Maybe without knowing it, Bill Aeschliman and Jim Missig have always been preparing to be operators of a successful, sprawling, multi-shop operation (MSO). But it would have been hard to guess based on their early days in the industry.
Aeschliman, who started working in his family’s shop at age nine, vowed to get out of the collision repair business as soon as he made it through college. Missig, a backyard body man with minimal professional experience and no business background, wanted to go the opposite route and take a shot at opening his own shop.
Today, Aeschliman, 47, and Missig, 46, are the respective CEO and chief administrative officer (CAO) of a 14-facility operation earning roughly $26.5 million annually. They expect their newest shop, a mammoth 100,000-square-foot repair center, to eventually add another $10 million a year while pioneering new repair processes.
Their business is CARCARE Collision Centers, based in Plainfield, Ill. The company’s shops span the state, but Aeschliman and Missig aren’t done yet.
“Our goal is to be the best in the business in our competitive marketplace,” Aeschliman says. “We want to have the best people involved and have the best opportunity for everyone who comes along for the ride.”
He and Missig are always looking forward, preparing to take the next step, but they haven’t forgotten how they got their start, or the lessons learned up to this point. As they gear up to complete new acquisitions that could bring them close to the $50 million mark, the operators take a look back at how they did it.
Following four years in college and a stint working outside collision repair, Aeschliman changed his attitude about the industry he thought he disdained.
“After working in the financial services industry and watching my parents’ business get bigger, I decided I would come back into the business,” he says.
He rejoined the family shop, Ron’s Auto Body in Crest Hill, Ill., as an estimator, so he could learn more about the front office, an area in which he had little experience. As his parents taught him the trade and prepared him to ultimately take over the business, his father started bringing him to local industry meetings. It was at one of those meetings in the early 1990s that Aeschliman was introduced to Missig, who by that time ran shops in Crest Hill and Joliet, Ill.
Missig managed to launch his first repair center, Kolor & Collision Works, in 1987 with a $9,000 investment from his parents. He grew to a two-location business through heavy involvement in trade associations, mentoring from veteran repairers including Aeschliman’s father, and plenty of trial and error.
—Bill Aeschliman, CEO, CARCARE Collision Centers
After getting to know each other, Missig and Aeschliman agreed that there was only one way to ensure their continued success.
“We knew—how we knew I don’t know—that in order to survive in this business, we were going to have to grow and become a multiple location facility,” Aeschliman says.
One way to do that, they decided, was to become business partners, and merge operations. Though they didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, the young repairers teamed up.
“Jim is careful and I’m aggressive,” Aeschliman says. “It balances us out to make mostly right choices.”
After committing to a partnership in 1995, Aeschliman and Missig set out to brand their new joint operation. Because their shops were both established businesses, they initially didn’t plan on changing the names, but an opportunity for a DRP partner came up that required a uniform brand.
So, they eased gradually into a name they felt reflected the quality and care they put into their work: CARCARE Collision Centers. They first started using the name on all of their internal paperwork. Then Kolor & Collision Works was changed to Kolor & Collision Works-A CARCARE Center, and Ron’s Auto Body became Ron’s Auto Body CARCARE Center. The prefixes were eventually dropped.“That was a huge hurdle to overcome for all involved, even the employees,” Aeschliman says of the name change.
Missig says he had invested huge amounts of time and effort into marketing the name “Kolor.” And Aeschliman’s family was not thrilled about changing the identity of their family shop. But the transition went smoothly from a customer standpoint. Traffic improved following the name changes and the three stores earned a collective $4.5 million in revenue after their first year of joint operation.
Missig and Aeschliman intended to grow from the moment they joined forces, but it didn’t happen overnight. They bought a towing company in 1996, and finally added a fourth shop in 1998.
It took that long to develop the new brand, and to get their existing shops running as an efficient unit that didn’t require their daily involvement. That process involved developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each facility and spending ample time evaluating and developing staff.
Finding employees they could trust to meet their high standards was not easy, Missig and Aeschliman say. It’s something they’re still working on today. In the last year, for example, they made a management change at the fourth shop.
“Store sales have doubled with nothing changed to DRPs, demographics, or the physical location,” Aeschliman says of the facility following the switch. “We just changed the energy and drive of the manager.”
While assembling their crew in the late 1990s, the partners also focused heavily on business basics.
“We worked hard to make sure we paid our bills and got the loan payments made on time,” Aeschliman says. “We worked very diligently on quality. We had to prove ourselves to insurance companies.”
In 1999, Aeschliman and Missig decided to partner with Sherwin-Williams. “One of the smartest moves in our youth was to partner with Sherwin,” Aeschliman says. “That brought a lot of professionalism to our growth.”
With their operation humming, Aeschliman and Missig started honing in on other expansion opportunities.
CARCARE has added ten collision centers since then, and two new executives to help them grow—Chris Ward as CARCARE’s president and general counsel and Tom Mason as CARCARE’s vice president of operations and DRP relations.
“Jim and I realized the need to add to our executive level decision making,” Aeschliman says. “We feel that a hallmark of our growth and success has been our willingness to get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats. Chris’s legal and corporate background and Tom’s insurance industry experience were what we felt CARCARE needed to support our growth and DRP relationships.”
Ward’s background is as a corporate attorney consulting on processes and human capital. As an executive, he is responsible for the day-to-day execution of CARCARE’s vision of continued growth, best-in-class service, and the platform necessary to support both.
“The primary reason I came to this company was the energy and passion [Missig and Aeschliman] bring to the business, and CARCARE is a reflection of that passion,” Ward says.
Mason spent the last 24 years working for Allstate in a variety of roles, most focused on auto claims. In his last position, he oversaw the Midwest claims area for the Good Hands Repair Network, which included 230 repair centers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Mason’s early career included working as a shop technician, and he says he eventually wanted to get back into the industry.
“Not only am I going to a great MSO, but I’ll still have the ability to take care of Allstate customers as well as other carriers,” Mason says. “I still get to service the customer and that’s what it’s all about.”
He will oversee company-wide shop operations and continue to develop procedures responsive to DRP needs.
Before each new shop opening, the team researches demographics, shop visibility, competition and potential return on investment. To reduce startup costs, they look for acquisitions first and greenfield opportunities last. So far, two of the company’s shops are greenfields, one is a brownfield and the rest are acquisitions. The search for new sites is ongoing.
The company’s largest acquisition to date came in 2006, when it bought four Tatman’s Collision Center shops in central Illinois. The CARCARE name was tacked onto Tatman’s, since the shops were well known in the area.
As the company grew, Aeschliman and Missig had to work harder to ensure that their facilities continued to operate at a high level. They implemented monthly meetings with managers' from each facility to go over shop performance and the key factors impacting it. Though they used SOPs, they encouraged innovation among managers. They also started organizing quarterly managers meetings to bring the rest of their staff into the discussion.
“We like to operate them as close to being a family unit as we can,” Aeschliman says of the shops. “We understand that the energy of a store, the synergies can absolutely determine its success or failures.”
As the business grew, insurers took note. Today, the company has 10 DRP relationships, which account for about 80 percent of its work. That’s up from zero DRPs in the early days.
CARCARE’s newest shop is a massive 100,000-square-foot facility in Bolingbrook, Ill. The shop is in a repurposed K-Mart building that another shop bought and sold.
The price per square foot was a bargain, Aeschliman says, and he and Missig saw the huge building as an opportunity to revolutionize the repair process. They plan to split the shop into segments for light, medium and heavy hits, which they hope will improve their key performance indicators.
“We see it as a way to pilot programming with DRP partners,” Aeschliman says. “To change the way people look at collision repair.”
The new shop is open for business, but it is not fully operational yet. Even so, Aeschliman and Missig are still scooping up other facilities—their 15th is slated to open this month. When every facility is operating at peak capacity, the business partners—who couldn’t have fathomed their current success 20 years ago—expect to be earning close to $50 million in annual revenue.
Next up: expanding beyond the state.
“Our early observation of my parent’s model: honesty and integrity equal our success," Aeschliman says, "never wavering from that model is the key to our success."