The Top Education Strategies to Put Your Business Ahead

Sept. 1, 2011
Three shop owners who have embraced continuous learning share the education strategies that have kept them on the industry’s leading edge, and ahead of competitors.

In today’s collision repair industry, experience—even decades of it—means little if it’s not backed up by recent training on the latest vehicles, materials, equipment and repair procedures.

Cars and their countless components change yearly and the need to stay up to speed on the newest technology is crucial, especially as more hybrid and electric vehicles hit the roads. These cars are unlike anything even the most seasoned technician has worked on. That means maintaining quality, safe repairs—and staying competitive—requires dedication to continuing education.

“Shops that don’t embrace change and technology are going to get passed up,” said Mike Mavec, owner of Mike’s Collision Center, an I-CAR Gold Class Professionals shop in Bloomington, Ill. It’s not cheap, it is a great expense, but I made a vow for our company that I won’t cut out education.”

FenderBender talked with Mavec and the owners of two other Gold Class shops about their strategies for maintaining a highly educated staff, how it benefits their businesses and how standards for training have evolved in this rapidly changing industry.

Mike's Collision Center|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||OWNER: Mike MavecLOCATION: Bloomington, Ill.SIZE: 10,000 square feetAVERAGE ANNUAL REVENUE: $2.6 millionAVERAGE CARS PER MONTH: 100EMPLOYEES: 14I-CAR GOLD SINCE: 2006

Mike Mavec, owner of Mike’s Collision Center in Bloomington, Ill., spends roughly $3,000 to $4,000 a year on education for his employees. That includes I-CAR courses, manufacturer and paint company workshops, vendor presentations and more.

Older techs, Mavec says, are more apt to resist education, but he’s found that as the guard changes, tech-savvy newcomers embrace it. His staff is young, so he doesn’t need to push them to see the value of regular coursework.

“Education is a little more accepted,” says Mavec, who also serves on the local I-CAR committee. “Now they understand they have to do it. It’s part of their trade.”

But Mavec says training alone is not enough. Making sure the knowledge gained through coursework is retained and implemented in the shop is also important. It’s easy for a tech to return from a course and continue doing repairs the same way, which is why Mavec accompanies his employees to every workshop they attend.

“I can’t be an expert in everything,” Mavec says. “But when I go to class with them I at least know what is being taught and whether we can apply that. There are times where I send someone out to school and they don’t apply anything.”

Mavec’s staff is cross-trained to the extent that the shop can function when he and an employee or two are out for training. He tries to send one tech out at a time and takes advantage of slower months by scheduling more courses. Mavec admits production can take a hit at times, but he says the short-term losses are worth the long-term gains.

To further emphasize the importance of continued learning, Mavec is putting together a benefits package based on the education techs receive, rather than on their seniority.

In the end, Mavec says, shops that make education a priority are not only going to draw more business, they’re going to make vehicles safer and improve the reputation of the industry.

“I don’t know it all. I’ll never know it all,” Mavec says. “To keep myself sharp, I’m learning every day.”

Sharp’s Auto Body &
Collision, Inc.
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||OWNERS: Richard and Beth SmithLOCATION: Pittsburg, Kan.SIZE: 8,000 square feetAVERAGE ANNUAL REVENUE: $1.4 millionAVERAGE CARS PER MONTH: 40EMPLOYEES: 12I-CAR GOLD SINCE: 2010

Tired of the time and expense of sending his staff to training sessions three hours away from his shop, Richard Smith decided last year to become an I-CAR instructor.

The owner of Sharp’s Auto Body & Collision, Inc. in Pittsburg, Kan., still sends his staff to off-site training occasionally, but now he has the ability to teach a variety of I-CAR courses at his shop.

“It’s kind of like a second job, but something I enjoy doing,” says Smith, who is also an Automotive Service Excellence master technician. “It’s beneficial to the shop and to the techs.”

Being an instructor keeps Smith in the loop on the newest technologies and repairs. His shop is a small operation in a rural corner of Kansas, but that hasn’t kept him from being a progressive owner. Smith’s main concerns are quality and safety. Using outdated repair techniques can put customers in danger and shops in legal trouble, he says, so repairs that only look good won’t cut it.

“The main thing is it gives me peace of mind,” Smith says. “This is our business, these are the standards that we want to set and what we want to keep. When a customer leaves, I want them to be happy and I want their repair to be correct and safe.”

But because his shop is small, Smith is careful about his education investments. He will cover the cost of courses for techs, but if they decide to leave, they have a contractual obligation to pay the shop back for classes taken within the previous year. The payment is partial or full depending on when courses were taken and when the tech leaves.

“It’s a benefit for them as well,” Smith says of continuing education courses. “It helps them with their daily routine of repairing cars and makes them more valuable.”

Oakland Auto Body
(two facilities)
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||OWNER: Ron VincenziLOCATION: Oakland, Calif.SIZE: 22,000 square feet totalAVERAGE ANNUAL REVENUE: $5 millionAVERAGE CARS PER MONTH: 150–175EMPLOYEES: 25I-CAR GOLD SINCE: 1990

Oakland Auto Body in Oakland, Calif., was among the first shops to receive I-CAR Gold certification, and owner Ron Vincenzi’s standards for education haven’t changed much since then.

During the past several years, when most of the industry was clamping down on spending and struggling just to survive, Vincenzi invested more than $30,000 in training and new equipment. He saw the recession as a time to get ahead.

“We’ve invested more in training and equipment because we felt it was a way to distinguish ourselves from competitors,” he says.

The two-shop operation (one that handles light repairs and another that handles big hits) hired VeriFacts Automotive, an onsite coaching, training and auditing firm, as part of that expense.

Because technology is advancing so quickly, Vincenzi says he sees VeriFacts’ monthly employee performance checks as a safety net that catches problems he might not see otherwise.

“Sometimes you think you know, but you don’t,” he says. “I personally cannot keep up with everything in this industry, so I hire other companies to keep up with it.”

Oakland Auto Body also hosts I-CAR classes and other courses in-house. Vincenzi’s goal is to have all of his technicians achieve I-CAR Platinum status. Every shop claims to do quality work, he says, but the reality is that many facilities don’t have the certifications to back up their claims. Shops that do are the ones that are going to do well, he says.

“If you’re not getting properly trained, you’re getting yourself in a lot of trouble,” he says. “It’s easy to quickly fall behind. The gap between what you know and what you need to know increases yearly.”

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