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At Home in the Hood

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“A bad neighbor is a misfortune, as much as a good one is a great blessing,” wrote the ancient Greek poet Hesiod.

Body shops aren’t exactly thought of as dream neighbors. With dropping home values, increasing concern with environmental protection, and ever- changing governmental regulations, body shops can be a source of concern for a community. That’s why it’s important to keep on good terms with the people who can affect your ability to grow your business, both in terms of building your customer base and opening new shops. There’s no better public relations strategy than having a reputation as a thoughtful and involved member of the neighborhood and the local community. 

SIMPLE THINGS: Landscaping, keeping trash and recycling tidy,
community involvement and a nice fence are some easy ways to
create goodwill with the neighbors—and potential customers.

“Automotive shops get a bad rap,” says Lauren Rosenberg, owner of LRPR-Lauren Rosenberg Public Relations in Santa Monica, Calif., who works with the automotive industry. “People think they’re dirty, they make a lot of noise, they’re dishonest. The thing to do is to position yourself as an authority on combating those issues, and as a neighbor who is clean, quiet, trustworthy, and community friendly.”

Here, we focus on how collision repair shop owners can show their neighbors and communities they’re an asset, rather than a liability, to have around. 

THE STAMP OF APPROVAL

In order to start a business in the first place, you have to get permission to be part of a community. That usually means getting approval—a building permit and/or business license— from the city council or a comparable governing body. Your request may be a good fit with a city’s zoning laws, or you may have to request a variance. Either way, the approval process has the potential to go easily, or to be long, expensive and arduous. For some, opposition to their very existence can be fierce.

“It’s been a year-long process of misery, and it’s cost us a fortune,” says Steven Strezo, an owner of Central Auto Body Inc. of Waukegan, Ill., of a request they put in to the city of Antioch, Ill., to build a body shop in a nonindustrial area. Uninformed residents and opponents, he says, “still think we’re going to generate hazardous waste, like there are going to be smoke stacks with paint fumes coming out. They have this image of a body shop of 20 years ago.”

Strezo says the first request they put in for a variance was denied, so they’re trying again with another. He estimates they spent $30,000 on the first failed attempt, and at least $20,000 on this second one. With four locations, 60 employees, and $7 million in revenues right now, Strezo wants Central Auto Body to grow. The reason he’s so determined to build in a nonindustrial area is exposure to customers. He estimates the fifth planned location could bring in as much as $2.5 million in revenues, making it one of their bigger money-makers. But that means being neighbors with people who are passionate about the ambiance of their neighborhood.

“We’re not going to make this investment in some industrial park where there’s no exposure,” says Strezo. “We wouldn’t survive.”

The city council in Antioch gave Strezo a list of 18 things they would have to do in addition to the normal requirements for that zone, including landscaping, special fencing, restricted hours of operation, a certain lighting scheme, even the brickwork on the building. Strezo is happy to comply. But, he acknowledges, “You really have to bend over backward for these guys.” Strezo recommends that anyone considering a building project be ready to spend money and time on it. “Make sure you’re committed and you’re patient. Be ready for an uphill fight.”

Neighbors want to know their ground soil isn’t being
contaminated. Cities want to know a potential
employer is compliant with OSHA standards.
“It’s important to take this seriously.”

Strezo says Central Auto Body owners went door to door in the neighborhood where they wanted to build to get acquainted with people and give them information about what they could expect from the shop. He says it was a good idea to do so, but he cautions against relying on what people say during those visits. “They’ll greet you with open arms, but when [the neighborhood groups] get together, they’ll tend to sway each other,” he says.

As far as the city council itself goes, Strezo says it’s important to tell them what you’ll bring to a community. “You have to convince them [your business is] right for the village, that it’s worth it, that you’ll bring in sales taxes and jobs.” He estimates that he’s gone to at least a dozen city council meetings, and he’s done his best to give them what they want. Even if the council supports the idea of a new body shop in theory, though, Strezo cautions that pressure from citizens can be intense. “It’s really political,” he says.

One of the things city councils and neighbors want to know is how shops plan to be good stewards of the environment. Each state’s environmental regulations are different, but beyond complying with laws, being green is good PR. Neighbors want to know their ground soil isn’t being contaminated with poured-out chemicals and that asbestos isn’t flying around in the air. Cities want to know a potential employer is compliant with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.

“It’s important to take this seriously,” says David Fodor, president of Fodor Environmental Consultants Inc. in Springfield, Ill. “A lot of people understand that environmental issues cost a lot of money, but they don’t understand the health aspects.”

IT’S WHO YOU KNOW

When it comes down to it, being a good neighbor and an active part of the community is all about knowing people. The more people you know, the easier everything gets.

Gary Mahnke, owner of Mahnke’s Auto Body Inc. of Arvada, Colo., has learned a lot from opening four shops over the past three decades. The fifth shop, in Greenfield, will open in September, bringing Mahnke’s up to $10 million in revenue with about 60 employees. After all the hassle of hiring attorneys, engineers, a general contractor and environmental consultants, he still had problems getting approval by the Greenfield city council. In the end, he hired someone who was friends with a higher-up in the city, and everything finally went through.

If he had to do it all over again, Mahnke would probably start with that step instead of leaving it for last. “I would do a lot of it myself. I would go to the city council meetings and befriend some people in the city,” he says. “They can make it miserable or they can make it easy.”

This kind of political positioning can be about an image of power as well. Lauren Rosenberg suggests hiring a public relations firm to represent you at city council meetings if you feel uncomfortable with the idea of articulating yourself verbally in front of a panel, or even if you don’t. “It’s always good to have someone represent you,” she says. “It makes you seem more important.”

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

Getting involved in the life of the community is another way to garner a good reputation among neighbors. Whether it’s sponsoring Little League teams or corralling employees into picking up trash for Adopt-A-Highway, getting the shop’s name out in the community in a positive way is important—and it’s good business.

“There’s a sea of collision repair shops in each city, so what are you going to do to promote yourself?” says Rosenberg. “It’s all about promotion and positioning yourself as standing apart.”

One of the best public relations strategies is community involvement. “Public relations will keep you in the public eye. It’s the kind of advertising you can’t pay enough for, the kind that keeps you positioned in a positive way,” Rosenberg says. 

Here are a few of Rosenberg’s suggestions for getting involved in the life the community you work in:

Get involved with the school system. “Invite schools over. Show the kids how you fix a car,” Rosenberg says. “Make it educational.”

Hold an open house. Invite neighbors to come over and tour the facilities. “That appeals not only to the family, but to the kids. If you want to stay in business, this is a good way to appeal to the customer of the future who will grow up and remember you and think, ‘I trust him,’” Rosenberg says.

Do community activities. Participate on a regular basis to keep your name out there, and to keep yourself in the habit of doing it. “Even a mom-and-pop shop can do something once a month—just one promotion a month,” Rosenberg says. Don’t underestimate the power of events like the Lion’s Club pancake breakfast. “If you become partners in a reputable event, it strengthens your credibility,” Rosenberg says. “Put a float in the local parade, sponsor Little League teams.” And make sure your sign is up at the event.

Perhaps the most important thing about being a good neighbor is to go into it with the right attitude, Rosenberg says. “You have to make it clear that you want to become partners with the community,” she says. “It’s not only about what you can do for us, but also what we can do for you.”

This is the kind of thing Strezo tries to do in the communities where his shop operates. “We’re part of the Chamber of Commerce, we support the high school sports teams, we work with the local police department and the local public works,” Strezo says. “We’re not just a business that makes money and locks up at night and goes home. That was one of our initial selling points: ‘Look what we do. We’re a neighbor, not just a business.’”

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