Running a Shop Leadership

The 2016 FenderBender Awards

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Here’s to the Industry’s Finest

There is no one way to run a successful collision repair business. As we’ve profiled in FenderBender through the years, the pathways that lead to long-lasting and prosperous careers in this industry are as varied and diverse as the professionals who walk them.

There are commonalities, however.

Talent. Determination. Goodwill. Passion.

These are the attributes that define the industry’s finest—and they’re what we look to honor each year with our annual FenderBender Awards. Nominated by their peers and selected through an arduous process by our staff, the professionals profiled on the following pages represent the very best in their fields. They’re unique, innovative professionals pushing this industry forward. They’re the 2016 FenderBender Award winners.



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Meleah Montgomery’s dedication to her role at Collision Works has helped propel the company forward and bring more people into the industry. Photography By Elyse Fair

Community Advocate

Del City, OKLA.

It’s not unusual for a collision repair shop to be involved in the community. Nor is it unusual for a shop to utilize social media, start an internship program or work on building a team culture. But there’s nothing normal about the work 41-year-old Meleah Montgomery has accomplished during her two years as the community relations director at Collision Works, an 11-location company in the Oklahoma City and Kansas area.

To wit: Montgomery is involved in nine chambers of commerce and sits on the board of three of those, for which she’s been named ambassador of the month numerous times. She is an active participant in multiple networking group and has spearheaded food and clothing drives, community pancake breakfasts, community sporting events, networking events and entertainment events.

She oversaw the redesign of the company website (twice), and her intense social media activity (she manages 20 social media pages daily) has resulted in increased SEO and Google rankings and a 400 percent increase on Facebook. Montgomery created and writes a monthly company employee newsletter that highlights auto body news, employee achievements and company events, as well as a quarterly digital newsletter for customers and insurance agents.

“As we’ve gotten bigger and grown, we have to have some way to ensure that we stay connected as a family,” she says. “Part of the newsletter is to keep communication solid but also to keep that family feeling. Maybe you didn’t personally meet that estimator in [our Norman location] but you know who he is, you know his name and that he just had a baby.”

She even leveraged her networking connections to develop and implement a mobile app that allows customers to track vehicle repairs, receive news and specials, and read blog posts, which has seen a significant take rate and cuts down on incoming calls from customers.

And somehow, between all those efforts, she manages to also help other employees and foster the next generation of collision repairers: Montgomery works closely with the customer service department to ensure that the crossover capabilities are utilized most effectively, she utilized her skills as a former financial advisor to help employees sign up for the company 401K plan, mentored a high school student through a local job shadowing program, has gone to technical schools and universities to speak to students about opportunities within the industry, and started an internship program and hired her first marketing intern in spring of 2016.

“It’s almost like pre-interviewing someone in a much more detailed, how-do-they-work-with-us way,” she say. “I also thought, ‘I could probably learn something from them too.’”

How does she do it all?

“Part of it is, you just do it,” she says. “My personality is that way anyway. I’m going to be involved regardless. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to figure out a way to make it correlate with my work. That’s always foremost in anything we decide to do: How is this going to benefit the customer? How is this going to leverage our time? Is this going to keep us leading the pack in the industry? We don’t want to be the followers. We want to be leading the pack.”

It’s partly innate, Montgomery says, but it also comes down to organization, strategic scheduling and looking at those commitments as more than just a job duty.

That’s who I see all day,” she says. “That’s who is at my house for a BBQ. My work life and my social life have merged into one thing.”

“The woman does so much,” says nominator Shannon Qualls, customer service director at Collision Works. “In an industry where reputation is everything and some customers are wary of being taken advantage of, creating a transparent environment is critical. Additionally, in our market you don't see body shops being such influences involved in chamber politics and in the community to such a large degree. By doing so, she is demystifying the world of auto body and opening doors in the industry.”




OVERCOMING THE ODDS: Amid tragedy, Kyle Wharff has taken the business his family built and turned it into one of the CARSTAR network’s top performers. Photography By Daniel Lateulade

In His Father’s Footsteps


It feels like yesterday that Kyle Wharff was sitting in the office with his dad. Both anxious and excited, the third-generation shop owner was ready for the future, ready to revive a once prominent shop, ready to make his father and grandfather proud.

But that seat opposite Wharff is now empty. His father and grandfather passed away shortly after he took ownership, leaving the 19-year-old to run the Miramar, Fla., shop by himself.

It had all happened so fast: Wharff, with childhood ambitions of racing cars, put his lifelong passion on hold when a car accident paralyzed his father from the waist down and landed him in a hospital for eight months, leading to him selling the business. Not only that, but the new Ace Sullins owners were disparaging the 20-year business’s good standing in the community and failing to pay Wharff’s grandparents’ much-needed rent on the property they still owned.

With little business know-how, all Wharff could really do was lead the shop through his father’s simple, yet crucial, all-encompassing mantra: Treat the customer right. So when Wharff decided to take the shop back over for his family and stepped into Ace Sullins, he did it with a level of dedication and drive that not only exemplified his passion for family, but also foreshadowed what would become one of the top-performing shops in the CARSTAR network—with industry-leading cycle times and absurdly impressive CSI numbers—just 12 years later.

Wharff’s incredible story of perseverance and his business’s industry-leading performance made him a clear choice for a 2016 FenderBender Award.

Consider these achievements: Of approximately 240 CARSTAR shops in the country, Ace Sullins ranked first and second in cycle time for 2014 and 2015, respectively; 97 percent of Wharff’s business comes from repeat customers or referrals; annual revenue has gone from $180,000 in 2004 to $1.15 million in 2015.

Oh, and because Ace Sullins owned the top performing CSI scores at CARSTAR so many years in a row, Wharff was awarded the Esurance Lifetime Achievement Award. And how did somebody with no collision repair experience pull all that off?

“Trial and error,” Wharff simply states. “I’ve made my share of mistakes. But I keep going back to it, questioning people from CARSTAR and reading publications like FenderBender. You can’t have one set plan, and you can’t be afraid to fail.”

After joining CARSTAR in 2009, when the shop reached $579,000 in annual revenue, the inquisitive young owner didn’t waste time taking advantage of the network’s depth of knowledge. Wharff spent weeks calling CARSTAR owners, picking their brains and understanding their operations, noting where his shop could improve.

Wharff’s biggest problem? He was so desperate to please customers that he was taking on too many jobs, and it was affecting shop performance and creating stress.

“Once I realized I was just killing my staff and not keeping the customers updated or returning vehicles on time, it only made sense to schedule by hours and really start to look into touch times and cycle times of what we’re completing and how fast we’re getting it done,” he says.

Less jobs, more focus, higher quality work, happier customers—it seems almost too easy, yet Wharff is proving how far that attention goes: He gets to know every customer; he’s virtually eliminated supplements by sitting in on disassembly; he calls customers every 48 hours with updates through their preferred methods of communication; and he personally delivers every vehicle when it’s finished.

“I personally walk them out to the car, go around it and make sure they know that I care,” he says. “I don’t think a CSR or a production manager doing that has the same effect. Interacting with the owner goes a long way with the customers. They respect that, and they know that I’m here if they ever have an issue.”

What has resulted is a simpler, more efficient way of repairing vehicles that has carried the shop to impressive numbers: 6.6-day key-to-key cycle times; 2-hour touch times; 5.2-day length of rentals; and a 100 percent net promoter score. For 2016, 100 percent of customers felt they were kept informed and received their vehicles on time, and there have been zero comebacks.

And while the awards and constantly improving KPIs are nice, for Wharff, the success has all been for the people who inspired him in the first place. “I want my father and my grandfather to look down and be happy with what I’m doing now,” he says. “The business has evolved so much. I’m growing the business for them.”




ON THE BALL: After coming on as manager five years ago, Phil Gillingham has helped turn Ball Body Shop into a thriving, evolving business on the forefront of the repair industry. Photography by Lauren Justice.

Empowering Employees to Excel


Looking at the sparkling-clean, lean and 28,000-square-foot Ball Body Shop in Middleton, Wis., it’s hard to believe that only five years ago, the shop was cluttered, in disarray and a virtual disaster. While the shop was still producing a respectable $2.58 million in annual sales, former body shop director Jeff Hepp says that it was an unpleasant environment: The processes were inefficient, equipment was outdated, techs were unhappy and leadership was lacking.

That was before Phil Gillingham came on board, that is. From the dozen nominations of Gillingham for this FenderBender Award—coming from a dealership president, sales manager, estimators, marketing directors, office manager, customers, service director and office managers—the consensus is clear: Gillingham’s steady leadership, enthusiasm and outside-the-box thinking are largely responsible for the tripling of sales (the business now does $7.5 million annually), the three-day cycle time and the 250 vehicles per month that the staff of 32 works on.

“He leads by silence,” Hepp says. “So when he talks, everyone listens. And they get it. He’s good at making change because there’s a ripple effect from what he says.” Gillingham says that the shop strives to make a change every day, which is why getting the entire staff on board is so crucial to implementing those changes. The shop has a daily morning production meeting, where the staff discusses any changes to implement or processes to tweak. From there, Gillingham says the key is delegation—a skill he’s worked hard to cultivate over the years.

“It’s hard to do. You’re used to doing it yourself,” he says. “You’ve done that process yourself for so long that you think no one can handle it. But 90 percent of the time, they can. It’s just a matter of being able to turn that over.”

One of the most important changes the shop has implemented is creating better communication between the front office and the back of the shop by creating a specific paperwork flow. Gillingham devised a process that requires all the paperwork to be housed in a rack organized by a technician in the production office. Then, copies of the estimate travel with the vehicle throughout the repair process. It’s a process that not only has saved significant time but that everyone—both in the front and back of the shop—is happy with.

“Day in and day out, Phil seamlessly manages the flow of work in and out of the shop, and keeps our administrative team focused and customer friendly,” says Blane Einbeck, the shop’s director of marketing.

Gillingham also worked to reduce cycle time by creating a “drop-and-go” program that means the shop is grabbing keys all day long and getting customers into free loaner vehicles immediately, rather than scheduling them for an estimate.

“We try to get them to leave their vehicle as soon as possible,” he says. “It reduces cycle time, even though you would think it wouldn’t. Even if you don’t touch that vehicle that day, it’s here, you disassemble it and order parts once. It’s a lot better for the customer because they only have to make two trips.”

From there, Gillingham designed a categorizing system that allows the shop to get through 30 vehicle dropoffs in a timely fashion. All vehicles are labeled either small, medium or large jobs, and then go through a structured vehicle repair process, which has significantly helped reduce cycle time on small jobs in particular.

“And if there’s something that doesn’t work very well, he goes right back to the drawing board and figures it out,” Hepp says. “He doesn’t give up. He will fight until he figures it out, and that everybody’s happy and everything runs smoothly. So that’s really how we’ve tripled our revenue, just by grabbing those keys, and getting them in here, sending them down the road and then scheduling them and trading havoc for convenience.”

It’s that caring nature—ensuring that employees are in a position they can excel in and be on board with changes—that most endears Gillingham to his employees. “Phil’s guidance and support in the workplace has been such an asset teaching me the way around the shop,” says Dianna Jahnke, office manager. “Phil is very knowledgeable and really cares about the wellbeing of all the employees!”




BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER: Technician Chris Crawford’s infectious personality and willingness to help has carried over into the rest of the team at Dave’s Auto Body, improving all around performance. Photography by Colin Conces.

A New Outlook


Mark Schumacher walked up to Chris Crawford’s bay in the shop, only to find it empty.

Five minutes later, Schumacher was in his office, writing out an extensive, heartfelt nomination for Crawford for this FenderBender Award.

You see, the owner of Dave’s Auto Body Co. in Omaha, Neb., didn’t discover his A-tech out goofing around, or pouring himself a coffee, or taking an early lunch break. No, Crawford was doing what he does best.

“An older lady had wandered in the back of our shop looking for help,” Schumacher explains. “She was parked at a nearby Walmart and came out to find she had a flat tire. Chris had grabbed our air caddy and his electric impact and went over to help her.”

Crawford will be the first to tell you there’s nothing special about this action.

“People do nice stuff all the time,” he says when asked about his numerous philanthropic efforts, which landed him as a finalist for the Omaha World-Herald’s “Good Neighbor Award” four years ago.

But then Schumacher will be the first to point out it’s not just a random act of kindness. In addition to Crawford’s consistently high KPIs, incredibly high work ethic and dedication to learning (he took night classes to finish his college degree and can often be found reading industry publications in the break room), benevolence and compassion are his modus operandi, and it’s been infecting Dave’s Auto Body for 23 straight years.

And it’s why Crawford is this year’s winner in the Shop Worker category.

The I-CAR Platinum certified technician’s numbers speak for themselves: Crawford consistently achieves 150 percent efficiency and 110 percent productivity. As a team leader of four at Dave’s, his technicians’ numbers aren’t too far off from his own. And with all technicians scored on supplements after teardown and the amount of comebacks based on hours produced, Crawford always ranks right at the top of 13 technicians. Schumacher says employees are constantly trying to reach his level.

But beyond those numbers, Schumacher says it’s Crawford’s uncanny ability to get all employees on his level, to treat collision repair as more than a job, to remember that helping others is the real reason to get into the business. Kindness isn’t just something that came naturally to Crawford—it’s a learned behavior, and the road getting there hasn’t always been easy.

During the late summer at the age of 30, Crawford found himself constantly short of breath. He thought exercise would help, but it only made everyday activities—including repairing vehicles—even harder. The culprit was a lemon-sized tumor resting between his lungs, which immediately required three months of energy-draining chemotherapy. “It really wipes you out,” he says. And heading back onto the shop floor after that treatment was both a physical and emotional test for him.

“It definitely gives you a different perspective on life,” he says. “You could easily give in to it all, but fighting through it gives you a different energy. You just realize what’s important.”

And what’s now really important to Crawford is helping others realize their full potential. By constantly showing that he cares, that life is precious, that there’s always more to be done to help others, he’s inspiring philanthropic attitudes at work. Take a recently purchased Ford F-150, which Crawford and his team bought for $300 and rose its value to $3,000. The vehicle is now sitting in Dave’s Auto Body’s parking lot, waiting to be gifted to a single mother.

“A lot of people can have things happen in their lives that are uncontrollable, that can change or devastate them,” he says. “We have great jobs, so if there are other people out there who need help, it’s a reward for us to help.”

Those team efforts are only accents to process improvements Crawford has helped establish over the years, such as team systems to improve efficiency and implementing 100 percent teardowns to cut down on supplements.

It’s that dedication to improvement, to the community, to the shop, to the team that marks how much of a difference one person can make, Schumacher says.

“We’ve got such a great group of people here, it really does feel like a family,” Crawford says. “It just makes coming to work and caring about your job that much easier.”




MORE THAN CAPABLE: While 41 percent of the students in Ken Cook’s collision repair program at Norwalk High School have special needs, Cook says all are capable and willing to learn—and that’s what’s most important in building life skills and confidence, he says.

Inspired Teaching


Ask Ken Cook, collision repair instructor at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Calif., what one of the greatest moments of his life was and he’ll say watching an 8-year-old riding a bike for the first time. A response like that isn’t surprising, but what is surprising is that the child wasn’t his own. The child riding the bike was a boy that Cook’s sister had learned about on a Facebook message board.

“My sister is an administrator for a Facebook group and she told me about this mother who was looking for someone to help create a bike for her son with special needs,” Cook says. “It was a project that was right up my alley. I got in contact with her and told her nothing would make me happier than helping her son.”

Cook brought the project back to the students in his collision repair class and together they created plans and modified the bike to allow for the child to ride it. The class moved the seat back, added a seatbelt and training wheels and even added a “minions theme” inspired paint job from the movie Despicable Me, the boy’s favorite movie.

This isn’t the only project like this that Cook has taken on. The collision repair student population at Norwalk High School is made up of 41 percent special needs students. Cook’s SkillsUSA team is 85 percent special needs. Cook’s involvement with these students sparked an interest in creating adaptive equipment. His classroom’s project, “Inspired Inventions,” was awarded the State Farm Youth Advisory Board service learning grant which came with a monetary award of $97,321. With the money, Cook and his students have created a number of different pieces of adaptive equipment for people with special needs to use. Rather than focusing on what someone cannot do, Cook challenges his students to find a way to make it possible. His drive to inspire his students and create equal opportunities is what makes him a FenderBender award winner.

“In my time knowing him, he has been all about implementing change for the greater good of the students in his program,” says nominator Barry Roopnarine, collision and refinishing instructor at Thomas A. Edison CTE High School in Jamaica, N.Y., and a past FenderFender Award winner.

REAL WORK? Ken Cook’s students at Norwalk High School’s collision program take on real jobs, but Cook never feels like he’s at work himself. The teacher jokes he’d do it for free.“In my life, I’ve been in the military, I’ve been in collision repair, which is an aggressive industry,” Cook says. “I think teaching is tougher than the military. You become emotionally invested.”

Although Cook didn’t always want to be a teacher, he’s found a real passion for it. He says that his wife jokes that what he does doesn’t even count as a job because he would do it for free.

Cook teaches in the high school from 7:55 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. and then runs an after-school collision repair program from 4–6 p.m. The collision repair instructor and father of two credits his success as an instructor with two pivotal moves: joining SkillsUSA and getting involved with the Collision Repair Education Foundation. Since joining SkillsUSA, Norwalk has won state three out of the six years for collision repair and won one year for the job interview competition.

Norwalk was also awarded SkillsUSA’s Gold Level Chapter of Distinction, an award that is given for a chapter’s impact on the community. All of Cook’s SkillsUSA projects are focused on helping people with disabilities within the community. One of the reasons Norwalk was given the Gold Level Chapter of Distinction was the portable BBQ trailer that Cook and his Skills USA students built last year for the culinary students at Norwalk. The project gained attention from local news outlets and the team began hosting events in the community, including a college and career fair and a Veterans Day celebration.

Through his involvement with the Collision Repair Education Foundation, Cook’s classroom has received a number of different grants and resources that have helped develop the program. Through a grant from the Ed. Foundation, Cook was able to provide more technology in the classroom, including two LED TVs with surround sound and iPads for all of his students. Many of his students work better with visual aids, and some of them are not able to work directly with the collision repair tools, so the iPads help keep all of the students involved. Cook’s pitch for the State Farm grant was that every single one of his students was capable and able to learn, and he’s proven that to be true.

“We need to build character, work ethic, compassion and confidence. I have a lot of students that lack confidence,” Cook says. “By building the skill set, it all comes together.


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