Running a Shop Leadership Strategy+Planning

The Fixer

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Day 1, John Cecere parked his car and walked through the cement parking lot. 

He didn’t give a second look to the (non-operable) military tank sunk into the front lawn. He brushed past all the delayed projects, the handful of vehicles in various stages of disrepair strewn across the facility’s customer parking spaces out front. And he ambled into the lobby, a white-walled box with a lone couch, clusters of long-out-of-date car posters and one large, shop-logoed, yellow banner nailed to the wall.

Welcome to Crown Collision Center, the Palm City, Fla., shop Cecere was tasked with saving.

“It was your typical 1980s body shop, inside and out,” he says. “It needed a little ... attention.”

The fourth leg of Crown Car Care’s network of facilities that includes three service centers, the collision business had long been neglected when Cecere left his corporate job with CARSTAR to become the shop’s general manager. 

It was “in resurrection mode,” he says, and “on its last legs.” The 5,500-square-foot shop did $34,000 in total sales last May, and when Cecere took over June 1, he inherited three skilled technicians, buried in a clustered mix of restoration and collision work.

“It was going to be a challenge; I knew that, and I knew with the state it was in, we had to do something pretty fast,” he says. “The industry is simply too difficult to operate that way, but it’s not like you can just flip a switch. There have to be some serious steps taken.”

The Backstory

Cecere was an area director of operations—a burnt-out area director of operations—with CARSTAR when he first saw a Craigslist ad for a service writer at Crown Collision in mid-2014. 

An industry lifer, Cecere had moved his family from Connecticut to western Florida in 2011 for the CARSTAR job. And he spent the next three years on the road.

“I was just so tired of being away from my family,” he says. “I wanted anything that would be near them.”

He found it in Crown Collision, which is roughly a mile from his home. 

“I sent in a résumé, and within an hour or two, the owner called to see if I wanted to be the general manager,” he says. “I spent 20 years managing shops, and then going in and out of some of the best in the area with CARSTAR, and the idea of getting back in there just felt great.”

For the business’s owner, Todd Harris, it signaled a rebirth for the shop.

“My vision was to keep this going and really turn it around,” says Harris, who has always been more heavily involved in the business’s mechanical shops. “We wanted to reinvent the wheel and try to do something different.”

The Problem

Let’s move beyond the curb appeal issues for a moment; the shop, financially, was near ruins when Cecere came in. 

As the company’s service segment remained profitable and trudged through the recession, hard times hit the collision shop. 

Once locally renowned for its restoration work—particularly its extravagant airbrushing—those jobs began to dry up. The shop relied more heavily on its collision work than in the past, but was not prepared for the modern insurance-driven grind of gaining, retaining and producing quality work on-time.

It’s the classic case of a shop not transitioning well into the modern industry, Cecere says. Until May of 2014, the shop had no electronic management system, and even when Cecere took over in June, the CCC system had yet to be used. 

There was no clear workflow process. Restoration projects clogged up collision bays. Work mixed through haphazardly, and while the quality was strong, cycle time (though not tracked at all) was slow, Cecere says. Touch time (when Cecere initially tracked it) was at just 2.5 hours per day, and efficiency levels were surprisingly low given the shop’s largest strength: its technicians. 

There were jobs sitting on the lot that were more than a year old—and the building on the lot looked unwelcoming and decades past its prime. 

Add it all up, and Cecere says it’s no surprise the shop was near closing. It’s roughly $30,000 monthly sales volume put the facility deep in the red, needing to increase revenue by nearly 40 percent to safely eclipse its break-even point.

All of it scared off insurers. All of it scared off many customers. All of it left Cecere and his new team with one clear problem: How do you take an outdated, dying shop and bring it, successfully, into the modern era? 

The Solution

Cecere had a simple plan: Change everything. That is to say, he felt the shop lacked an operational focus, an identity as a shop. 

“If you’re not a big consolidator or MSO or huge facility in a big market,” he says, “you need to carve out your niche. What separates you from your competition?”

For Crown Collision, that was clear: the techs. 

“I have no idea how they all got here, but we are incredibly lucky to have three very skilled, experienced technicians who want nothing more than to see this shop be successful,” he says. “Our people, experience and skill level is our niche.”

Cecere and the team needed to rebuild the business around that; they needed to create a system that allowed the techs to succeed. 

Step 1: Clean Up. The first thing Cecere did is clean up the shop’s curb appeal. He organized the parking lot, designating the front spots from customers and moving all unfinished vehicles to the back of the lot, out of sight. He had the tank removed, repainted the lobby himself, and began parking finished vehicles out front during office hours as a marketing tool. 

Step 2: Heat Up the Computers. From Day 1, Cecere started using 100 percent of the shop’s management system functionality, scheduling and tracking all work through the computer. He already had a deep knowledge of the system, and since he was the lone employee at the front counter, he handled all aspects of it, including a more thorough check-in system that enabled the shop to gather more customer information and allow Cecere to have more time talking with each customer.

Step 3: Implementing a System. With the organization of the management system came the structure of a new workflow system. Cecere says his team was open to change, so he decided to change drastically from the start. He implemented full blueprinting, and the shop began pre-ordering all parts and scheduling out repairs accordingly. 

“Everything had to be itemized and identified and all parts 100 percent in place before we start on a job,” he says. 

Then once started, the techs work on their respective jobs until completion.

Step 4: Get the Word Out. Marketing the shop quickly became Cecere’s largest focus. He joined two chambers of commerce (one in Palm City and one in nearby Stuart), and held a 70-person networking party for both chambers at the shop. He began making weekly stops at insurance offices in his market, and personally stopped into every area dealership to introduce himself and explain the changes the shop has made.

“We just needed people to give us a shot,” he says. “If we could get them in, they’d put their trust in us.”

The Aftermath

First, some initial numbers: By November, monthly sales topped $54,000. Touch time increased to 5.5 hours per day, and cycle time was reduced by nearly three full days. 

The shop’s three technicians each averaged between 160–190 percent efficiency by December.

“It [was] night-and-day different,” Cecere says. 

Keep that past tense in mind. 

At the end of November, despite the growth and efficiencies, the shop was still doing nearly 100 percent customer-pay work. It would get “four or five insurance-paid” jobs per month. Still, Cecere says they had finally climbed above their break-even point financially, and he felt, given six more months to complete the year of transition, the shop could handle $100,000 per month in sales.

Unfortunately, he will never know.

Increased marketing and shop improvements cost money, and as Harris watched his mechanical shops continue to produce steady profits, he saw his collision facility as unprofitable overhead. He made the decision to transition Crown Collision into a mechanical shop, with bays left over for a small collision segment.

The processes Cecere put in place, Harris says, worked “like magic, and they really turned around the way we operated.”

“But, in looking at our market, the volume of work simply wasn’t there,” he says. “You can have all the systems in the world, but if the work’s not there, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The lack of insurance relationships made it difficult, Cecere says, and he disagreed with the path the shop would take.

Cecere was let go on Dec. 8.

The Takeaway

Modern shops need to operate with modern systems, Cecere says. There’s no other option. The changes Cecere put in place aren’t necessarily surefire fixes for a dying shop, but they are the price of admission to being competitive today, he says. 

Looking for new opportunities now, Cecere says he wouldn’t change his approach; the plan he put in place was working.  

“You have to be open-minded and be ready to adjust,” he says. “If not, each year will get more and more difficult. You have to measure, track and stay on top of workflow. That’s a minimum today. Small, struggling shops can survive—but not by doing things they way they’ve always done them.” 

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