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A decade ago, a spur-of-the-moment decision stemming from Sid Osterman’s can-do attitude resulted in two things: a dressing-down from his boss, and a new stream of revenue for his employer.

Osterman, now the general manager of The Bodyworks, a Brainerd/Baxter, Minn.–based collision repair shop that’s part of Mills Automotive Group, was a production manager at the time when a body shop customer called and said he had a sailboat he wanted restored. “I’ve always been a guy who says he can do anything,” Osterman says. “We were slow at the time, and just for the heck of it I said, ‘Bring it in.’ I actually got my butt chewed by the former GM [because of it]. But after he saw it was a good thing, he jumped aboard.”

Today, restoring boats is just one way The Bodyworks has helped boost revenues and keep employees busy. While Osterman won’t reveal dollar figures, the shop’s add-on services—including glass replacement and repair, automotive detailing, accessories, and boat detailing and restoration—account for roughly 20 to 25 percent of total monthly sales.

Built for Business

As Osterman tells it, back in 1996, Mills Automotive owners Hank and Stew Mills saw that the Brainerd/Baxter community was growing and built a new 73,000-square-foot body shop they called The Bodyworks to service the 87-year-old company’s 11 dealer franchises. (Prior to that, the collision repair shop was a small, six-man operation.) “They planned for the future,” Osterman says. “Their plan was to fill it up with bodymen, but as time went by we saw we needed to do other things to make use of the space.”

When The Bodyworks began making glass more of a priority, about eight years ago, it was with the knowledge that the gross potential profit on glass was high.

Focusing on add-on services was one way to help fill it. From the beginning, The Bodyworks offered glass repair and replacement, but it wasn’t a priority initially.

“Most body shops shy away from glass,” Osterman says. “They don’t think it’s profitable and bodymen don’t like to do glass.” But when The Bodyworks began making glass more of a priority, about eight years ago, it was with the knowledge that the gross potential profit on glass (and marine repair) was high.

Next came boat warranty services, marine insurance work and boat detailing and restoration. The shop is a certified factory repair center for Ranger, Cobalt, Champion, Larson and Glastron boats. That was followed by increased attention to accessories sales, such as A.R.E. toppers and Line-X spray-on bedliners, as well as more than a dozen other products and services to trick out a truck, including custom paint and graphics, tool boxes, bug deflectors, floor mats, visors, running boards, lift kits and hitches. The shop also sells SnowSport utility plows, which are promoted with a video on the shop’s Web site.

Staffed to Sell

Initially, The Bodyworks ventured into these side businesses, in large part, to keep its techs busy during slow periods, Osterman says. “But as time went by sales numbers grew to the point where we needed individual sales staff and technicians for these departments.”

Getting the staffing right required some tinkering. At first, separate managers were hired for each department—glass, boats and accessories. But it became clear that two would be sufficient, so the glass and boat departments were brought together under one manager/salesperson, Barbara Sorenson.

The accessories department also required a change in approach: “We tried having our estimators sell accessories, but they didn’t put their hearts into the side sales,” Osterman says. “We soon learned that if we were to grow and provide the best customer service, we needed a full-time salesperson to manage that department.”

The Bodyworks wanted to hire someone with excellent customer service skills who could also work well with the Mills Automotive dealership sales staff—roughly 50 percent of accessories sales come from dealership referrals. They went through two accessories managers before hiring current manager Andy Dosser.

“Some days [Andy] might spend an hour selling a $20 trinket to a guy in a truck,” Osterman says. “That can be aggravating, but you [can’t be] negative about it.” From a customer service standpoint, Osterman views that guy as no different from one who brings in a truck for a spray-on bedliner or topper. “A $10 sale can give you a lifetime customer.”

Both Sorenson and Dosser have customer service backgrounds. Sorenson worked for Herberger’s department store, while Dosser came from the hospitality industry. Osterman credits them with having the people skills needed to make their departments successful.

Dosser and Sorenson both learned “in the shop, on the go,” Osterman says, with help from technicians, shop foremen and estimators, as well as outsourced training. “We [emphasize] teamwork,” he says. “Everyone is glad to help train in any area, and both [Dosser and Sorenson] had great sales and people skills to begin with, so they meshed well.”

Sorenson admits that it took her several years to be fully comfortable in her new role of glass claims manager and boat appraiser. She attended I-CAR classes, online trainings and estimating classes in addition to her in-shop schooling. “Training has always been a top priority for the Mills Companies,” she says. “I spent a lot of time out in the shop instead of behind the desk, not only watching the techs, but learning from them. They were always patient in describing what certain parts were and the correct way for them to be fixed. I also traveled to several marinas in the area and talked with the sales and service employees to get a feel for the marine side of the business.”

Training the Team

With the right leadership in place, other staffing challenges—namely, training—could be addressed. Techs were told, in essence, that handling the add-on services was now simply part of their job description. “We said to our guys, you’re going to do glass,” says Osterman. “We did the same thing with heavy frame repair and boats. We said, ‘You’re a Bodyworks guy, and this is what we are going to do as a team.’ Once they got over the hump of saying ‘I can’t do it’ they learned they could and learned to treat it like just another part of their job.”

That learn-or-leave attitude worked, thanks in part to what Osterman calls “a beautiful place to work and great benefits, [which keep] people from jumping ship when we try to make better use of them.” Not one tech left because of the new responsibilities.

It took a couple of years of marketing and promoting the add-on businesses to make them a viable part of the shop's revenue team.

The shop also “slowly started training gelcoat techs [for boat repair work]—which was our greatest challenge,” Osterman says. Techs were sent to marine manufacturing facilities to learn each company’s warranty repair procedure.

Today, of The Bodyworks’ 27 employees, five are dedicated to add-on services: Sorenson and Dosser, as well as one full-time glass installer and two boat repair techs. In addition, the shop’s eight sheet metal techs are trained to install glass when the workload is heavy. (Techs aren’t the only versatile employees, either. Sorenson also serves as a back-up estimator, and The Bodyworks operates with a promote-from-within philosophy. In addition to Osterman, who joined the company as production manager in 1998, Sorenson started at the shop as a receptionist, the lead boat repair tech started out washing cars, and the glass tech started out as a detailer.)

The add-on services also required new equipment. A capsizer, a fork lift and two side-by-side Garmat downdraft prep decks were added to the shop in order to handle large boats. Plus, a 7,000-square-foot boat storage area was built outside the shop. (Already on the premises: three paint booths, 10 downdraft prep decks, two world racks, four drive-on multi-bench lifts, four Kansas Jack drive-on units, two velocity measuring devices, three Kansas Jack laser systems and one Hunter wheel alignment rack.)

“It’d be tough for a small body shop to do this,” Osterman admits. “To do this right is an investment.” And not just in money, but also in time: Training techs in intricate gelcoat repairs took about two years. It took a couple years of marketing and promoting the add-on businesses to make them a viable part of the shop’s revenue stream. The Bodyworks used print and radio advertising (at a “significant investment” Osterman says), and solicited area dealers for repair and warranty referrals. Add-on products and services are also promoted on the shop’s Web site (thebodyworksscc.com) through video and PDF fliers.

Future Growth

With a bevy of add-on services all operating smoothly and contributing to the bottom line, Osterman isn’t focused on adding more to The Bodyworks’ roster. Rather, he’s working to grow sales of the businesses—especially accessories—that are already in place.

Recently, the company purchased computer software that lets the dealership sales staff sell accessories from their desks and transfers orders directly to Dosser, who then handles the order and ensures parts are available. (Dealership sales staff have incentive plans, in addition to their regular pay, for promoting glass and accessories.)

Osterman estimates that the software will help double accessory sales within two years, but he’s working on low-tech ways to drive sales, too. Dosser attends a couple Saturday morning dealership sales meetings each month, with fresh pastries in hand, to promote his department. And he and Osterman recently ran a contest between the dealer groups to sell accessories, with the winning sales department getting a home-cooked, five-course breakfast prepared by the pair.

“We have found that our growth in these departments comes from having a team-oriented relationship with our dealership sales staff,” Osterman says.

Bacon for bed liners, toast for toppers … certainly, it’s an untraditional way of growing sales at a collision repair shop. But it’s working for The Bodyworks.

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