How Leaders Stay Up To Date

Dec. 7, 2022

With ADAS, EVs, advanced marketing and on and on, there’s more technology in collision repair than ever. 

Being a shop owner means being a meteorologist of collision repair. Like being a true meteorologist, there is more science and more information than ever to make an accurate forecast. The days of sticking a finger in the wind to see which way it’s blowing and extrapolating from there are over. 

One of the hardest forecasts to make in collision repair these days is what a shop’s needs are going to be for tech and tools. But owners are trying, at least according to the 506 respondents of the 2022 FenderBender Industry Survey. A majority 59% of them reported having a budget for tech and tools. But not many reported performing such services as ADAS calibrations, meaning those budgets could be changing drastically if they add more services. 

Tech and tool needs are changing more than ever, if shops are taking on calibrations, if they’re working on EVs, if they’re acquiring OEM certifications and so much more. If there’s a science to it all, then Kayce Smith is as well-equipped to handle it as anyone, given she had a background in biology and chemistry before getting involved with her husband’s collision center. Smith is sensing which way the wind is blowing, and the atmosphere is charged. 

“We’ll be working on a lot of electrical vehicles, and I see them even in our small area, I see a lot of them now,” says Smith, who owns Complete Collision Center in St. James and St. Robert, Missouri. “So us getting a leg up on others in the industry, especially in our area, I think is going to be very beneficial for us.” 

There are other ways that show shops are beginning to consider the tech and tools side of the business more than ever. Industry survey results show that shops are investing more in diagnostic training in 2022 than they were in 2021. Shops are performing more diagnostic scans than they were in 2021, nine percent more. Using the Industry Survey as a backdrop, FenderBender took a look at how owners are keeping their shops filled with the right equipment and the right technology. 

The ADAS Elephant in the Room 

If anyone knows the importance of buying specialized tools, it’s John Carmack, owner of John’s Body Shop in Lexington, Illinois. John’s Body Shop services all sorts of vehicles, from heavy trucks to recreational vehicles, passenger cars to school buses. The shop has a 50-foot frame machine and a 50-foot downdraft paint booth to handle any contingency. But one thing with which the shop is not equipped, nor interested in handling, is calibrations. 

“We don’t perform any type of recalibrations here at the facility whatsoever,” says Carmack. “Everything returns to the dealership. Just to touch on that just a little bit, I can’t even believe that someone would want to have the calibration equipment there at the facility and take that liability on the chin as well. That’s incredible to me. I just, I can’t hardly wrap my head around it.” 

Carmack’s perspective certainly isn’t unique. Taking on calibrations is something every shop owner is wrestling with these days and there are more issues than just the liability. There’s the extra space that’s required and environmental conditions that have to be met. And then there’s the training and research that goes into doing the calibration properly. 

Smith says that their shop does run into calibrations that they can’t perform in-house for one reason or another. But in general, the shop is set up to do calibrations and has been for a while. For her, it ties into a long-term goal of becoming a one-stop shop for auto services. 

“We've had an ADAS machine for about a year and a half now,” says Smith. “And we have a Hunter alignment rack so we're actually adding a full-fledged mechanical facility onto the back of our building. … really our goal with what we're doing is we want to be a one stop shop. You walk in our front door and we take all of the stress away from your repair process, anything you're wanting to do vehicle-wise.” 

Thus far, shops like Carmack’s are in the majority. Seventy-one percent of survey respondents said their shop is not yet equipped to perform ADAS calibrations. However, that number doesn’t appear to be static. The 29% of shops that are doing ADAS work is an 8% jump from the 2021 Industry Survey. And that’s directly tied into higher revenue-related KPI indicators.  

Though evidence shows the number of ADAS-equipped shops is trending upward, it’s unclear how many shops have the ability to simply add calibrations in the near future if they wanted to. The outlay is significant and it isn’t getting less expensive. 

“This part of our industry is so new; we’re finding our way a lot,” says Darrell Amberson, president of operations for LaMettry’s Collision, speaking at the 2022 FenderBender Management Conference. “It's a bit of the Wild West. And so there's no definitive path on a lot of this. A lot of this we are even currently kind of engineering and finding our own way.” 

LaMettry’s has invested heavily in the calibration space, literally, including a standalone facility that opened in August of 2019.  

“We’re over 10,000 square feet of ADAS lab/shop space, with some officing there, and it's custom built for our specs to do calibrations,” says Jason Zeise, LaMettry’s mechanical operations manager. “That's the only thing we do there. We have a portable air compressor for doing tires, no floor drains, it's custom built for ADAS calibrations.” 

LaMettry’s services its own collision customers as well as doing work for other shops. For shops that aren’t ready to make the investment in ADAS work, having facilities like LaMettry’s available who have done the research and already made the investment can help bridge the gap. The shop that farms out the work can still be held liable in the event of a substandard calibration. 

Of course, an individual shop isn’t likely to make the kind of investment in a calibration facility like LaMettry’s did. At their facility, Zeise guesses, they invested $15,000 in just the lighting. The floor has roughly $20,000 into it. And then there all the associated costs with the calibration equipment itself and down onto the smallest details. 

“Brooms and garbage cans and all this, and then the calibration systems, they're very expensive,” says Zeise. “You find out what works for you. And you keep adding on to that.” 

The equipment LaMettry’s is running includes Autel, Bosch, John Bean and Burke Porter coming soon. There are laptops that serve as dedicated scan tools, and three stations set up to do calibrations. The importance of scanning is becoming a big part of how shops operate today and that progression is something witnessed firsthand by Zeise, who has a background as a mechanic. 

“When I first started, it was airbag suspension, not a lot of diagnostics,” Zeise says. “Now, we're doing in-depth diagnostic on just about all these collision vehicles. Because just by simply disconnecting and reconnecting things, it causes all kinds of network communication problems.” 

Zeise says that scanning is essential in blueprinting to identifying potential calibrations later on. Pre- and post-scans are something that a vast majority of survey respondents said they always do. That goes back to training techs and ensuring they catch everything in the blueprinting process.  

“We do an outstanding job of catching all the calibrations at that blueprint process and mechanical blueprint process,” says Zeise. 

LaMettry’s learned some lessons the hard way that could be instructive for shops looking to add calibrations. In the shop where they first started doing calibrations there was technically enough space, but not an ideal amount. They were parking cars in front of paint booths. 

“How do you piss off a painter,” asks Zeise, rhetorically. “Park a car in front of his booth. So that worked for about four hours.” 

The location also had too much glass and all the light wasn’t suitable for calibrations. So that led to the purpose-built facility with level floors, gray and white colors and specialty lamps with a 15,000-lumen capacity and, importantly, dimming ability. 

“That dimmable is huge,” Zeise says. “If you have any lighting issues in your shop, invest in some dimmable lighting.” 

As Amberson described it, calibrations are the “Wild West” of the collision repair space. Laws in the actual Wild West were nonexistent at worst and fungible at best. The state of calibrations in collision repair is not all that different, with questionable decision making commonplace. 

So the best practice is to not cut corners. Invest in the technology, invest in the tools but most of all invest in the training and be thorough to ensure not only a successful business but a safe and responsible one. 

“We understand this is a part of our industry that is rife with the opportunity for fraud, frankly,” says Amberson. “… So, we are frankly anal about looking at factory repair information, doing what we’re supposed to be doing based upon what the manufacturer tells us, nothing more, nothing less. And at the same time, we aggressively try to get paid for it. But there are those situations we would rather do a procedure and not get paid for it and do the right thing, than to not do it.” 

Tech and Tool Considerations 

Carmack says his shop falls into the 59% of survey respondents who do set a monthly budget for tools and equipment. In the case of John’s Body Shop, it’s roughly $5,000 per month. Smith said in her shop budgeting usually isn’t necessary as the shop typically has enough resources to cover up whatever needs arise. 

“We spend the money on that stuff where we need to and then what's left over is what's left over,” Smith says. “We haven't really budgeted a whole lot for it, but our shop does very well. So we're able to do that stuff without really having to overly budget.” 

While investments in tools may come up sporadically and are harder to plan for, both shops also have recurring costs for technology-related matters that are easier to plan for. One of those matters is OEM procedure research, which is becoming more important than ever. 

“We do a tremendous amount of ALLDATA research,” says Carmack. “It seems like we jumped down a rabbit hole with ALLDATA. And one thing leads to another onto another onto another. But you know what? I am so blessed and grateful that this information is out there … I mean, you can stick your head in the sand and you just die on the vine. But that's not me.” 

Both Carmack and Smith’s shops utilize CCC management software. For Smith that means using it to run every aspect of the collision side of her business. 

“We really utilize CCC in all aspects,” Smith says. “We use it for our production schedule. We use it to update our customers, we use it to track parts. We use every single aspect of it.” 

Carmack also expresses an interest in keeping an eye on the latest technology trends in the industry. That was particularly the case when it comes to virtual estimates and the possibilities of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. 

“The amount of AI that the industry will be presented with is, I think, really cool,” Carmack says. “I think that'd be the ultimate way to inspect a car and look at a car. I think that technology is closer and closer and closer.” 

Both shops are set up to repair aluminum components, and Smith’s shop can repair carbon fiber as well, something that only 17% of survey respondents said they are set up to do. Smith’s shop also sprays waterborne paint, which has been on the rise and now is in use but 47% of survey respondents compared to 40% still spraying solvent-based paint. 

Aluminum is a big part of Carmack’s business as aluminum components are very common in recreational vehicles. Carmack cited one tool that’s been a huge development for aluminum repair that has made a big impact on other aspects of collision repair as well. 

“Probably one of the biggest game changers to us about seven years ago was KECO, the glue pull system from KECO, amazing, amazing,” Carmack says. “And we do a fair amount of aluminum work. So no more trying to aluminum weld a stud and try to pull them, no more burn through the backside of the panels. Mild strength steel, aluminum, doesn't make any difference. A little bit of glue and a tab, and you don't have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger pulling on the thing either.” 

Marketing Old and New 

Like most collision repair shops, or any business in existence today, both Carmack and Smith said their shops have marketing plans. While neither is engaged in cutting edge techniques such as geofencing, both have found marketing success that works for them. 

Smith’s shop utilizes a marketing firm to handle most of their social media and website needs with customer service representatives also pitching in as needed. They mostly utilize Facebook, which was the social media platform of choice among survey respondents as well, as well as Instagram. They also post jobs to Facebook, which has given them more success than job sites such as Indeed. 

A focus in social media posts for Complete Collision Centers is sharing the kind of service customers can expect. She cited the example of their St. Robert location being close to a military base, with potential customers coming from all over and not necessarily familiar with the area, thinking they may need to go to Springfield, Illinois, or St. Louis, Missouri, to get a quality repair. Communicating their message is paramount. 

“Part of our process of getting that customer to hand over their keys and not shop around is telling them about our processes, telling them about the equipment that we have, telling them you know how we can take care of you,” Smith says. “… So it's pretty easy to get them to stay, because our estimators and our managers very knowledgeable.” 

John’s Body Shop also has a Facebook page, but Carmack says it’s not a huge focus. However, the shop has been sure to post photos of particularly interesting projects it has worked on, such as a 1965 Pontiac GTO the shop worked on, or a motorhome worth $1.2 million. Both generated an “amazing” response, Carmack said. 

But it’s another form of marketing that is a bit lower tech that has been the most successful. Working with a media company for the last 17 years, John’s Body Shop has been running radio commercials on the three most popular stations in the area: a political station, a country station and a variety station playing everything from the 1980s to today. A 10-second spot running once an hour on each station has represented “very consistent” success, according to Carmack.  

“Probably that political radio station is the biggest pull and then country right after that,” Carmack says. “And I don't really like country music, there's a lot of people that do though, big radio station, a lot of listeners. But we've been very, very consistent with that. And when I start something, I don’t give it up. I stay at it.” 

Looking Forward 

Staying on top of tech and tool trends isn’t easy, both owners admit. But both are keeping an eye on the future, like Carmack tracking developments in AI technology and Smith getting more involved with working on EVs. Smith also serves on an I-CAR Committee so is able to stay on top of training for the latest technology and techniques. 

“With all the technology changes that are happening, taking those classes is so important,” Smith says. “So, we are set up on a subscription model with I-CAR. So, our employees can take any class they want without us having to pay extra. And that's been awesome. Even our CSRs can take classes if they want to.” 

Both owners encouraged their peers to stay as engaged as they can in the state of the industry and if something isn’t working, take a look at why and make changes as necessary. 

“Independent owners need to take a step back, re-evaluate, take a deep breath and move forward,” says Carmack. “They definitely need to re evaluate what they're doing.” 

“When it comes to technology and tool, do your research, and really look at what's available,” adds Smith. “Because there's so much out there that is beneficial to us that can help as far as the repairs go and utilizing your resources, like ALLDATA, CCC, using those things to benefit your customer, benefit your facility and benefit your technicians. They're not trying to have to figure out how they're supposed to do a repair on something, they have it right there in front of them step by step. With as many vehicles and makes and models that there are out there, there's no way for anybody to know exactly how to do that every single time.” 

About the Author

Todd Kortemeier

Todd Kortemeier is former editor of FenderBender magazine.

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