Top Four Industry Innovators
As collision repair evolves into the high-tech, business-centered industry it promises to be in the 21st century, certain innovators are pushing it farther and faster than anyone thought possible. FenderBender managing editor Jennifer Niemela sat down with four of the industry’s most creative minds to talk about the innovative things they’re doing, what they have planned for the near future, and where they see the industry going. Read on to learn what the future may hold for you and your shop.
David Caulfield and Curtis Nixon each came up with inventions, then joined forces to bring them to the industry.
Curtis Nixon, right, and David Caulfield have quite a lot in common. Both men own Fix Auto body shops in Southern California. Both have been in the collision repair industry for decades. And both men have, in the past few years, invented technology that has the potential to change the collision repair industry.
Nixon, owner of Fix Auto-“L” Monty Body Shop Inc. in El Monte, Calif., developed Auto Accident Kit on the advice of his adolescent son. Today, he runs his body shop while also managing Auto Accident Kit and partnering with Caulfield on his brainchild, UpdatePromise.com. (As if that weren’t enough, Nixon is also a partner in Nex Gen consulting, a collision repair consultancy.)
When Nixon’s 15-year-old son and his friend came to Nixon wanting to earn money to buy guitars, Nixon challenged them to come up with a money-making invention.
“I said, ‘Okay, think business. What can you do?’ They’re all into smart phones, so I started challenging them to take the smart phone technology and apply it,” Nixon says. “They created the early stage of Auto Accident Kit. I realized we had something bigger than we might use at just our location, so we got some IT developers to work with my son and his friend.”
After a year’s worth of development, Nixon found himself running Auto Accident Kit along with his shop. Auto Accident Kit is a mobile application that assists collision repair customers in organizing and documenting all the required information about their accident while walking them through the repair process.
And yes, Nixon’s son and his friend got the money to buy their guitars.
What are some areas of the industry Nixon is keeping an eye on for future innovations?
• Partnerships with OEMs. Car manufacturers are developing technology that could be a boon to collision repair shops. One example: the navigation systems manufacturers are installing in cars typically have local businesses in their databases so drivers can easily find them while driving. Nixon is exploring different partnerships with OEMs that will include collision repair shops in the navigation systems so when someone is in an accident, their car will direct them to those shops. “We’re starting to open some doors with OEMs” in this area, Nixon says.
• iPad applications for paint companies and consultants. iPad estimating systems are in development now, and Nixon would also like to see the iPad used in the shop by paint distributors and consultants. Consultants touring a shop could snap photos and keep a checklist on their iPad, and forward that information to the shop operator in a convenient package that allows operators to identify when procedures aren’t being followed. “The iPad has opened a lot of possibilities,” Nixon says.
Caulfield, owner of Fix Auto Yorba Linda in Yorba Linda, Calif. and founder of UpdatePromise.com, got the idea for his invention by solving a problem he had in his shop: staying in constant communication with customers during the repair process. His invention uses an automated system that interfaces with a shop’s management system to send text messages to customers with updates on the repair process. (See “More Sales At Your Fingertips” for more on UpdatePromise.com)
UpdatePromise.com has grown so much that Caulfield now devotes nearly as much time to that company as he does to his shop. He gets help from Nixon, who is one of his business partners in UpdatePromise.com.
“I couldn’t do it without the support of the people around me,” Caulfield says. “Curtis Nixon is a fantastic person and I love hanging out with him.”
Derek Naidoo is helping transform the industry as he transforms his collision repair company.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s known Derek Naidoo, below, for any length of time that he’s at the helm of one of the collision repair industry’s most inventive companies. Naidoo is the owner of Auto Body Speed Shop (ABSS) in Jacksonville, Fla., whose mantra, displayed prominently on its website, is “reinventing the collision industry.” In fact, Naidoo has been reinventing things for years. He recalls that when he was in college, he invented lots of little gadgets for cars, things like car alarm systems, remote control central locking systems and electric windows. “This was in the ’80s when you didn’t have cars with electric windows and central locking systems. I’ve always been interested in taking technology and figuring out how we can cheaply apply it.”
Fast-forward three decades and Naidoo is still at it: inventing automotive technology that’s a few years ahead of its time, specifically collision repair technology. Here are a few of the innovations Naidoo has going on at his shop:
• iPad estimating technology. When most people find out a technological advance hasn’t been developed yet, they just wait for someone else to develop it. Not Naidoo. Realizing that the iPad had opened up a whole world of possibilities for mobile estimating in the collision repair industry, Naidoo went ahead and developed an iPad simulation program for 3-D estimating himself. The new program saves his shop two hours per day, and Naidoo recouped his investment in the 11 iPads he bought for his estimators in only 20 days.
“Mobile estimating is going to be a huge thing going forward,” Naidoo says.
• Shop location. ABSS is located in a strip mall, which Naidoo says has a number of intriguing advantages. The shop is surrounded by windows, so shoppers walking by can see the techs at work. Window-shoppers are treated to the sight of a clean, airy body shop, complete with porcelain tile flooring.
The strip malls are typically located in high-traffic areas near other busy shops, giving ABSS access to potential customers. “We have a totally different look and feel [from what people expect],” Naidoo says.
And the transparency doesn’t stop with the floor-to-ceiling windows. The shop’s website has a live camera on its shop floor and its paint booth so customers—or anyone on the website—can see exactly what’s going on in real-time. Check out the live cam at 904speed.net.
• Green technology beyond waterborne. ABSS sprays waterborne, but its green technology goes far beyond that. The shop uses a heat nitrogen process that helps save seven to eight minutes on curing each vehicle. Naidoo is in the process of getting a patent on his nitrogen system, and will soon be selling the system. The shop also has a central vacuum system to maintain a dust-free environment, and Naidoo invested in wind spires.
How does Naidoo have time to run a growing repair company while also inventing products that have the potential to help transform the industry?
“I don’t run the shop,” he says. “I’m too lazy. I have a full management team, and I don’t get involved in the [daily goings-on of the] shop at all.”
The Operations Wizard
It doesn’t take being new to the industry to be innovative. Conner Brothers is in its second generation, and it’s trying some new operating strategies to great effect.
For being such a soft-spoken guy, Kevin Conner, above, has a lot of explosive ideas.
Conner handles operations and accounting for Conner Brothers Collision Centers in Richmond, Va. He has a three-stage plan for continuing to grow his family-owned repair company: create satellite locations to test out new markets before investing in them; engage the community through innovative, community-based marketing techniques; and cement relationships with DRPs and other carriers through continuing education classes at the shop.
“I saw where this market was going a couple years back,” Conner says. “This recession is going to be over someday, and we need to be better than we were.”
• Satellite locations. Conner Brothers has a history of experimenting with different storefront ideas. In the early ’90s, they set up an upscale trailer in a different zip code in order to capture work there. That process was a great way to learn the logistics of the shop’s current project: satellite locations. About a year ago, Conner Brothers started creating store-front locations in zip code areas the company is currently not in to test the location’s need for a collision repair facility. Each satellite location has its own licensing agreements for the estimating system the company uses. Besides using the location to test a new locale, Conner Brothers uses it to load-level repair jobs to its full-service locations that are a little slower that day. “It’s been working well for us,” Conner says. “It’s setting up the framework for what we’re trying to do. I learn what can happen in that zip code.” Currently, the company has three satellite locations and four production locations. Conner says it’s still up in the air as to whether the company would keep a satellite location in a locale they determine isn’t right for a production facility.
– Kevin Conner, operations manager,
Conner Brothers Collision Centers
• Community-based marketing. The second stage of the Conner Brothers’ growth plan is one that involves community-based marketing efforts to get their name out in the community while doing some good—and inspiring their employees. Each quarter, one of the four shop locations refurbishes a vehicle and donates it to a community member in need. The shop also has a bustling car wash program that helps local sports and youth groups raise money. While car wash customers’ cars are being attended to in the parking lot, car owners are invited into the shop for a cup of coffee, a pastry and a tour of the facilities so they can see what a quality body shop should look like. “Many times folks think they’re walking into a doctor’s office versus a shop,” Conner says, adding that the car washes benefit both the youth groups and the shop. “It’s a win-win situation.”
• Continuing education for insurance agents. Conner Brothers holds continuing education classes on paint for insurance agents in its shop on a regular basis. The classes are well-run: they start on time, end on time and stay on topic. And, Conner says of the students, “We feed them, and we feed them well.” What’s the idea? Keeping the shop top-of-mind for insurance carriers.
“Rest assured: every agent within our area [for an insurance company Conner Brothers would like to do business with] gets an invitation saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a continuing education class, we’d like you to come by,’” Conner says. “Our goals may not be to get on ABC’s DRP list, but I will certainly get to know their people.”
Additional reporting by staff writer Andrew Johnson