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How They Did It

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The Idea: Build a Foundation with OEM Certifications 

When Tony Lake opened the Exclusive Auto Collision doors in Ramsey, N.J., 15 years ago, he wasn’t just entering a new profession—he was seeking to upend the traditional industry model.

At the time, he says very few collision repair shops had the time or funds for OEM certifications. An insurance appraiser for years, Lake recognized the potential appeal certifications could hold to insurers and the public, and decided to build a brand that stood out from the pack.

“I could see there weren’t a lot of guys driving toward the education side of fixing these sophisticated cars,” Lake says. “Nobody in New Jersey was taking advantage of those programs. So I saw it as a great opportunity for a business model.”


The Execution

1. Build a Foundation

Back when OEM certifications were a new concept, there was no formal model around which Lake could build his business. Thus, he surveyed his limited options and made initial investments.

At the time, Lake says Mercedes and Audi were the only prominent OEMs pushing for certifications. He immediately invested in both.

With knowledge of OEM equipment and training costs, he could better navigate newly established certification programs from Volkswagen, Porsche and Cadillac. That understanding has continued through today with his certifications for Honda, Volvo, Acura and Hyundai.


2. Recognize the Value

To this day, there remains a resistance to OEM certifications from shop owners, Lake says.

Why? Well, as Lake’s initial $150,000 investment in a Mercedes certification signals, it requires some serious investment—which, 15 years ago, made ensuring profitability all the more crucial.

Knowing normal labor rates wouldn’t justify the hefty training fee, Lake implemented specialty rates that grew with damage severity. He rose rates even higher for luxury brands.


3. Sell the Value

And with such high rates, Mitchell concentrated his negotiations, advertising and leadership on selling his unique, high-end business model. 

“I thought they would see this guy who fixes these high-end cars,” Lake says. “‘He has the equipment and training. That’s where we’ll have to send these types of cars to get them fixed properly.’”


Ensuring Buy-in From Everyone

Because labor rates were high and certifications necessitated more training, OEM certifications required buy-in from both insurance companies and his employees. Here’s how he did it:

Buy-In: Insurers

Lake pitched his unique business model in the form of seminars, which he hosted for insurance representatives. Lake partnered with an I-CAR employee to run the classes. Automaker representatives would even participate and discuss the technology, equipment and training necessary to properly fix their companies’ vehicles.

Lake also ran television and radio commercials that pitched Exclusive Auto Collision’s one-of-a-kind qualifications.


Buy-In: Employees

As Lake continually invested in new OEM certifications, he would remind his team what separated them from every shop within hundreds of miles.

Because of his pitch and the steep investment (“I can spend over $60,000 training my men,” Lake says), training wasn’t a burden, but instead, an opportunity—it became a way of life at the shop. When employees came back from training, they would present new tactics to their co-workers, working together to craft a more efficient process.


The Result

Today, Lake’s $5 million business lives and breathes off its original idea. On luxury models, such as Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini, Lake’s labor rate is a minimum of $75 for basic repairs and $225 for heavy structural damage, which accounts for the shop’s $4,166 average repair order.

“When I started, I was trying to get this industry to wake up and see that the old way of doing business is not the way to do it anymore,” he says. “And I keep planning on doing that.”

SHOP STATS: Exclusive Auto Collision  LOCATION: RAMSEY, N.J.  Size: 10,000 square  Staff Size: 13  Average monthly Car Count: 100  Annual Revenue: $5 million 

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