When Ben Nolan joined the body shop at Robberson Ford Lincoln Mercury Mazda as an estimator in 1999, the 2,500-square-foot space was dark and dingy, had minimal and antiquated equipment—old cross-flow booths and no frame measuring equipment to speak of—and high staff turnover.
Whereas the rest of the Bend, Ore.–based dealership was progressive, with booming parts and service departments and high new-car sales volume, the body shop was maligned and viewed as a necessary evil.
“They didn’t understand how it could be a profit center,” Nolan says. “The customer service was OK but they didn’t have the facility or staffing to take care of people. No one thought of them. It was an afterthought.”
Nolan, however, was determined to show both the dealers and the community that Robberson Collision Center not only shouldn’t be considered an afterthought, but that it also could be a vital, profitable component of the dealership. And Nolan has done just that, turning the collision center from an $850,000-per-year afterthought into a $4 million–per-year, state-of-the-art business at the forefront of the industry.
For Nolan, who had recently been promoted to manager but had years of experience opening, staffing and managing shops under a now-sold independent MSO, his first undertaking involved getting the owners to realize that the body shop was a legitimate business. While customer service was adequate, Nolan says the facility and the staff simply wasn’t able to properly take care of customers.
“I think most dealers don’t start out in the body shop industry like we do,” he says. “They see their main focus as selling cars. They want to keep their customers on their lot and have a body shop, but don’t know how to run it or facilitate it.”
Nolan developed a business plan, including a 10-year projection, and estimated costs for building a new facility. Nolan also took Robberson to several other area body shops and facilities, showing him that in order for the shop to make a profit, it needed the right tools. Using conservative numbers, Nolan had estimated that the new body shop would break even in two-and-a-half years.
“Set your goals and make a road map for how you’ll get there,” he says. “The most important thing is getting the correct people on board. Finding the right people that have the same agenda. From there, the production aspect of things, we needed the right facility, equipment and training. That gives you all the tools to grow as much as you possibly want.”
Robberson’s transformation involved a top-to-bottom makeover that involved numerous undertakings:
Due to the dealership’s already-tight space constraints, it was impossible for the body shop to expand on the current site. By building a new facility on a different lot, it allowed the dealership to do a number of things:
- The service department was able to expand into the body shop’s former space.
- Nolan was able to design a facility with efficiency and customer service in mind.
- The body shop was able to separate itself from the dealership in terms of branding and image, which projected a less corporate, more independent feeling.
“We don’t have Ford anywhere on our building,” he says. “It’s Robberson Collision Center. It’s a comfort level for customers. We’re certified through Nissan, Ford, GM and Mopar. It makes it easier for the customer to walk in with a Chevy truck, rather than walking into a Ford dealership.”
The facility is now set up to where technicians have everything they need directly at the bay, meaning they spend less time running around or moving vehicles and more time working on jobs in their stalls, thus making more money and increasing productivity. The paint shop is now an assembly line.
The new facility ended up costing $1.3 million with an additional $300,000 in equipment costs.
Throughout the transition, Nolan let a significant number of staff go, making key staffing hires in their places, including a shop foreman who he had previously worked with at a previous employer. That foreman, Brian Osbon, helped Nolan create a team focused on training and customer service. Nolan has now made apprenticeship programs and speaking to high schools a priority, hoping to help end the technician shortage for the industry and eliminate the stigma many schools and young people have toward the industry.
In order to ensure that the new shop stayed busy, Nolan devised a business strategy heavy on diversification. The shop pursued large fleet accounts and began custom-painting BMC choppers (roughly 40 per month) and working on fuselages for Cessna airplanes (about eight per month). That strategy helped allay fears about getting enough work to justify the investment in the new shop. Nolan estimates that 45 percent of the shop’s business came from fleet and custom work in those early years. As the collision center has grown, diversification has become less of a focus, with custom work representing only 5 percent of the shop’s venue. Today, the shop’s marketing is primarily focused on Internet marketing and holding continuing education classes for insurance agents.
Despite Nolan’s 10-year plan, the shop turned a profit after just 18 months. In 1999, the body shop brought in $850,000 in revenue; in 2009, it earned $2.4 million, and last year, did just under $4 million. In December, the dealership was the most profitable department in the entire dealership.
Part of the body shop’s continued success, Nolan says, is due to its desire to keep evolving: Five years ago, the shop became OE certified for a number of manufacturers through Assured Performance Network, became I-CAR Gold Class and made a $100,000 investment to become aluminum certified (an investment that has paid off quickly, with Nolan saying there’s generally at least two Ford F-150s in the shop at any given time).
Ultimately, Nolan says, your body shop will only be as profitable as the effort you put in. Everyone in the dealership needs to see the potential and understand why the collision department is much more than a necessary evil.
“I’m fortunate with the fact that I have a great relationship with the dealer,” he says. “He sees the whole picture. Here’s how we can contribute to the dealership: Last year, we spent, just in sheet metal parts, $1.7 million in parts. That’s a huge thing for the dealership. They can see what we contribute.”