All that Geoff McCollom asked was that his team trust him. It was going to be a risk—a possible all-or-nothing decision that would either allow Dutch Valley Auto Works to survive the recession, or force it to go down in flames.
“I didn’t see an in-between option,” he says. “If we stood pat, I don’t think we would’ve stood long.”
McCollom’s plan for the 12,000-square-foot independent shop he purchased in 2005 may have seemed drastic: He would invest $300,000 in new equipment, tools and training. His team, which did about $2.7 million in sales in 2009, would become the first in Lancaster County (Pa.) to convert to waterborne. They’d add a second paint booth and replace other major equipment. They’d market their new capabilities heavily, and they’d try to corner their market, take on more direct repair work and not only survive the recession, but also grow while other shops struggled.
All of that, well, that’s the part the team was already onboard with. One additional aspect of McCollom’s grand plan—the one aspect that would allow it to succeed and actually increase production, he says—was to stagger the shifts of his painters. He wanted to add a graveyard shift, which would start at midnight.
“It was a shock to them, I think,” he says now. “They were hesitant.”
“Other [shop owners] thought I was crazy,” he says. “People would wonder what we’re doing changing our whole business at such a rough time. But it was the only way I saw us growing. I’m not sure we could’ve lasted staying the way we were. … And, hey, if you’re going to go down, why not go down spectacularly?”
McCollom came into ownership by chance—or, rather, by a chance meeting with the daughter of Dutch Valley’s former owners. At the time in 2005, McCollom was managing a dealership facility and was itching horribly to break out on his own.
But he wanted to find the perfect opportunity. Instead, it found him. McCollom met her in a management training session, and the two struck up a conversation. McCollom expressed his desire to own his own shop.
“Funny,” McCollom remembers her saying, “my parents are looking to retire.”
He took over the shop later that year.
At the time, the business had eight employees doing roughly $1.8 million, and McCollom spent the next four years pushing its marketing plan and making tweaks to operations in order to grow.
Then, in 2009, the recession hit Lancaster County hard, and McCollom worried that the issues that began to plague other area businesses could seep into his own.
A lot of people, when confronted with a problem, might just elect to hunker down and wait it out, McCollom says. That’s never been his approach.
“With anything in business, you need to try to get out ahead of it,” he says.
It’s why he’s always put an emphasis on training for himself and his team (the shop pays for a variety of options, and McCollom takes many staffers with him to various trade shows), and it’s why McCollom felt he could see a potentially crippling time period ahead for the shop.
While efficiencies had been created within the facility since he took over, McCollom felt the business needed to make some significant improvements if it wanted to be successful in the modern industry—recession or no recession.
The shop had just one paint booth for three painters, and those painters still sprayed solvent. There were other equipment issues, too, but when McCollom looked at bottlenecks in the shop, it always pointed to the paint department. And that’s despite having what McCollom referred to as a very talented staff of painters.
He’d been making the rounds at conferences and shows for the better part of two years prior to this point in early 2010, and he felt a complete transition to waterborne would be the first step to changing the shop’s future. Adding the booth (for roughly $100,000) would be one piece, and McCollom says he was sure that positioning his business as an early adopter of waterborne technology would help his shop’s standing with insurers and bring in more work.
He had 12 DRPs at the time, and a good standing, credit-wise, with his vendors. He negotiated a package with his paint supplier that allowed his shop to finance a chunk of the overall costs, and on June 30, 2010, his team was fully equipped, trained and spraying waterborne—after a $300,000 investment.
The improvements were noticeable right away, McCollom says. The shop gained a handful of smaller accounts and increased its workload almost instantly. But the bottleneck still existed in the paint department. For all it’s investments, the shop still couldn’t cycle the work efficiently enough to get the type of return McCollom had hoped.
McCollom focused a plan around one simple advantage he had in his paint team: One of his painters was an extreme night owl.
“I always kind of had the idea that we could do this if we had the work to try to push through,” he says.
So, he formulated a plan, based around a staggered-shift system. That night-owl painter would work midnight to 8 a.m. Another tech would start at 4 a.m. and go until noon. He’d hire on one more painter, and have the new hire and his third painter work normal business hours.
“The idea is to make them all flex-time guys,” he says. “They’re paid based on production, and they work the hours needed to perform the work that’s there.”
He didn’t want a painter to be sitting in his shop at 3 a.m. with nothing to spray. If the painter has 14 hours worth of work, they spray until it’s done. If they have six hours, they leave when completed.
The idea would be that more vehicles would get completed while the rest of McCollom’s team was out of the shop. It would free up the bottlenecks at the booth, and would allow the team working during the day to increase its efficiency.
The shop grew in sales each year during the recession (the company has actually grown each year since McCollom took over), and by 2014, it topped $4.7 million in sales.
Dutch Valley has picked up two major DRPs—one, McCollom says, directly because of the shop’s conversion to waterborne and the significant investments it made in the shop.
Cycle time has improved as well, dropping from above 10 days to just below 7.5, which McCollom says is evidence of the shop’s paint booth bottleneck diminishing. Anecdotally, he says it’s easy to witness the difference with just one look at his paint department, as there far fewer waiting cars.
More importantly, though, McCollom says his staff has embraced the change—and trusted him along the way.
“I always try to explain why I’m doing something, rather than just tell people, ‘This is what we’re doing,’” he says. “You need to create that buy-in so that we’re doing this together and we all understand the purpose and intent of the ideas we’re implementing. Buy-in is the single biggest key in doing anything to improve the business.”
And McCollom isn’t slowing down. The shop recently made a $200,000 investment to start the process of becoming aluminum certified.
Whether it’s the hefty investments or process changes he’s made, McCollom doesn’t see what he’s done as unique.
“Well, people look at what we’ve done and the first thing they wonder is, ‘What’s the return?’” McCollom says. “I think that’s looking at it backwards, and that’s where people make a lot of mistakes in investing in their businesses.
“Sure, we’ll see a financial return down the road, and we have it planned out, but the bigger thing is that these improvements and investments are simply the cost of entry in the modern industry. If you don’t make the necessary changes, you’re not going to be able to compete. If I don’t invest, someone else will, and I won’t be around.”