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Entering a New Market

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New state, new shop, newlywed. Two years ago, those new life events pretty much summed up what was going on for Tom Gillespie. Interested in moving from the East Coast to the Midwest, his wife’s home region, Gillespie was interviewing at a Milwaukee dealership shop when the owner dropped an important lead. “He said, ‘I’m surprised you didn’t go to Bodyworks, because they’re looking for a manager,’” Gillespie recalls. “And I immediately went out into the parking lot and called.” That owner’s loss was Bodyworks by Concours’ gain.

From a personal standpoint, the transition wasn’t all that easy. In June 2008, Gillespie and his wife were driving a Nissan Pathfinder loaded with their two dogs and three cats through Pennsylvania when they got a call informing them that the buyer of their New Jersey home had backed out. They spent the first weeks in Wisconsin in a hotel room and then staying with family before finding a rental property. To top it off, Wisconsin had the worst flooding they’d had in 10 years, Gillespie says. “It was quite an adventure.”

A happier adventure was leading change at his new job. Bodyworks was a cutting-edge shop when it came to collision repair, working on high-end, technology-enhanced vehicles. But it lacked the technological ability to efficiently manage its business and communicate with customers. It short, it was a shop ripe for transformation. And as the new collision center manager, Gillespie set about adding to the shop’s certifications and improving its technology. Two years, one management system, three certifications and four new workstations later, Concours is a shop reborn.

A Certifiable Plan

When Gillespie joined Bodyworks, the 8,000-square-foot shop was already a certified Mercedes-Benz repairer—the only one in the state. So Gillespie’s first task was to get the shop BMW-certified as well. (BMW had already approached the shop’s owners and let them know what requirements and investments were needed to achieve certification. The commitment to the transition was in place when Gillespie arrived; he then spearheaded the effort.)

Gillespie knew exactly what the process entailed: His previous employer was the nation’s first BMW-certified repair shop. That experience with the BMW certification process was a big reason he got the job at Bodyworks, says Bob Murphy, Concours Motors’ fixed operations manager, and Gillespie’s boss. “The two most important attributes were the fact that he was the manager at the first BMW-certified repair center in the country, and [the fact that] he’s part of the younger, more forward-thinking breed [of manager], which is what we need in the industry now.”

For the shop to be certified, new equipment—including a compression spot welder, a full aluminum set-up, and an approved frame bench—was required. The shop was also required to switch over to BMW’s brand of waterborne paint. Gillespie spearheaded the change with the shop’s jobber, AIC of West Allis, Wis. “Our paint department underwent a complete renovation,” Gillespie says. “The booths were retrofitted with corner air movers, the floors blasted and Epoxy coated afterwards, [and] the whole department was commercially cleaned from girders to floor. With waterborne being less forgiving in regards to cleanliness, it was imperative that we start with a clean slate.”
And paint shop technicians had to attend BMW Color System training at one of the company’s facilities. “It was quite an undertaking,” Gillespie says of the process, which was completed in April 2009. It was quite an investment, too: Gillespie estimates that it cost the shop more than $100,000.

Still, it was worthwhile. Concours, a well-known dealership with six upscale manufacturer brands, had recently built a stand-alone BMW dealership that accounted for almost 30 percent of the body shop’s business. “It just seemed like a great fit to be able to offer our customers certified BMW repairs,” Gillespie says.

Today, the shop is also in the process of getting Volkswagen-certified. “Their program has just started, it’s still in beginning stages,” Gillespie says, adding that the requirements aren’t vastly different from those for BMW and Mercedes, and so the investment has been minimal. “Our three biggest brands at the dealership are Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen, so it just made sense to be certified in all three.”

Continued Training

As a BMW dealer-sponsored repair shop, Bodyworks’ technicians receive detailed, ongoing model-specific training. “For example, when a new 3 Series BMW hits the showroom floors, we need to know how to take it apart, make body adjustments to it and provide structural repairs to that vehicle,” Gillespie says. “We see these cars at our facility for repairs before most people see them on the streets.” Only dealership technicians or collision facilities sponsored by a dealer are allowed to attend training at the BMW facilities, he adds. “Their cars need to be diagnosed and reprogrammed after every collision. There are a number of control units and functions that a private facility can’t diagnose or reprogram anywhere except the dealer.”

In fact, Gillespie believes that, as vehicles become increasingly complex in technology and materials, many facilities may shy away from attempting to repair them. “Carbon fiber, high-solid steels, aluminum, boron steel, magnesiums and more can all be found in some of the higher-end vehicles, and unless you’re repairing a large number of them, the investment to repair them just doesn’t make good business sense.”

Becoming a Tech-Savvy Shop

During Gillespie’s first week at Bodyworks by Concours, he found out the hard way that the shop wasn’t taking advantage of the latest technology. “A phone rang, a customer wanted to schedule a repair, and I couldn’t pull up the estimate to schedule the vehicle,” he says, explaining that the shop’s PCs were stand-alone units, with each advisor having his own files on a computer that no one else could access. “When you have to tell a Porsche or BMW customer that you don’t have the technical capability to pull up their information to schedule their vehicle for repairs, they start to second guess where their vehicle is actually being repaired.”

Surprisingly, such a low-tech operation in a successful shop isn’t unusual, says Mark Schnellbaecher, president of Bacher Solutions. “Oftentimes [a shop] is provided IT services by the company that [handles] the whole dealership, and they’re often not specialized in body shops.”

To rectify the shop’s low-tech situation, Gillespie contacted Bacher Solutions to help create a multi-phase plan to update the shop’s technology solutions. Bacher met with the dealership’s IT department and put together a quote which Gillespie then presented to Murphy, who in turn took it to the dealership’s owners. “He did all the legwork and put forth a good case,” Murphy says. “He said, ‘This is something we need that will make us more efficient.’”

Getting Started

Within a few weeks, Bacher was in the shop, making improvements. The first stage was to put in a dedicated server with five workstations, so that everyone had access to all three estimating systems. Bacher ordered the equipment and coordinated with the IT department to get it installed, “and we were up and running within a month,” Gillespie says. That first phase—which included a network server, four 22-inch flat-screen monitors, configuring all three estimating systems onto the server; and typical software installations like virus protection—cost approximately $10,000.

Photo Courtesy Tom Gillespie

The second phase involved bringing in a Panasonic Toughbook for its two advisors to share—a handheld wireless device that mirrors a workstation and allows information to be entered right in the shop, at the vehicle. “It required us putting wireless into the building, and allowing [the Toughbook] to talk to all the systems that we put in during the first phase,” Gillespie says. “One of the big advantages with wireless is if a customer comes in for an oil change and wants an estimate, we can just grab the unit, go down the road, and write the estimate on the spot; it’s another means of improved customer service.”

Last May the shop completed its biggest add-on: It installed a management system, Mitchell RepairCenter, and integrated that in the shop. “We put in four Wyse terminals, which are small, wall-mounted PCs, out in the techs’ work bay,” Gillespie explains, “and it gives them access to a digital time clock, which coincides with RepairCenter and basically transfers the work time right onto the job, so we can constantly track [things like] productivity, efficiency, idle time.” The system also allows work to be dispatched out to techs digitally.

Gillespie is still making improvements: Just recently, the shop implemented RepairCenter’s TechAdvisor feature, which gives techs all of the repair procedures for a vehicle. “It’s like having the service manual at your fingertips—but all digital,” Gillespie says.

Moving Forward

Bodyworks by Concours is officially a tech-savvy, certified repair shop now, and Gillespie credits the entire company with making that happen. “None of this could be done without a strong support staff,” Gillespie says. “From upper management to advisors and technicians, everyone has grown tremendously in the past two-and-a-half years.”

The business, too, has grown: Revenues have increased from less than $4 million last year to an expected $4.5 million this year. And cycle times have been cut significantly. “The perception before was that having a large backlog was a great thing,” Gillespie says. “Cars could take a month or two months to be repaired.” Now, most repairs take four to six days. (Larger jobs can still take longer “due to the complexity of the work” he says).

Gillespie isn’t done making changes—he hopes to hire another tech, continue to reduce cycle times and add to the shop’s DRPs—but he’s not exactly the new guy anymore, and “new” doesn’t properly express his reality these days. A better word would be, well, “better.” Better technology, a better-trained staff and better customer service make Bodyworks by Concours a better shop today than it’s ever been.

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