The 2010 FenderBender Awards

Sept. 28, 2010
The Finest In Collision Repair

Welcome to the 2010 FenderBender Awards! We here at FenderBender are delighted to introduce you to six of the finest folks in the industry. This year, we have winners in each of the following categories: executive, management, administrative support, shop worker, vendor and “wild card”—a catch-all for everyone who doesn’t fit in the first five categories. These honorees were nominated by their industry colleagues and chosen by FenderBender editors because they personify the best the industry has to offer. Not only do they help their shop or company make money and run smarter, but for many of them, their day-to-day actions have made the industry a better place. So as you read on, prepare to be dazzled. We sure have been.

Category: Vendor

Brian Gutierrez

President and CEO, Equip Automotive Systems, San Diego

Not many vendors can say they’ve overhauled their whole business plan and started over in light of an ethical dilemma. But when equipment provider Brian Gutierrez learned that improper use of welders like those he sold could lead to more extensive crash damage, he shifted his business focus—on his own accord—from pure salesmanship to safety training.

Gutierrez made the sobering discovery in 2002, when he was president and CEO of Equip Automotive Systems, which he’d founded two years earlier. Gutierrez was helping a friend investigate an insurance case, preparing to provide expert testimony. As he disassembled the car that had been damaged in the accident, he was shocked at what he found. The welds in the vehicle had failed because someone had repaired them improperly after the vehicle’s first crash.

Then, he met the husband, wife and daughter who had been in the car.

“When I saw the devastation of that family, I knew I had to change what we were doing,” he says. “I rewrote the business plan, because I wanted us to sell the right equipment but I also wanted us to sell it in a particular way.” Gutierrez lost a quarter of his sales force almost immediately, and spent significant time recruiting and retraining his team.

"We sell equipment, but the goal is to keep the occupants
of vehicles safe, so while about 50 percent of our business is the equipment, the other 50 is coaching and training
in the right way to use that equipment.”
—Brian Gutierrez

Headquartered in San Diego, Equip Automotive sells lifts, frame benches, traction arms, chassis clamps, and welding equipment to about 300 customers, mostly in southern California, Nevada and Arizona. Training customers how to use that equipment is part of the deal.

Gutierrez notes that his company continues to do expert witness work in crash cases, and some things haven’t changed since that case in 2002. “We find that 99 percent of the time, it’s not the original weld but the repair that caused the weld to fail,” he says.

That’s why he insists on training to go with the products they sell. “We sell equipment, but the goal is to keep the occupants of vehicles safe, so while about 50 percent of our business is the equipment, the other 50 is coaching and training in the right way to use that equipment,” Gutierrez says.

One happily trained customer is Glenn Covert. He raves about the welding equipment—and the training that came with it—purchased for Arthur’s Auto Collision and Paint in Colorado Springs, Colo. Covert, president of Arthur’s, says that’s because Gutierrez offered both a good product and training in how to use it—specifically, in how to properly repair the high-strength steels that are being used in more places in more cars.

“I worked with another vendor before Equip, and they had a good welder, but they weren’t providing the training that Brian is providing,” Covert says. “Brian is teaching techs how to use the welder the right way to fix the vehicle safely.”

Indeed, the training isn’t some half-baked PowerPoint presentation. Gutierrez works with vehicle and equipment OEMs to make sure the training meets both of their requirements. Gutierrez’s training is thorough, Covert explains, in that it covers not only where to cut and how to repair the steel the right way, but also what happens if you don’t, and why. “He goes into how these steels are made, and how they manage and distribute the crash energy, and the importance of air bag timing,” he says. It goes through proper procedures, including tasks that have to be done before the tech ever picks up the welder, such as cleaning the metal prior to repair. It also covers how to keep the techs safe from the chemical compounds in the steel, and how to protect the vehicle from the hot debris when those steels are cut or drilled.

In other words, Gutierrez is a vendor who takes responsibility not only for how the equipment he sells works, but also how it actually gets used.

Category: Administrative Support

Verlaine Redlin

Office manager, Bernie's Body and Glass, Watertown, S.D.
Verlaine Redlin handles all the usual tasks you’d expect from your administrative support staff: making sure that drivers and insurance companies pay, parts arrive, and employees get paychecks—not to mention buying Band-Aids for the first aid kit and occasionally bringing muffins for the morning.

But what makes Redlin, office manager at Bernie’s Body and Glass in Watertown, S.D., one of the finest in the industry is that she handles a task that saves real cash for owner Thad Jurgens, week in, week out: ordering parts. Redlin knows vehicles backward and forward, and she finds the best deal she can for every part she orders.

“She knows every parts house and salvage yard in four states,” Jurgens says. “She knows who will treat her right and who will give her a better deal on a particular part. She saves me money every day.”

It often goes unsaid, but the collision repair industry couldn’t function without its administrative support. Shops face more complex regulations, more demanding insurance companies, and more engaged customers who want more information all the time. That makes administrative support ever more critical. Redlin’s been at it for 38 years.

“Verlaine was part of the deal when I bought the shop. It was a high priority for me that she stay on, and fortunately she was happy to stay.”
—Thad Jurgens, owner, Bernie’s Body and Glass

Bernie Bertrang opened Bernie’s Body and Glass in 1963. In the 47 years the shop has operated, techs, customers, and even owners have come and gone. Redlin started work at Bernie’s in 1972. Bertrang owned the shop until 1993, when he retired and sold the business to his son-in-law, Ron Burchatz. Jurgens, the current owner, bought the shop in 2009.

“Verlaine was part of the deal when I bought the shop,” Jurgens says. “It was a high priority for me that she stay on.”

Today, Bernie’s Body and Glass has five employees and a 14,000-square-foot space. The shop is on track for about $700,000 in revenue this year, and repairs about 20 cars a month. Four full-time techs, including two painters (one of whom also does body work) keep the shop humming, and Jurgens writes most of the estimates.

Redlin, for her part, wears plenty of hats. She greets customers, works with adjusters, handles payroll and accounting, and does everything else office-related. “She’s a one-man band, and I’m able to spend a lot more time in the shop because she just takes care of things,” Jurgens says.

Bernie’s does restoration as well as collision work, and sometimes Redlin has to hunt for months for the parts they need. “We restored a 1928 Chevy truck with wooden doors that had metal over the wood, and it was really hard to find people who knew how to cut and shape that wood,” Redline says. “But I worked at it for six months, and finally found someone who knew someone else who could do it.”

In fact, research is a big part of Redlin’s role at the shop; she knows every parts dealer in the area and what discounts they give. “For new parts it’s pretty consistent, but for after-market parts, there are a lot of different vendors and I do a lot of calling around to find the best deal,” she explains.

Credit for teaching her about the industry goes to Bertrang, says Redlin. Most importantly, he taught her from day one to account for every nickel and find the best deal every time. That deep knowledge matters as much as knowing which of 30 parts houses gives what discount; it helps her to educate customers on the process, and she assists a lot of elderly people who aren’t sure what to do when they bring their cars in for repair. Being able to help is both her favorite and least favorite part of the job.

“It’s hard sometimes, knowing that you depend on other people’s misfortune,” she says, “but on the other hand, you’re there when they need you.”

Category: Executive

Jimmy Lefler

CEO, Owner, Lefler Collision, Evansville, Ind.
Lefler Collision CEO and owner Jimmy Lefler is a good leader in many ways, but it’s his community engagement—both heartfelt and effective—that ranks him among the finest in the industry. “You often hear him say to the team and customers, ‘We are in the people business; repairing vehicles is just a part of what we do,’” says Eddie Dietz, vice president of operations for the Evansville, Ind., shop.

That people business takes many forms, but two examples really bring it home: Ladies’ Night and the Support Our Troops campaign.

After some women’s cars were broken into during a Susan G. Komen walk for breast cancer, Lefler was angry. He decided to offer free repairs to the break-in victims.

That act of goodness led to Ladies’ Night, a workshop that teaches women automotive basics. A mechanic teaches them about regular upkeep, what they don’t really need to do, and what they should expect if they have a crash and need repairs. Lefler holds the workshop every other month, and the last one brought in 84 women.

“[Jimmy Lefler] is really involved in the community
and constantly holding events that drive business.
All that effort impacts the business daily.”
—Eddie Dietz, vice president of operations, Lefler Collision

“I’ve read that 74 percent of all auto purchases are done by women, and I hope this makes them feel more empowered,” Lefler says. “They’re probably going to come to us for repairs if they ever need them, but we do it because we love it, and it’s a great way to give back to the community.”

Lefler Collision also organized support for local military families. When the 163rd Army Reserve went to Iraq, Lefler reached out to each service member’s spouse with an information packet that included numbers for 24-hour emergency service and the cell phone numbers of each manager at Lefler Collision. “We gave them free car maintenance, and did any repairs at employee rates,” Lefler says. “Any spouse who had a problem or just a question about their vehicle could call us, and we would give them advice just like we would our own sisters or mothers.”

Lefler began working at the shop when he was old enough to push a broom. His grandfather Leroy started Leroy’s Paint and Fender Repair in Evansville in 1952, and Lefler started working full time with his father, James, in 1986. Twenty years later, Jimmy bought James out.

It’s Lefler’s vision, Dietz says, that has taken the company from a $1 million operation to more than $8 million annually. “He’s really involved in the community and constantly holding events that drive business,” says Dietz, who’s been at the shop, working with Lefler, for 11 years.

Lefler Collision’s main location is 36,000 square feet. The company has three more locations throughout the Evansville area. The company’s smallest location—7,500 square feet—pulls in more than $1.5 million annually. Although those new locations have increased Lefler Collision’s size and revenue, the business had already grown from $1 million to $5 million before the expansion began in 2006. The new locations and other growth put Lefler Collision at about $8.5 million annually.

About 68 employees keep the chain running. Two of the body shops and the mechanical shop are within five miles of each other in Evansville, and a third body shop is located in Newburgh, a suburb eight miles from Evansville. All of the shops are implementing 5S and blueprinting processes, because those ideas reflect what Lefler has believed for many years about how to do good repairs.

It’s doing good repairs and doing good deeds that keep Lefler Collision doing well. In addition to community efforts like the Ladies’ Nights and Support Our Troops campaign, Lefler offers child safety seat fitting classes and classes for teen drivers. And more such community-focused efforts are surely on the way.

Category: Management

Chris Shader

Facilities manager, H&V Collision Center, Troy, N.Y.
Chris Shader began his work with H&V Collision Center in Troy, N.Y., as a painter in 2004, and it wasn’t long before he was running the department. His ability to reorganize the department for a better flow and timing to the paint process is what makes him one of the finest in the industry. Not only did his changes help the days go more smoothly at the shop, they doubled paint production to between eight and 10 vehicles per day.

Good shop leaders know that their collision repair center is only as good as the people they hire. So it’s a real find when talented staff turn out to have great leadership potential, as well. That’s what H&V Vice President Vartan Jerian Jr., discovered about Shader, who is now the facilities manager at H&V Collision Center’s biggest location.

H&V Collision Center has three locations in Troy, Queensbury, and Albany, N.Y. The Troy location earns $4.5 million a year, and the company overall has grown 20 to 30 percent a year throughout Shader’s tenure.

“That growth would not have been possible without his great ability to manage [the Troy] facility,” says Jerian. “Chris Shader is a great manager of change, people and production.”

“Each department has to work together as a team instead of fighting each other. If one [department’s] work looks good, everybody looks good; but if it doesn’t, everybody looks bad.”
—Chris Shader

Jerian couldn’t help but notice the success of Shader’s early changes to the paint department. So in 2007, he promoted Shader to facilities manager in hopes that the entire shop would see similar gains.

The promotion was a good one. Shader runs Troy and does load leveling for all three locations. He manages all 30 employees, including the office staff and 22 technicians. The shop has expanded twice in recent years, from 5,000 to 8,000 and then to 14,000 square feet.

Managing Troy is no small feat, not only because of the large staff and growing size, but because it’s actually four buildings: one houses the office, another the paint and detail shop, and the other two comprise the body shop. Departments have to be efficient, but also willing to cooperate with others—a culture Shader helped orchestrate. “At every other shop I’ve worked at, the painters hate the body men and the body men hate the painters,” he says. “But they need each other. Especially when they’re in separate buildings. If one side’s work looks good, everybody looks good; but if it doesn’t, everybody looks bad.”

Shader’s success has a lot to do with his ability to plan. “He’s very good at being proactive rather than reactive,” Jerian says. “He tries to get everybody involved.”

Shader says his success comes from being willing to allow a lot of trial and error, both on his part and on the part of his technicians. “Sometimes you have to let them do it their way so it fails,” Shader says. “I let them learn from their mistakes, rather than just telling them how it has to be. That way, they know it for themselves and are more willing to do it the new way.”

At the same time, he tries to be as open to new ideas from the techs as he wants them to be to his directives.

“If they suggest something and it works, we’ll change it. I’m no genius, but [when] we find something that works we stick with it.”

Category: Shop Worker

Tony Durham

Painter, Hanagan’s Auto Body, Silver Spring, Md.
When Tony Durham describes the best painting advice he’s gotten over the years, he talks about doing it right and doing it quickly in the same breath. “A painter once told me that to [get] good, you have to screw up a lot and figure out how to fix it,” says Durham, a 20-year industry veteran. “Collision repair is a high-productivity environment, so you have to figure out how to fix it quickly, because you fall behind fast if you don’t.”

John Mattos, who sells paint and materials for ProFinishes Plus, Temple Hills, Md., along the East Coast, and has been in the business 42 years, recognized Durham’s commitment early on. “When I think of the term ‘student of the game,’ I think of Tony,” says Mattos, who’s met thousands of painters. “It means someone who tries new ideas or products to improve the quality of the repair he produces every day, and Tony is that way.”

Durham, who has been painting for Hanagan’s Auto Body in Silver Spring, Md., for 16 years, recalls a moment of truth early in his career. After two and a half years of being a helper, Durham says one colleague told him that he wasn’t yet ready to be a full-fledged painter. “I decided that I was smart enough to figure it out,” Durham says. “It’s about looking for ways to make the work faster and easier without cutting corners or compromising the quality.”

“I see thousands and thousands of painters, and I would put Tony up there with any of them. Of the few shops that I would take my own car to, Tony’s is one of them.”
—John Mattos, salesman, ProFinishes Plus

Now, Durham shares work with fellow painter Jimmy Thatcher, and between the two of them and a helper, they turn out an impressive 400 to 450 productive hours a week. Mattos says that Durham isn’t just productive; his work is also impeccable. “I see thousands and thousands of painters, and I would put Tony up there with any of them,” he says. “Of the few shops that I would take my own car to, Tony’s is one of them.”

Hanagan’s Auto Body is in its 50th year of operation. Jim Hanagan Sr. started the shop in 1960 with his brother, and he still runs it today with his sons, Jim Hanagan Jr. and Tony Hanagan. The shop occupies 25,000 square feet, and the 250 cars they repair each month translate to annual gross sales of about $4 million.

Mattos says that one thing that impresses him about Durham is his work ethic. “He’s the most dependable and reliable employee any company could have,” Mattos says. “He shows up at work every day around 6 a.m. with the best attitude.”

Hanagan Sr., has seen many a painter over the years, and he agrees that Durham is both a good and a productive worker. “He’s very conscientious, and he’s loyal too,” he says.

Durham doesn’t see productivity only in terms of what he’s doing. The shop has two booths, and for the most part he and Thatcher do their own work. But the paint department is paid collectively, so Durham makes sure to keep things moving no matter what. “We keep abreast of what the other guy is doing, so if I have a minute of downtime before my next vehicle is going to be ready, then I’m going to go over and see if I can help Jimmy get a bumper painted,” he says.

Always conscientious, Durham knows that while each department is essential to getting a vehicle repaired right, his is the last opportunity before it goes to the customer to make sure it’s right. “[The paint job] is the first thing the customer sees,” he says.

Category: Wild Card

Fern Larochelle

I-CAR instructor and owner, Fern’s Body Shop, Lisbon Falls, Maine
Nationally, I-CAR classes draw an average of 13 participants, but Fern Larochelle’s classes regularly draw 45. Every two weeks, he drives two-and-a-half hours from his home in Lisbon Falls, Maine, to teach in Concord, N.H., from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. The next morning, he’s back to work at his own shop.

That effort and the amazing attendance speak to the passion and dedication Larochelle brings to the industry. It’s so valued, in fact, that students ask classroom host Bob Mosher to let them know if Larochelle won’t be teaching because they won’t bother coming if he’s not.

Larochelle has been teaching for I-CAR for about 10 years. He also runs Fern’s Body Shop, which he took over from his father, who started it in 1963. He’s an elected member of the town council for Lisbon Falls, where he was born and raised. As if that weren’t enough, he also chairs the Maine Auto Collision Alliance, and occasionally goes to the state legislature to convey the collision repair industry’s standpoint to Maine’s legislators.

“He’s really good at explaining what it’s like in the industry, what his wants and needs are as a shop owner, and what conditions might work against him,” says Mosher, sales manager for Sanel Auto Parts, which has 37 stores in New Hampshire and Vermont.

LaRochelle’s shop is about 10,000 square feet, and Larochelle and his seven employees work to repair about 20 cars a month for average annual gross sales of $1 million. He’s been running the shop for more than 20 years, doing everything from estimating to structural repair to alignment to mechanical work. That daily hands-on experience definitely helps him to be a better instructor.

But, Mosher explains, that’s not the only reason his classes are so popular. Larochelle is a gentleman, and he knows so much about the industry that he’s able to give participants the big picture on what he’s teaching them. And he keeps what he tells them relevant and to the point.

“Everyone’s been to a class where the instructor talks for 15 minutes about something that they did 15 years ago, and in the end the story doesn’t even pertain to what they’re teaching,” Mosher says. “When Fern tells war stories, they help illustrate what he’s talking about, and he keeps them short and to the point.”

Teaching is a win-win for Larochelle, who says that he never teaches a class without learning something himself. “I’ve always been jealous of plumbers or electricians, because they have a code they go by that sets out what they should do and how they should do it. In this industry, that’s what we’re missing. Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it right.”

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