you were most excited about: The people. So, we are proud to present the winners of the 2008 FenderBender Awards. You'll read about some of the most inspiring people in the industry-from owner to advocate, restorer to detailer. These are some of the fine folks who make great things happen in the auto body business, day in and day out.
Quality Fanatic: Jacob Baurer
FRESH START DETAIL COMPANY, BEAVERTON, OREGON
Jason Barker almost didn’t want to nominate Jacob Baurer for a FenderBender award. That’s not because Baurer doesn’t deserve it; far from it. It’s because Barker’s worried about letting the secret out about Jacob. “If other owners knew there was a guy like this, they’d be trying to steal him away from me,” says Barker, owner of the Fresh Start Detail Company.
Fresh Start is a 2,000-square-foot shop in Beaverton, Oregon. With five employees, two bays and $250,000 in revenue last year, it’s not the kind of shop that pounds out cars at high speed. But that means they have to differentiate themselves on terms other than speed, and so they take pride in their devotion to quality.
Jacob Baurer, it turns out, is every shop owner’s dream, at least according to Barker. That’s partially because he’s the one who keeps Fresh Start’s quality as high as it is. He’s actually the shop manager, with three guys he supervises, but he does all the detail work.
Baurer has been at Fresh Start since 1995, and Barker says Fresh Start’s customers always have admiring things to say about him. They say that he takes good care of them and gives them a reason to come back again. “He’s fanatical about quality, and he won’t let customers pay until he’s walked all around the car with them and made sure that they’re happy about everything,” Barker says.
That just makes sense to Baurer. “We want to make sure the customer’s happy before they leave, and if we’ve missed anything, I want us to fix it before they drive off the lot,” he says. But he also makes a point of being honest with customers about whether they genuinely need to have a service done, or whether it can wait. That’s because he knows that being good to customers—giving them what they need and not what they don’t—is the lifeblood of the shop. “We do all retail— no wholesale or dealer work—so our quality has to be top-notch and we rely on return business and word-of-mouth recommendations,” he says.
Aside from his devotion to perfection, Baurer also makes life easy for Barker, because he knows how to run everything in the shop. “The shop stays profitable even while I’m gone, because he can do everything I can—answer phones, do estimates, take care of computer work,” Barker says. “To have someone else who can take care of everything, so I can take a week off to go elk hunting, is just amazing.”
Jill of All Trades: Danielle Clark
Category: Support Staff
PHIL’S AUTO BODY, SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA
There are plenty of men in the auto body industry who learn the business on the job, working at their parents’ shops from the time they’re teenagers. That’s just how Danielle Clark got her start. She began working at Phil’s Auto Body in Santa Cruz, Calif., when she was 15. She knows more about cars now than her husband.
Phil’s has six employees and 4,600 square feet, and had $700,000 in revenues in 2007. Clark still works for the shop and she still does scheduling, estimating, and other tasks that a lot of men (and some women) are surprised that she knows how to do. But she thinks that’s funny, because she had a good teacher.
“My dad taught me how to do estimates, and I grew up around cars,” Clark says. “It came pretty easy, because I’m a quick learner. But I get guys who need an estimate, see me coming out to do it, and they ask, ‘Oh, you’re going to do it?’ You can tell they’re not sure what to think. And I sometimes get women who are surprised that I’m the one doing it, but they love that I’m doing it.”
Clark hasn’t worked continuously at the shop, but she went back to working for her parents when she decided to go to culinary school. She did it because she wanted to help her family’s business, but she also knew that it was the kind of job that would be flexible for her school schedule. Today, she has a cake business that she pursues seasonally, but in the winter when that business quiets down (a lot of her work is in wedding cakes), she comes back to work in the shop. “It’s a family business and it’s good to help out the family, especially when the family is helping me,” she says.
“She manages our shop and she’s really good at her job,” says Karen Chadd, Clark’s mother. “She writes the estimating sheets, decides on repair time, deals with the insurance companies, orders parts, and does just about everything else, including the books.”
As a small, family-owned non-DRP shop, Phil’s Auto Body has to stay on its toes and keep both new and repeat business coming through the door. Not surprisingly, in an industry where there are more women all the time but still plenty of old-timers who aren’t used to it, Chadd says that she occasionally sees a customer or shop guy who doesn’t expect Clark to be able to do estimates right. But they learn better as they watch her at work.
Chadd says that Clark’s role in the business is not only to handle all aspects of the office, but also to advocate for customers so that they know they’re in good hands. “She is an advocate for the customer and is constantly educating them on their rights in the repair process,” Chadd says. “Her excellence in customer service keeps them coming back.”
Superwoman: Susan Glaser
Category: Female Owner/ Manager
GLASER ENTERPRISES, JEFFERSONTOWN, KENTUCKY
It’s one thing to be a female shop owner in an industry with a whole lot of men. It’s quite another when you’re a female shop owner who also runs a shop and does the books for it and two others. But Susan Glaser, secretary and treasurer of Glaser Enterprises in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, is doing all that and even more. “She would be a good role model for anyone,” says Pat Gisler, executive director of the Automotive Service Council of Kentucky.
Glaser and her husband own three shops, in Jeffersontown, Louisville, and Shepherdsville, Ky. They started with Glaser’s Collision Center in 1987, added another shop in Jeffersontown in 1990, and added the third in 2006. They now have 26 employees in 18,000 square feet of production space in three locations. Glaser does all the accounting, HR, and other administrative work, and she also coordinates the charitable work the shop does. Last year, Glaser’s adopted a platoon in Iraq and has been supporting both the soldiers and their wives, and in previous years they’ve offered classes to women on how to buy a used car and how to take care of a car.
“Every day it’s something new, even though we’ve been in this business for 21 years,” Glaser says. “Just when I think I know it all, something new pops up.”
Career Guru: Peter Lock
Category: Tech Mentor
CONTRA COSTA COLLEGE, SAN PABLO, CALIFORNIA
There’s more to keeping a job than knowing the skills required. Appearance, manner and social skills all make a difference, sometimes even more than the skills. That’s why students at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif. are lucky to have instructor Peter Lock.
Lock is the chair of the automobile services department, where he teaches auto collision repair, painting, and mechanics. In an area where a lot of kids don’t go on to a four-year college—and some have been involved in gang activity or been in trouble with the law—many of them come through the automobile services department. While studying automobile repair, they also learn things they might not have learned elsewhere. Lock teaches them how they ought to act when they’re on the job, how to have a good work ethic, and other skills for getting—and keeping—a good job. He also makes a point of teaching his students how to be good citizens and employees.
Lock encourages his students to volunteer and give back to the community. “A lot of these kids don’t volunteer in anything,” Lock says. “It’s a little difficult to get them involved in doing things for other people, but they get the hang of it. What’s nice is that they continue to do it after they get out of class.” His students have held a car wash to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina, Toys for Tots drives and other charity events.
Lock has solicited donations to get the shop floor painted and other improvements in the college’s shop area, and he does a lot of outreach to get students interested in the automotive industry. In October, an event called Careers for Cars will allow potential students to weld, paint, and do other hands-on tasks, and to hear from shop owners about working at a shop.
“He’s a dedicated teacher to all of his students, and those kids don’t know how lucky they are,” says Vama Emfinger, office manager at Stewart’s Body Shop in Richmond, Calif.
Lock has been at this for nearly 30 years, so any time he walks into an auto body shop in the area, he’s likely to see former students. “It’s great, because they have cars and kids and houses of their own now,” Lock says. “It’s really nice to see that they made it.”
Mr. Fix It: Bernie Cutrone
Category: Shop Manager
METRO COLLISION EXPERTS, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
Bernie Cutrone is the shop manager for Metro Collision Experts, a 5,000-square-foot shop in Chicago that works on about 65 cars a month. With eight employees, the shop did $1.6 million in business last year. Cutrone has worked there since 1997 (when the shop opened), but he has been working with his boss, Kurt Smolenski, for more than 20 years. And Smolenski can’t say enough good things about him.
“I call him MacGyver sometimes, because he solves so many problems,” says Smolenski, president of Metro Collision. “He solves problems related to the accident, and the ones that aren’t accident-related at all. For example, we had a customer here after an accident, and she just happened to mention that her CD player wasn’t working before the accident. So after he fixed the accident-related stuff, he fixed that for her too.”
That’s just common sense to Cutrone. If there’s a car in the shop with an easy-to-fix problem, he sees no reason not to fix it. “Sometimes [customers] appreciate it and sometimes they don’t notice, but I do it anyway,” Cutrone says.
Cutrone has a boss who doesn’t discourage him from making those repairs. He also has an attitude toward customer service that Smolenski says is really helpful in maintaining his shop’s reputation as a place customers can trust. It also helps to convince adjusters and insurance companies that the shop is a good one to send business to, and that means a busy shop.
“It’s great to have someone who’s mechanically minded and good with customers, who gives 110 percent every day and loves what he does,” Smolenski says. “He’s very honest and trustworthy, and that lets people know that they can bring their cars here and not worry about getting ripped off.”
Car Whisperer: Ron Vail
Category: Master Restorer
VAIL’S CLASSIC CARS, GREENFIELD, INDIANA
Ron Vail’s motto is that he doesn’t build cars, he builds relationships. That’s because, by the time he’s done restoring a car from the ground up (a process that frequently takes several months), the owner is no longer a customer but a friend. And that friend is likely to bring him repeat business, because he or she may own or buy several other cars that need restoring.
Vail has worked in his parents’ shop, Vail’s Classic Cars, since it opened in 1985 in Greenfield, Ind. But since they retired last year, he has taken over the business altogether, and the shop (26,000 square feet with six employees) has a year-long backlog of customers who want Vail to restore their cars. He has his own cars as well, including a ‘67 Shelby, a ‘69 Shelby, and an ‘07 Shelby; even his dog, a Doberman/golden retriever, is named Shelby.
“He’s a perfectionist, and cars are his life,” says co-owner Renee Vail. “His cars and his customers’ cars have won local and national awards, and they’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.”
Vail has to be a perfectionist because his reputation is built not only on his customers’ opinions of his work but also the responses from crowds at car shows. For example, a 1966 Mustang convertible that he restored was on the national car show circuit for three years and took awards in 11 states. “A lot of my word-of-mouth business comes from car shows,” Vail says. With that much exposure, Vail knows that his work has to be flawless.
Vail says that when he starts to work with a customer on a car, he begins with the end result and works backward. “I ask them what they want to see when I roll the car cover back at the end, and then start working to create the car that they want,” he says. He uses the backlog period—the time between estimate and the beginning of the restoration—to find the parts he needs and to make sure he knows exactly what the customer wants on every particular.
His perfectionism has paid off, because he has a national, even international reputation that brings him business from Australia, Mexico, and even Iceland. And although his shop is focused on restoration, Vail even gets business from customers who want ordinary repairs for their cars. Renee Vail says that’s because they trust him. “We had a customer in here who paid more to have Ron fix his windshield than he would have elsewhere, but he wanted Ron to do it because he knew it wouldn’t leak afterward,” she says.
Front Desk First Aid: Lois Thompson
Category: Front Office
MARKHAM & BOLING BODY SHOP, PASADENA, CALIFORNIA
When a car gets damaged in an accident, it almost always has a driver in it. And sometimes that driver gets damaged too. Lois Thompson deals with those folks, some of whom ride in the tow truck straight from the accident, and her attitude toward those traumatized customers keeps them coming back.
The Markham & Boling Body Shop is a 60-year-old shop in Pasadena, Calif., with eight employees and 13,800 square feet. Lois Thompson has worked there for the last 11 years. Her professionalism and organization are not the only qualities that have impressed Kelli Smith, president and owner of the shop. Her kindness keeps customers saying good things about the shop, and coming back the next time. “It’s not just that she’s fabulous at customer service,” Smith says. “She’s also very consoling and kind to customers who come in all battered and bruised from their accidents.”
Thompson offers aspirin, a glass of water, and other comforts when they come in. “I try to speak softly and soothe them a little, because they often come in right after the accident and they’re usually pretty shaken up,” Thompson says. “We also do follow-up calls and thank-you cards, because we just want them happy. If they’re happy, they’ll pass our name along, and most of our business is based on referrals.”
Old Faithful: Rob Keenan
Category: Seasoned Pro
PRECISION COLLISION, WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA
At Precision Collision in Winter Haven, Fla., the unquestioned old pro is Rob Keenan. Keenan owns Precision, a 10,000-square foot shop with eight employees. He’s been in the business for 36 years, and he has owned the shop since 1980.
Keenan is a master restorer as well as a shop owner, and he’s built a reputation as someone customers can trust and come back to. He takes a lot of pride in the work he does.
“We’re not a fancy place, but we’ve got customers who have been coming back for 20 years,” Keenan says.
Keenan makes a point of guaranteeing the shop’s work for way longer than most would. That helps him to maintain the shop’s business in an environment where there are always new shops moving in and insurance companies changing the game—or trying to. By standing behind his repairs, Keenan says, the shop gets a lot of repeat business and referrals.
The referrals obviously come from word of mouth, but the repeat business often comes from customers who get new cars and know exactly where they’re going with them: the same place they took their old one. “When we do a paint job on an older car, that means the owner can sell it, and when they buy something else they’ll bring it here if I stand behind my repairs,” Keenan says. “So I stand by my repairs, and we fix cars like they’re our own. I’ve repaired paint that was seven to eight years old, because nobody can fix it more cheaply than I can, and we sure don’t want them going somewhere else.”
“Rob has built a great reputation for the shop,” says Lynn Keenan, co-owner of Precision. “There are customers who feel comfortable with sending their kids to pick up their cars, because they know Rob charged them the right price and did what he said he would do.”
Visionary Leader: Ron Reichen
Category: Shop Owner
PRECISION BODY & PAINT, BEAVERTON, OREGON
Not everybody in the auto body industry has a background in aircraft construction. But Ron Reichen, whose degree was in aeronautical engineering, has been in the business since 1975.
“After Vietnam, there really weren’t any jobs in aircraft—Boeing was laying people off—and I’d always been interested in cars, so it was a natural transition to the collision industry,” he says.
Today, after having owned four shops at one time, Reichen owns only one shop, Precision Body & Paint, a 36,000-square-foot shop with three buildings and 60 employees in Beaverton, Ore. They’ve done over 100,000 jobs in the 33 years they’ve been open, and last year they saw $8.3 million in revenue. Reichen’s colleagues in other shops say that as an owner, Reichen is one of a kind.
“Out of all the shops we work with, their volume is equal to any other shop, but the quality of the work that comes out of their shop is unbelievable,” says Jason Barker, owner of the Fresh Start Detail Company in Beaverton, Ore. Barker deals with many body shops in the area, but Precision is his favorite, mostly because of Reichen. “It all comes down from Ron being hands-on and knowing what he’s talking about. He’s not an owner who’s just an investor; he knows paint and body work.”
Reichen says his shop’s success in providing quality repairs to customers comes from two business decisions. One is that Precision stopped participating in direct-repair relationships about five years ago, because he didn’t like being told what kinds of parts to use. “I’d rather repair cars properly and do what’s right for the customers than get the business that direct-repair would get us,” he says. “We suffer a little because they direct work away from us, but we sustain our growth with marketing.”
For example, Precision donates bottled water with its label on the bottles to local parents’ clubs, which sell them at high school sports events. Precision gets the advertising while the clubs get the revenue.
Reichen’s other strategy for maintaining quality is to grow his own excellent technicians rather than just hoping the market will provide them. Precision’s primary business is high-end European cars. To make sure he has a stream of qualified bodyworkers to work on those cars, Precision has had an apprenticeship program with a local community college for about eight years. Reichen teaches estimating, both in-house and at the college, and the shop has an on-site training center for new employees. “We market to potential employees as much as to the general public,” Reichen says.
It all adds up to a shop where 120 to 140 (or more) cars go through a week, and 80 percent of the business is repeat business. Barker says the shop is busy because of the shop’s reputation and because Reichen has the right attitude toward the people who bring their cars to his shop.
“Here’s a guy who’s wealthy, yet when he had a customer with a beat-up old pickup truck, who probably spent $200 with him, he knew the guy’s first and last name and got it to him a day early,” Barker says.
Extra-Mile Man: Todd Beene
Category: Customer Service
CONWAY COLLISION CENTER, CONWAY, ARKANSAS
At Conway Collision Center in Conway, Arkansas, there are quite a few Beenes. Owner J.D. Beene has his sons Todd and Chad working at the shop, and all three are hard-working, experienced shop workers. But when it comes to customer service, Todd takes it to the next level.
“Honestly, I try to get him to not do so much, but he’s one of the main reasons we’re doing such great business,” says J.D. “He’s a good young man and I’m real proud of him.”
J.D. has owned the shop—which has two locations and a total of 13,650 square feet, 12 employees and did $1 million in business last year— since 2004 and 31-year-old Todd has been there from the beginning. During his time at the shop, he has become the indispensable customer service employee. His official title is office manager, but he manages a lot more than the office. He does scheduling and estimating, orders parts, and takes care of all the records for insurance, and he also works with the adjusters and customers to make sure everybody is on the same page.
And then there’s the extra mile, where Todd seems to live. He picks up and delivers rental cars for customers, and he’s been known to pick up their new license plates for them. He has even gone out to retirement homes to pick up customers and get them to their cars once they’re repaired. He’ll stay after hours or meet customers on weekends to get them their cars.
His success—and the shop’s—rest on his attitude that customers should be overwhelmed with kindness. “We just try to make it a painless experience for them, because that seems to be what brings them back the next time,” Todd says, although he almost sounds pained that there is a next time. “I want customers to feel like they’ve made a friend, like we’re not just those guys at the body shop—we’re the guys who fixed their car right.”
Lawyer, Writer, Fighter: Erica Eversman
Category: Industry Advocate
VEHICLE INFORMATION SERVICES, BATH, OHIO
If the auto industry has an official rabble-rouser, it’s Erica Eversman, chief counsel for Vehicle Information Services, Inc. in Bath, Ohio, and author of a column for AutoGuide.net. Eversman was the clear choice for many readers, who nominated her as the best advocate for the industry. For example, Vickie Westfall of Westfall Collision in Cadiz, Ohio, says that she appreciates Eversman’s willingness to contribute both her expertise and a significant amount of her time to helping shops and owners with legal issues. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a lawyer who’s willing to take on a lawsuit that’s for less than $1 million,” Westfall says. “But she does a lot of pro bono work on behalf of the industry, and the articles she writes are always spot-on in regard to what’s happening with the industry. She’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.”