Serious Fun, Serious Business

Aug. 1, 2012
Determined to be the best in his market, Frank McClosky combined his business savvy and creativity—then put on a monkey suit.

On Halloween in 2009, Frank’s Collision Repair's manager Kory Whitley dressed up as Frankenstein and walked a leashed monkey into an insurance agency in suburban Houston.
The monkey was actually shop founder and owner Frank McClosky in costume. As they arrived at the agency, Whitley announced he brought his pet with him. “Come on little guy,” he urged McClosky, pretending to lose control as the beast jumped out at an office worker. “Let me calm him down.”

Then the two found a place in the middle of the office floor to break into dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

This is a typical holiday scene for McClosky, who leads his collision business with unconventional zeal. He says showing up at dealerships and insurance agencies in costume has boosted revenue, created new relationships, and even earned news coverage. Not to mention the laughs they get when he and Whitley dress up in dyed-red beards and leprechaun suits for St. Patrick’s Day, bunny suits for Easter, and Santa costumes for Christmas.

McClosky knows how to make his business stand out—even when he’s not in costume. As goofy as his marketing tactics might seem, he’s serious about success. He demands high standards of his shop and office employees, but he nurtures and promotes those who work hard and produce results.  He’s also a lifelong learner, always hunting for new ideas that will make his shop better than the competition.

His passion and absurdity have paid off. In nine years, the shop has seen double-digit revenue growth each year, McClosky says. In 2003 when he opened his Baytown, Texas, shop, he brought in $500,000 in annual revenue. In 2010 he opened a second location in Dayton, Texas. Between the two shops, he expects to generate nearly $4 million this year.

“When I do something, I do it all the way,” he says.

Gorilla Marketing

McClosky funded his college degree by painting cars in local collision shops. When he got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston, he had already paved a solid path in the industry. After graduating from college he went to work for PPG as a territory manager. Also a real estate owner in Baytown, he figured he’d try his hand at shop ownership. In 2003 he bought one of the shops he used to work at, Baytown Motors, and changed the name to Frank’s Collision Repair.

He says he has a mental toughness that comes from his upbringing. His dad was a military guy, and McClosky was raised on Army bases in Germany and the U.S. until he was 9. He knows how to make new connections, and how to handle rejection.

So when it comes to running his shop, he isn’t afraid to be different. The idea to market his business by dressing up in costumes and visiting dealerships and insurance agencies first came to him in 2007. He wanted to drum up new business, and he thought it would be an interesting way to reach potential customers and community members. He’s a creative person, so this wasn’t the first time he came up with an unconventional promotional tool. Carl Kraeer, a body technician at Frank’s, used to work with McClosky at Baytown Motors. As a way of making that shop a landmark, they took a 1978 Mustang II and cut out part of the hood, roof and trunk and placed plants in it. As a result, they received media coverage and more business.

Now as an owner, McClosky applies the same out-of-the-box approach to marketing. When he and his Dayton store manager, Kory Whitley, first dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day, they dyed their beards red and rented $150-per-day costumes. Whitley put on five-inch platform shoes, bringing his height to seven feet. Together they drove to insurance agencies and dealerships to say hello and hand out promotional items such as pens.

People laughed, he says, and took pictures to post on Facebook. They even hugged the costumed characters.

“I at least want them to know who we are,” McClosky says. “Some people might not like us, but they definitely won’t forget us.”

Five years later, he and Whitley have dressed up for most major holidays. They visit hospitals as bunnies on Easter, which has earned them news coverage. They have dressed up as Uncle Sam and George Washington for Independence Day. On Cinco de Mayo this year, McClosky and two other shop employees formed a mariachi band and sang a medley of Mexican-themed songs in local businesses. The songs were traditional songs such as “La Bamba,” but they were tweaked to include body shop language. “I am not a millionaire, but I have a bunch of Bondo,” McClosky sang at insurance agencies and other locales.

He typically sees an increase in revenue during the months that they go out and visit businesses in character. He doesn’t track specific numbers, but after each holiday dress-up he notices a higher volume of cars in the shop—perhaps from 20 in process to 30, he estimates. Because he’s seen this time and again, he’s willing to dole out an average of $1,500 a year in costume costs.

The exposure is worth it. Their theatrics have become well known in the community and have helped customers and insurers keep the shop top of mind. They are on a half a dozen direct repair programs (DRPs), and the entertaining visits build brand recognition better than donut drop-offs.

“Pretty much everybody in this market knows about it,” McClosky says.

Renee Rhodes is the office manager at Randy Casey State Farm Insurance in Baytown. She says they often refer people to Frank’s, and he’s more memorable because of the costumes.

“It certainly makes them more visible,” she says. “It keeps their business in mind.”

Other Endeavors

McClosky’s shows his quirky side to employees and the community in several other ways.

Take the guitar he keeps in his office. When he needs to relax, he grabs it and plays anything from Johnny Cash to Jimmy Buffett. While he’s strict about arriving at work on time and getting work done efficiently, he thinks it’s important to be able to goof off sometimes.

His musical abilities go beyond his office walls. He sang a jingle for the shop and recorded it to be played as a radio advertisement. A distant relative of his wife wrote it. “When you’ve been in an accident, don’t despair, just call Frank’s Collision Repair,” McClosky sings.

He also has recorded three Christmas albums that he distributed to insurance agents. The same relative who helped him with the jingle helped him record the album, which contains songs sung by McClosky and some of the workers at the shop.

“Some of them don’t sing real good, they’re just enthusiastic,” he says.

One year he even played a couple of major roles in a charity musical in Baytown. A local writer wrote the musical, and McClosky played a young Elvis as well as a lounge lizard. The money raised went to children’s scholarships distributed by service organizations like Rotary. He saw an increase in business after that, too.

“If you’re going to do business right, you gotta live it. It’s a lifestyle, not a job,” he says.

Another way he stands out above the rest with his out-of-the-box marketing effort is a community Christmas party he throws each year. He spends at least $8,000 feeding 300–400 people with music, food and beverages. Santa Claus shows up for the kids, too. Everyone from customers to public officials to families come out to the shop, where managers serve the food and get a chance to mingle with the community.

“It’s been a good marketing effort,” he says.

A Serious Side

McClosky also has a more traditional and serious side that keeps his business competitive.

For example, he refused to cut back when the recession hit, even as the Houston area saw a 50 percent decrease in new car sales. He gathered his staff and warned them that the pie would get smaller—but that they had a chance to make their slice bigger. In addition to the creative marketing approach, he bumped up his advertising budget to 2 percent of sales. He advertised in newspapers, local magazines, TV, radio and websites.

As he did that, McClosky says he kept repeating to his staff that the only thing they could control was their performance. He made sure they did their best in every way possible. In 2008 he travelled to Los Angeles to learn about lean processes. Upon returning, he implemented parts carts and blueprinting, he reduced waste in everything including soap and paper towels, and he made other tweaks to shop processes.

He also maintains a well-run operation by nurturing high performers and letting go of those who don’t meet his standards. He has found people either have a passion for the business or they don’t.

“This isn’t a place to get by,” he says. “I expect a certain level of quality.”

At the same time, he emphasizes work/life balance at the shop, and provides mentorship and outside training opportunities for people who want to do well. Whitley, for example, started in high school washing cars. Now he’s a shop manager because of McClosky’s guidance.

“I’m real fortunate to have somebody believe in me,” Whitley says, adding that he learned more from McClosky than he did from getting his college business degree.

Always Evolving

McClosky says he’s “absolutely freakish” about thinking of new ways he can be a better leader and business owner.

“I just immerse myself to constantly improve,” he says.

He’s willing to occasionally fly across the country for $500 to spend a day at a shop that has a great reputation in the industry. He’ll ask the shop owner questions, learn about processes, best practices and how that leader succeeds.

He also reads self-help and business books to help him understand the subconscious mind and solve problems. One of his all-time favorites is Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He even invested in a special Dale Carnegie training, which boasts influential graduates such as former U.S. presidents and top CEOs. He and a few key employees went to the training in 2010.

One of the biggest takeaways he got from the book and the training is that owners are ultimately accountable for everything that happens in the business.

“If I’m doing my job right, and I’ve got the right people and the right culture, I can quit pointing the finger at everybody else,” he says. “I’m the first one to admit I’m not perfect. I continually listen to that book. It’s like going to church.”

McClosky does it all in the spirit of growing and getting better each day. And if putting on a monkey suit helps get him there, so be it.