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Staying Competitive with Certification

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Westside Lexus in Houston was recently named the 2008 Toyota/Lexus Certified Collision Center of the Year. Westside Lexus is the first Lexus dealer to have won the award—no small feat, considering that the contest pitted Westside against 168 Toyota and Lexus Certified Collision Center dealers across the country and entailed scoring almost perfectly on a battery of tests ranging from sales growth to facility appearance.

For Ronnie Brush, Westside’s collision center manager, the reason for this honor is simple: He and his staff are constantly engaging in training programs that help them hone their skills in a competitive market.

“Absolutely, the training we did set us up for becoming the collision center of the year,” says Brush, whose department spends about 1 percent of its gross sales on training and certification programs for its employees. “What I learn from attending classes is how to add value.”

Brush’s shop is a complex operation: 18,000 square feet with about 23 technicians and nine office and support staff. His shop made $8.3 million last year, averaging just under $700,000 per month. It’s no simple thing to pull techs off the line during a busy summer week to sit through a class on the shop’s dime. But Brush is passionate about the importance of training, and for good reason: He credits it with helping him learn to run an award-winning, successful shop.

Brush took his first how-to class in the mid-1980s, and he was immediately awed by how much he had to learn, including basic shop management skills like how to write an accurate estimate and how to hire good employees.

“They started the class by saying, ‘I know you probably know this already,’ but everyone was taking notes! I didn’t know what they were talking about,” says Brush. That first class helped him see things then that seem obvious now.

Brush went back to his shop and started implementing changes that quickly improved the shop’s efficiency. Even if he’d been able to make only a few small changes based on what he learned at the classes, they would’ve been worth it, he says, because each small change boosts the shop’s bottom line.

“If you think you can’t change your world overnight, go to a class,” he says.

NOT FREE OR EASY

Brush is the first to concede that his commitment to training and certification comes at something of a cost. It takes some technicians years to pass certain certification requirements. Sometimes it’s necessary to pull someone off the line during a busy week to participate in a class.

“It can be painful at first,” Brush says. “You may not realize the benefits instantly. Some people just see this as gobbledygook.”
On a busy week it’s difficult to let anyone go. Not to mention the difficulty for some employees to start studying again after years of being out of school. “When they come in for their first class, they’re freaked out,” Brush says. Study kiosks are set up in the lunchroom, and those who are struggling are paired with stronger
students.

Maintaining the certifications can be just as costly and time-consuming as getting them in the first place. But the results are well worth it, Brush says. If he can improve his shop’s bottom line by 1 percent because of the training, it’s been worth it. “The time and money spent training, the summits and lectures, you will bring something back from those,” Brush says.

All the training makes employees proud of the brand they represent, and that makes for good customer relations. “If you have happy bosses, you have happy employees and you have happy customers,” Brush says.

Brush also likes to hire as many new employees as he can from the Universal Technical Institute. He always knows within 30 days whether they’ll survive the rigors of working in his shop.

PROTOTYPE FOR CHANGE

Westside Lexus was one of the first four shops in the country to pilot the Lexus Certified Collision Center (LCCC) program in the mid-1990s. Being in the program means the shop has to go through a rigorous recertification process every year. For that, Lexus certifiers spend two days poring over everything from the shop’s safety and equipment processes to how well-lit it is.

In 2008, Brush and his team won the prestigious Lexus Collision Center of the Year—not an easy award to win. Certifiers rank 10 areas of a center’s operations and training level to assess whether a shop qualifies:
   • Customer satisfaction
   • Manager certification level
   • Estimator certification level
   • Technician certification
   • Total sales growth
   • Benchmark achievement
   • Parts-to-labor ratio
   • Parts sales per repair/order
   • Parts sales performance
   • Facility’s image

Fully three of the areas rank the training and certification of all levels of personnel, from management to technician. For Brush and his team, the training and certification part was a challenging but not unfamiliar feat.

Brush says being a Lexus Certified Collision Center is his most important certification because the annual testing his shop undergoes keeps him on his toes as far as sales growth, customer satisfaction and even how the shop looks. The testers go so far as to look through his files to make sure he’s following the company’s procedures, and that keeps quality high.

Some of the other certifications Brush keeps up with include:
   • Lexus Factory Certification
   • ASE Certification
   • Toyota T-Ten Certification
   • PPG Certified First Shop

The PPG certification program is one of Brush’s favorites. The company, based in Pittsburgh, offers training in products, technologies, equipment and collision repair process methodologies at 16 business development centers around the country. Brush credits the PPG system with preparing his shop for the rigors of winning the Lexus Certified Collision Center of the
Year award in 2008.


LEARNING TO RUN A BUSINESS
Brush is a natural student, which is good considering all the twists and turns his career has taken over the years.
After graduating from high school in 1977, Brush got a job with a Chrysler franchise doing everything from shipping and receiving to driving a parts truck. In the mid-1980s, he got a job as a service consultant for a BMW dealership. The BMW dealership bought an independent collision repair shop to add to the business. The manager of that shop essentially just stopped showing up for work, and Brush was tapped in 1987 to run the collision repair shop. At that point, he had absolutely no experience in collision repair. So, like any good student, he started asking questions.

“I would stay until 12 o’clock at night [learning how the business worked], or I would was just ask questions. ‘Why?’” Brush would ask about certain practices and procedures at the shop. The answer invariably was, “I don’t know.”

It was soon after he took over management of the BMW repair center that he took his first class and began his love of training and certification programs.

When Lexus was introduced to the American marketplace in August 1989, the company approached Brush and asked him if he would work on Lexus cars as well. The catch: Brush would have to go to California for training on how to work on Lexus cars. With Brush’s background, this was no hardship: he jumped at the chance.

When Westside Lexus decided to get into the collision repair industry in 1993, Brush was tapped to run the shop by people from Lexus who knew his work and his commitment to training. He’s been there ever since.

BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY

Brush has a few other business strategies that he says also serve him well in running his repair shop.

Lexus expertise. Being a Lexus repair center gives Brush something of a captive audience. About 90 percent of his repairs come from the Lexus dealership, so Brush’s customers tend to be loyal and return often.

“I don’t want to fix every car in Houston,” Brush says, adding that he doesn’t consider your run-of-the-mill body shop to be his competitor. “I don’t want their customers. We’re here to take care of Lexuses. If someone comes in and asks if we can repair a Mercedes, we’ll say yes, but it’ll take longer.”

Working solely with one brand gives his technicians a certain expertise. “You become very familiar with what happens to them in a wreck,” Brush says.

Selected DRPs. Brush has very few DRP relationships. He doesn’t like to specifically name his main DRP, but concedes that it’s the industry’s “800-pound gorilla.” He likes working with them because the money always comes in promptly and they “don’t beat you over the head with percentages,” he says. “It’s a good program that’s focused on the customer and that’s what we’re about.”

One big reason Brush limits his DRP relationships to very few insurance companies is that it keeps him honest. “If you read all those DRP contracts, they each say you’ll give their customers preferential treatment,” Brush says. “Signing [more than a few of those] would be a lie.”

Start to finish. Another business practice that sets him apart from other collision repair shops is that Brush insists that each car be worked on until it’s finished rather than working on four or five cars at the same time. Waiting for parts, Brush says, is not an excuse for not getting a car done all at once since his shop stocks all Lexus parts.

MOVING FOWARD

Future plans for the shop include making the switch to water-based paint products. Right now Brush is studying whether to get new paint booths or to modify the existing ones. Knowing Brush, studying paint booths will probably mean classes.

For the employees, future plans include—you guessed it—classes and training. One day in April, Brush looks through his calendar. Everything on the calendar in blue is training—and there’s a lot of blue on there. Some of the classes on tap: “The Power of How” and “Ethics on Trial.” Other subjects include working with new products and how to make decisions.

“[My employees] say they’ve worked at other shops, and they’ve never done this much [training] before,” Brush says. “I say, ‘Get ready. It never ends.’” Neither, it seems, do the bottom-line benefits.

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