Back in February 2015, in the midst of a flight back home from Louisiana, inspiration struck Greg Lobsiger.
He had toyed with the idea of redesigning his family’s shop back home in Bluffton, Ind., for years, eyeing increased efficiency. So any in-flight movie could wait; the owner of Loren’s Body Shop had to put pen to pad.
“I had never heard of anybody doing this,” Lobsiger recalls. “When I was on the airplane, I was like ‘How in the world am I going to do this?’ And finally, it was just all at once, ‘I know what I’m going to do.’ I just drew it out on a piece of paper.”
The shop owner had an idea for a shop rebuild that, while unusual, seemed as though it could pay dividends. On that trip back home from Louisiana, Lobsiger sketched out a roughly 10,000-square foot structure that would effectively envelop his small, two-building facility. He envisioned having his shop’s repair work flow smoothly―from blue-printing, to body, to prep, all the way through to detail―in a “C” formation.
The rebuild would be a massive undertaking―especially considering Lobsiger insisted on keeping his business open during its overhaul―but it seemed like the only way to keep his in-demand business running full-speed ahead.
Of course, formulating the idea for Lobsiger’s unusual build was one thing. … Getting it off the ground was another thing entirely.
KNOWING WHEN TO GROW
Greg Lobsiger’s roots run deep in Bluffton. His shop was established in 1951, by Lobsiger’s grandfather, Loren.
“I ran through here when I was just a little kid, when I was 4 or 5 years old,” he says. “So it’s my home.”
In addition to that key factor in Lobsiger’s major 2016 business decision was this: spending $500,000 just for a new lot sounded unappealing, to say the least.
That said, Lobsiger knew his business’ two-building setup caused issues that were holding it back. Namely, the owner knew a “front-shop/back-shop mentality” can rear its ugly head in such situations, where one department tends to pass work along to the next without requisite concern for teamwork. Additionally, the crew at Loren’s was wasting time walking long distances to, for example, check and see if a replaced hood had been mirror-matched.
With that in mind, Lobsiger eventually sought to increase his shop’s size from 6,200 square feet to nearly 12,000 in an effort to streamline production—and he adamantly wanted his shop to remain open during the overhaul.
The result? Logistics be damned, Lobsiger essentially decided to have walls built around the outside of his existing shop floor, so production could roll on.
Typically in shop builds, concrete work is one of the first items scratched off the to-do list. When Loren’s began its roughly $560,000 facelift (a loan covered nearly 50 percent of the project) the initial phase included getting footers, walls and trusses situated while interior demolition took place in sequences.
“The community here,” Lobsiger notes with a laugh, “was saying, ‘What in the world are (those) people doing? They’re building a big box around their two existing buildings; I’ve never seen that before.’”
"They knew this project wouldn't be easy, but choosing the right attitude would be key."
— Greg Lobsiger, owner, Loren's Body Shop
Lobsiger felt compelled to avoid a prolonged closure during his shop rebuild largely due to the fact he didn’t want to cut off cash flow.
But, the owner’s sense of urgency during his rebuild also had to do with a sense of civic duty.
“If I was in a monster-big market,” the owner notes, “the people have got some place to go. But when I’ve got half the business in the county, I’d really tick off” customers if Loren’s closed at length.
Thus, Lobsiger had to act swiftly and decisively last year, which is just fine considering his firm belief in lean production processes.
While the owner wanted to act fast, he was unwavering in his demand that his redesign result in improvements in both cycle time and elimination of waste. His shop’s current cycle time is 4.7 days, for example; Lobsiger is dead set on whittling that below four.
“I wanted a very close-knit machine to process cars,” the owner adds. “I wanted all staff members to be able to see the entire process as our cars are [repaired].”
One bit of advice Lobsiger would pass along to other shop owners faced with a redesign: Be aggressive, but not overzealous.
“First you’ve got to be financially stable,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m a rich guy; there was definitely a loan involved (in Loren’s build). But you’ve got to be able to sleep at night, no matter what.
“The absolute number one thing is cash flow. … If your cash flow gets too low, you can’t make payroll, or you can’t pay your vendors.”
Amazingly, throughout the bulk of its rebuild, Loren’s stopped its production for a grand total of “maybe a day and a half,” says Lobsiger (while the facility’s rear building was demo’ed).
Loren’s staff was quite willing to tow the rope to keep production chugging along during adverse conditions, especially after the owner laid out a detailed game plan to follow during the rebuild.
“I knew it was gonna be quite a task,” Lobsiger says, before light-heartedly adding, “I told ‘em, ‘If you’re gonna leave, now’s the time,’ before we started.”
Employees at Loren’s constantly needed to help move equipment around the shop in recent months, to clear room for construction workers. Yet, Lobsiger’s troops remained compliant.
“They knew this project wouldn’t be easy, but choosing the right attitude would be key,” the owner added of his employees. “I went over the drawings with my staff after meeting with the contractors as to how this could be possible to repair cars. They may have thought I was a little crazy, but they still trusted me. … Communicating to the staff step-by-step what was next was key, and kept them at peace with everything, knowing the end goal.”
The owner also wisely dangled a carrot in front of his crew members, making sure they were well aware of the improved facility that appeared on the horizon.
“I expressed to these guys, ‘Hey, if we can turn more work—because we’ve got a better system we can work more efficiently, it’ll of course turn into more pay,” Lobsiger says. “So that’s kind of how you get the buy-in.”
As you might expect, Lobsiger did have to endure a few less-than-ideal costs for his unique build. Temporary lighting was needed, for example.
“There was a cost to continue to have production under these conditions,” the owner says. “But the cost … if we would’ve actually had to shut down would’ve been much greater. And I thought ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to do this.’ And all the builders and so forth, everybody knew that. They knew that, if this guy can’t produce work, then we’re not gonna get to finish the job, because he won’t have the money to do it.”
WHEN THE DUST SETTLES
While the populace of Bluffton may have been left wide-eyed by the initial sight of Loren’s redesign, the townsfolk were asking for invitations to an open house before long. Hey, when your business has undergone a noticeable facelift, everyone takes notice.
Loren’s redesign has left its owner with what he calls the ultimate “visual tool.” Now, Lobsiger can stand in one spot and witness his shop’s production process from start to finish.
Lobsiger is content with his build―which, as of this writing, is about 90 percent complete―and isn’t about to overextend himself. Some equipment vendors have noticed Loren’s overhaul and attempted to strike with a sales pitch while Lobsiger’s wallet appears open. So far, the shop owner has resisted temptation; getting a new lift or putting in a new prep station can wait.
“You know, the bank will loan you anything you want if you’ve got any equity,” Lobsiger says, “and you’ve got to be extremely careful. Make sure you’ve got your reserves built up—expect the unexpected. Do all your homework upstream, as much as possible.”
Long ago, Loren’s Body Shop’s founder gave sage advice that the current owner holds near and dear:
“My grandpa said years ago,” Lobsiger recalls, “‘When you take on some big project, you’ve just got to make sure you’ve got a full head of steam ahead of time.’ And you do.”
These days, Loren’s is gaining momentum. A few years ago, the Indiana shop pulled in $1.3 million in annual revenue; Following its unique overhaul, Lobsiger feels $2 million might be within reach before long.
“We’re actually up by 10 percent this year, and I can hardly believe it; I was hoping just to stay flat,” Lobsiger noted in November. “All the insurance folks that have seen the [rebuild] process know we are here to stay.”