2009 FenderBender Awards
Over the past year, we asked readers to tell us about the collision repair industry’s finest. Your nominations for the 2009 FenderBender Awards poured in, with FenderBender readers singing the praises of painters and advocates, body techs and educators, owners and managers and estimators—all the professionals who go to work every day and make great things happen in the auto body business. Today we’re pleased to introduce you to a few of the people whose hard work and innovative ideas are propelling the industry forward. Meet the winners of the second annual FenderBender Awards—and get inspired.
Thanks to all of our readers for your nominations and for helping us continue to shine the light on some of the industry’s finest. Don’t forget about next year!
Visit fenderbenderawards.com to submit your nomination for a FenderBender Award.
Bob Smith, Storm Appraisal and Management Services, Kansas City, Mo.
Business owners have to remind themselves to not only work in the business (getting day-to-day tasks done) but on the business (setting strategy, planning ahead). Bob Smith is in the same position, but doubly: As the owner of an appraisal company in Kansas City, Mo., and a lobbyist for the auto collision industry, he has to not only work in the industry but on the industry.
Actually, he doesn’t have to, but he can’t imagine not doing it. Smith has been involved in appraising since 1982, first as a storm damage appraiser and for the last 10 years as an auto damage appraiser. Working with both insurance companies and body shops, he knows the ins and outs of how the two segments work together—and don’t work together—and how it affects the auto collision industry as a whole. Especially the customers.
An instructive example can be found in a report that Smith helped write as a member of the anti-fraud committee for the Pasco, Wash.–based Collision Industry Conference. The report, release_notesd in 2006, showed Smith and his committee’s careful efforts to analyze insurance company estimates for damaged vehicles. “The anti-fraud committee collected 726 estimates written by a variety of insurance companies from 10 states.... The average estimate was $2,498.20. The average final invoice was $5,048.47,” the report states. The report went on to describe five reasons why insurance estimates are so consistently low—but not to label the insurance industry the sole source of the problem.
“Bob does really well at bringing people from the insurance companies into the same room as people from the collision repair shops and getting them to work together for the betterment of the industry,” says Ken Cieslinski, owner of Ken’s Collision Center in Cassville, Mo. “He has a lot of patience; I think most people wouldn’t last a week doing what he does.”
Smith started getting seriously involved in working with all segments of the industry in 1999, writing legislation to improve it and testifying on behalf of legislation written by others. “I realized that we tended to pay attention to what was going on inside, but not outside, the industry,” he says. “Things would happen or laws would pass and they were either good or bad—mostly not favorable—and all we were doing was reacting.” He couldn’t see how he could not get involved, and suddenly he was involved, up to his neck. “It was one of those cats that gets out of the bag and just keeps runnin’,” he says in his Missouri twang. “The worst part was, I found that I liked it.”
Smith is working on legislation in three areas. The latest, SB986, is a Senate bill to require estimators in the state of Missouri to be licensed, including both insurance company appraisers and shop appraisers. “We’re hoping to have everybody have at least some rudimentary knowledge, instead of the two-week wonders we see in the industry,” Smith says. The bill would require estimators to get eight hours of continuing education a year. Two other bills that Smith has been shepherding for a couple of years now would address steering and deceptive referrals, and require following the instructions of estimating systems.
The estimating systems bill is simple to Smith. “If it says to paint the panel, you have to paint the whole panel and not try to lowball that for the customer, so the work done is complete,” he says. But the steering bill is harder, because Smith acknowledges that steering is hard to get rid of.
“Not only are insurance companies going to do it no matter what you do, shops don’t always think it’s a bad deal,” he says. “If the company is sending work to you, you’re probably going to think it’s a good deal, and if it’s steering work away, you’re probably going to think it’s bad. We’re working on language that’s a win for both sides, so that insurance companies can still recommend shops but be transparent about why they recommend them—and acknowledge that their recommendation doesn’t mean there aren’t other shops who could do the work too.”
That approach, of finding a solution that works for the whole industry instead of just part of it, requires the patience that Cieslinksi describes. Not only does Smith have that quality, he tries to instill it in others as well. “The industry looks for light-switch changes, changes that work overnight,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen that way.”
Bart Stephens, Sam Jackson Auto Body, Raymond, Ohio
It’s not easy to get Bart Stephens out of the paint booth. Sam Jackson, owner of Sam Jackson Auto Body, knows this well. He says that PPG has wanted Stephens to come demonstrate his methods at one of their classes. But Stephens doesn’t even take sick time, never mind take time off for class time. He logs 300 hours of spray time a week, and Jackson, who has known Stephens since he was 12, says he’s the kind of self-made guy any owner would want to have a shop full of.
“His consistency, week after week, is amazing,” Jackson says. “He’s worked here for 21 years, and he’s probably missed two days in all that time. I thought he might slow down when he got older, but he still paints like he did when he was 20.”
Stephens is the chief painter for Sam Jackson Auto Body, a 15,000-square-foot shop with 14 employees. There are two locations, one in Raymond, Ohio, that specializes in Hondas and Acuras, and one in Marysville called Jackson’s Collision. Stephens works primarily at the Raymond location.
He started working for Jackson when he was 17, just cleaning up and taking out the trash, but when he learned what the paint techs made, he wanted in. So at 23, he took up the spray gun, and he hasn’t put it down in the last 15 years. “I just hustle, I guess,” Stephens says, when asked how he can be so efficient. “It’s all about coordinating your work, what you do and when you do it.”
Jackson says it’s more than that; he’s excellent at color matching, so he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time at it. “He just figures it out quick and does the spray-outs, and then he’s off and running,” Jackson says.
Stephens is assisted by a prep man and a finish tech who does the wet sanding and other finishing tasks. Stephens never went to vo-tech school, just learned on the job. And he has no interest in owning his own shop, although he probably could if he wanted to. “The day’s come and gone for that,” he says. “I just want to paint.” Spoken like a man who knows the art of the craft.
Joseph Kinch, Medford Vocational-Technical High School, Medford, Mass.
Making Learning Fun
No industry can survive long without a constant influx of young talent. Joe Kinch is doing his part to make sure that the auto collision industry gets a new crop of technicians every year.
Since 1984, Kinch has been the auto body and collision technology instructor for Medford Vocational-Technical High School in Medford, Mass. He teaches painting, frame work, metal straightening and the other tasks that a good technician has to know how to do. His students learn a lot, evidenced by the reaction of body shops in the area.
“He teaches students as much as he can in the limited time he has them, and he gives them a lot: estimating, finalizing the job, rot repair, dent repair, painting, everything,” says Harold Cohen, who owns Charles Street Auto Body in Medfield, Mass. “I’ve had three of his students work for me, and all of them knew more than students from the other trade schools.”
Cohen notes that although auto body is a hard trade to get into, Kinch’s instruction makes it easier for his students, which makes them more employable when they’re ready to look for work. “He makes it fun so that they want to learn,” Cohen says.
Kinch does so by working with the students, instead of telling them what to do and walking away. “You can’t just tell students to take the bumper off a 2005 Toyota Corolla,” he says. “You have to help them, get down on your knees with them, and be a partner with them as they’re working. Sometimes students say, ‘I can’t do it,’ and they’re right because they’ve never done it before. So you have to oversee them, give them more of their time so you can help them figure it out. Then when it all clicks, they really want to do it, because they know they can.”
Kinch does a lot with an extremely limited budget. Last year, he had all of $2,500 for the school year. With 20 students going through the program at any given time, that’s not a lot of money, and he’s educating students with a 25-year-old paint booth and a 25-year-old frame machine. So he works with companies to get the equipment and software he needs to instruct his students using the actual technology that’s in body shops right now. For example, Audatex donated software so that they could learn how to create estimates. “There’s nothing wrong with doing estimates on paper, but that’s not what most shops are doing, and I don’t want them to get to a shop and have no idea what this stuff is,” Kinch says.
Kinch also buys wrecks and brings them in for the students to work on. He makes sure they get a lot of hands-on work, and focuses the class on shop time rather than on theory. But when he does teach theory, he uses the curriculum developed by I-CAR. Medford Vocational-Technical is one of the few schools in the state of Massachusetts that is a member of I-CAR’s Industry Training Alliance. Kinch took the two-day Instructor Qualification Workshop and maintains Medford’s membership because the lessons developed by I-CAR are the ones the industry is using.
“I-CAR has been really helpful to us in getting great curriculum, which is what education is all about,” Kinch says.
Kinch’s effectiveness in teaching comes in part from his 25 years of experience. But it’s also because he talks straight with the kids. “If they say they got it wrong, and they did, I agree with them,” he says. “But I also tell them that they’ll do better next time, and make sure they get to do a lot of live work. I want them to enjoy [the repair work], not be afraid of it.”
Best New Owner
Alexandra Amabile, Like New Auto Body, Perth Amboy, N.J.
Not Afraid to Get Dirty
In a male-dominated industry like auto body, the women who work in it tend to stand out, if only by virtue of what they’re not. At times, women have to work harder to stay on an equal footing with men, and they aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts. So when a woman does the work and owns the shop, already she’s achieved quite a bit.
But for Alexandra Amabile, that’s just the beginning of the story. Amabile is from South America. She spent her early years on her father’s farm, surrounded by male farmhands. Her mother, who had left Amabile and her father, eventually returned and took her to Spain. But by age 15, Amabile was completely on her own.
In 1981, Amabile married her first husband, who was a body man. Amabile, who sometimes went to the shop and waited for her husband to get off work, got her start in the industry when she asked one day if she could help in the shop because they needed the money. She started sanding, doing body work and observing other tasks.
In 1998, they moved with their two daughters back to Amabile’s native Colombia. After they divorced, the now-single mother of two decided to move to the United States. She chose New Jersey so she could live with one of her cousins. Then she started looking for a body shop job. But, perhaps in part because English is her second language, and because she is a woman, owners often thought she was applying for a job for her husband.
Her problems weren’t solved once she got a job, either. “The men were hard on me,” Amabile says. At the last shop she worked at before she bought her own, the owner was especially demeaning, calling her “nothing” and, on one occasion, spitting on the floor next to her. But Amabile knew that she couldn’t quit with her daughters relying on her. “I worked very hard, 14- or 16-hour days, and sometimes I would finish at 3 in the morning, but when I went home I was very proud,” she says. “I promised that I would be my own boss someday.”
In 2000, Amabile met her husband-to-be Joe, who was a paint representative for Keystone. When Joe went to work at Like New Auto Body the next year, he suggested that Amabile join him because the shop needed a painter. It was a great satisfaction for the two of them to collect Amabile’s tools from the shop where she’d been working, and for Amabile to give notice to her boss. “The thing is, he knew she was a great worker even though he treated her so badly,” Joe says. “He knew what he was losing.”
What he was losing was a perfectionist who believed that if work wasn’t spot-on, it wasn’t done. Joe says that her 28 years of experience and her work ethic have given her a good eye and a commitment to doing her best work for the customer. “She can work circles around 10 other guys, and she doesn’t let anything slide,” Joe says. “If we’re not doing it right, she’ll let us know. She’s not afraid to get up on the frame machine if I’m doing an estimate; she’s not afraid to get dirty.”
The couple has owned the shop for a year and a half now, having purchased it from a retiring owner. Alexandra and Raquel, Amabile’s daughters, are 22 and 25 now, and they’re out on their own. Amabile is grateful for everything she has. “The woman I am now is very strong,” she says.
Best Shop Owner
Mike Quinn, 911 Collision Centers, Tucson, Ariz.
Mover and Shaker
Nobody can accuse Mike Quinn of thinking small. For many owners, opening one shop is the goal, but for him, it was only the beginning. He and business partner Patrick O’Neill opened their first shop in Tucson, Ariz. Eleven years later, they have seven shops across Tucson, Scottsdale and Las Vegas, Nev., and they’re looking at a couple of markets for more in the years to come.
Quinn and O’Neill met at a consulting company in 1994, and together they helped collision repair shops improve their businesses. “I saw all kinds of models for shop layouts, owners, management styles and so on, but I also saw many people who were running their shops by the seat of their pants with no vision,” Quinn says.
Quinn got his start in the industry as a mechanic, doing state inspections and fixing turbo transmissions at a GM dealership in Philadelphia. When a friend asked him in 1984 to join his body shop, he agreed, and spent the next three years learning the business inside and out. He also became a licensed appraiser. Then the consulting opportunity came along, and he and O’Neill spent the next two and a half years consulting together.
When Good to Great, a now-famous management book, came out, it encouraged business owners to think of serving four groups of stakeholders: employees, customers, vendors and communities. That struck Quinn, and he decided the idea applied to auto collision shops as much as any other businesses. He and O’Neill embraced the idea in their own business when they started 911 Collision Centers in 1998. “Pat painted cars and ran production, and I ran the front and handled customers,” Quinn says. “After one year we were looking for location number two, and we haven’t looked back since.”
Quinn’s work extends beyond his own business to working hard to enhance the image of the auto collision industry as a whole. “Mike has always been a mover and a shaker, always sitting on some board or speaking or doing charity work,” says Bill McElroy, owner of Bill McElroy Auto Body in Bensalem, a suburb of Philadelphia.
That moving and shaking has included being on the Trade Practices committee for the Collision Industry Conference (CIC), and work with various programs of the National Auto Body Council, such as Recycled Rides. “We often have cars that come in that are total losses because the insurance writes them off, but they’re not structural losses, so we repair them and donate them to needy families in the area,” Quinn says.
Quinn says that the company’s mission, vision and values, delineated on a card that employees carry around and that is posted in each 911 location, has helped to make the company grow and be successful. The card has a set of principles, called “Today’s Action Plan,” which Quinn says contains the answer to any question employees might have about how to conduct themselves.
The second principle, “work together to achieve today’s goals,” might be Quinn’s favorite. “I’ll go in and scrub a bathroom at one of our locations if it needs it, and I’ve done it,” he says. “I’m not above that.”
Quinn attributes the success of the business to those employees, and to their focus on giving people latitude while setting clearly defined goals. “We try to hire people with a heart to serve and a desire to win,” Quinn says. “I hate the word ‘empower,’ but it really is what we do: We give them opportunities to grow beyond their comfort zone and learn to do things they never thought they’d be able to do.”
Joseph Meyer, B&J Body Shop, Springfield, Ill.
Morning ‘Til Night
Farmers have a reputation for working from sunup to sundown. Joseph Meyer is no farmer, but you could argue that he works every bit as hard, if not more so. On a typical day, he’s out the door by 7 a.m. and works until 9:30 or 10:00 at night. Occasionally, he takes a Sunday off. But otherwise, he may just be the hardest-working man in Springfield.
“He works long hours, day and night, to accommodate his customers,” says Josh Nordin, a security guard at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. “He knows the ins and outs of an automobile, and he has worked on my car several times.”
Meyer does most of his work with B&J Body Shop in Springfield, Ill. But he also works for two other shops, and for a long time, he was working for a fourth, straightening window frames for a shop that repairs mass transit buses.
“They’ve all got lots of work, and I do it all: frame work, sheet metal straightening, pretty much anything except custom work,” Meyer says. “I used to do that too, but I’m not doing it now.”
Meyer was 16 when he started working at a shop in Spaulding, Ill. He was going to vocational school at the time, and he was mostly doing cleanup at the shop: sweeping floors, sanding parts for painting. But he did such a good job that the owner offered him more money to quit school and work for him full-time. That was 35 years ago, and Meyer just can’t get enough of fixing banged-up cars.
Customers can’t get enough of him, either. Jamie Proctor, whose car Meyer has fixed, was one of four people to nominate Meyer for an award. “His customers won’t have anyone else work on their car,” says Proctor, a nurse at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. “I’ll see cars he’s going to work on, and I think, ‘There’s no way to make that look like a car again.’ But he does it, every time.”
Jim Alexander, another regular, says that Joe acts like it’s a privilege, rather than a job, to do the work he does. “His work is meticulous and you can tell that he really enjoys what he does,” Alexander says.
“You’ve really got to love it,” Meyer says, explaining how he can work so much all the time. He doesn’t plan to ever do anything else; in fact, he can’t imagine doing anything else. He owns three frame machines that are kept at B&J and “every tool under the sun,” and he could have his own shop—in fact, he did at one time. But it wasn’t right for him, and he’s much happier now.
“It’s such a headache,” he says. “I couldn’t find good help, and I’m just not very good in the office. I’m a shop kind of guy, and I’d rather be out in the shop fixing things.”