Any mention of the Southern New Jersey/Philadelphia region typically raises images of the Atlantic shore, cheesesteaks, "The Sopranos" and a fast-paced urban lifestyle colored by tough-talking locals obsessed with sports, style and, most of all, family. Collision repair? Not so much.
Look for that to change.
The winner of this year's Top Shops contest is Collision Care Auto Body Centers, a Philadelphia-based shop with seven locations, five in Pennsylvania and two in New Jersey. Collision Care has more than 100 employees, and with a weekly average of $290,000 in work, the shop is on target to generate $15 million in revenue this year. The company plans to add eight locations by 2020, effectively doubling its size.
Collision Care is ABRN's Top Shop by virtue of its near-obsessive focus on training and marketing – combined with a long, rich industry history. Those factors are helping it ride a much larger wave of market trends and putting it at the forefront of a business model that is shaping up to be the new face of collision repair: the neighborhood MSO.
Shop philosophy: A vision nine decades in the making
Collision Care became a MSO in 1993 under the direction of current president and CEO Val Fichera. As significant as that development was 20 years ago, the shop's foundation stretches back much farther.
In 1939, Fichera's grandparents, Mario and Sarah DeNardo started DeNardo Auto Body, the name the business was to operate under during the better part of its existence. During most of that time, the shop was a small family business. Fichera grew up working in the shop side by side with his family. When he was 15, he became a licensed automobile appraiser. Just three years later, Fichera took an even more commanding role in the business when he took over ownership. That same year, 1993, the business expanded to its second location. With no background in running a MSO but driven by a deep belief in what his business could accomplish, Fichera took a step that many veteran repairers would never risk.
The step indicated the business was headed in a new direction. While it might be convenient to speculate that Fichera was abandoning the shop's roots for something new, Vice President of Sales Lou Berman notes that this is far from the case. He said it was more of a natural progression for a shop by a young owner whose vision for the business was created on the shop floor.
"Val has always had that Old World view about your job being a reflection of who you are," says Berman. "His vision comes from being practical, hands on. He's worked in every part of the business."
"Val has been self-taught," Berman adds." There really is no body shop college. There are no schools that teach you how to run a MSO."
Fichera became a MSO operator by building both his business and his business approach from the ground up. He never allowed himself to be insulated from the rest of the business world as he continued evolving his operation. He read extensively and took training courses wherever he could find them.
He embraced new approaches and new ideas. Berman says Fichera also recognized developing trends in the industry and – instead of dismissing or pushing back against them – looked for ways to best incorporate them in his business.
"He could see very early on how much influence DRPs would have," says Berman. "So he began thinking then and figuring out the best way to work them." Today, his business benefits from 23 DRP relationships.
Twenty years later, the approach used by Fichera to create Collision Care drives the shop today. Collision Care is very much a reflection of Fichera, who still puts the focus on training, continuous learning and identifying and acting on those trends that will have the greatest impact on the repair market.
Building from the top down and bottom up
"We have a saying at Collision Care. "If there's a will, we'll develop the skill," says Berman. He adds one more, "Champions are built in training."
At Collision Care, training takes a central role and is at the heart of every existing and new process venture. All training is conducted in-house (from I-CAR, AMI, OEMs and vendors) at the company's headquarters in Philadelphia. Managers are the keystone of Collision Care's training philosophy that ties leadership continuous coaching, teaching and mentoring. As such, they receive the same technical training from the same trainers as their staffs – along with instruction on lean procedures and customer service, which is conducted by a third-party provider specializing in service.
Berman says this system provides several advantages. It allows the business to get its managers together and away from their work sites so they can concentrate on education. It also continues the company's tradition of giving its leaders hands-on experience.
When managers get back to their individual shops they can pass on their knowledge to technicians and other employees who will attend (or have attended) the same in-house training. Berman says the "top down, bottom up" approach helps ensure that the training will be implemented on-site since both leadership and staff members know what it entails.
This implementation goes well beyond simply putting an accepted practice in place. At Collision Care, training remains fluid and is tweaked to provide the best results for the business. Berman notes that it undergoes a process of ongoing "monitoring, reviewing, adjusting and adapting."
The training system has been so successful that Collision Care incorporates it as part of its expansion practices. Berman says before the business populates a new site with employees, they train that staff at an existing location and then move it to the new site when it opens.
Marketing: target the DRPs
Collision Care's new sites and existing locations attract plenty of traffic, thanks in large part to the company's marketing strategy, much of which targets DRPs. Collision Care regularly supplies insurers with its cycle times and other numbers to attract and maintain its repair programs. It also takes the additional step of reaching out to agents to sell its other benefits.
The company has spent years cultivating relationships with agents. One long-standing effort has been its support of Agents Training Seminar (ATS), which was organized in 1986 in Louisiana and Mississippi to provide a positive communication environment for African American agents. Today, ATS helps establish best practices and facilitate networking opportunities for those agents. Collision Care continues to sponsor ATS, which now provides the second largest gathering of State Farm agents in the country.
Agents who work with the shop can take advantage of unique programs to make their jobs easier.
"The original intent of DRPs was to offer convenience, but that goes beyond offering ease to the vehicle owners," says Berman. "We learned that part of that convenience is for the insurers and agents.
Collision Care has developed its own Agent Fast Track system that allows insurance agents to go online and enter customer accident information. The shop takes over from there, contacting the customer and arranging towing, vehicle rental and repair. Berman explains the system benefits agents because it lets the shop take over the repair process as early as possible, freeing up agents so they can focus on building their business.
Other shops offer similar online solutions, but Berman says Collision Care's system (which he describes as a "hybrid" of other offerings) is more sophisticated, using coordinated multiple personnel teams to handle a repair in an organized, efficient manner. He adds that Agent Fast Track is capable of providing immediate assistance to customers and insurers.
To protect the system's proprietary workings, he couldn't go into specifics of all the system's workings but he was able to point to some of its more unique benefits.
For example, every entry is delivered directly to Berman's cell phone so he can give it elevated attention. Also, the system provides a single point of contact for the repair, and that person stays in direct contact with the agent.
"If there's a problem or any kind of issue, we notify the agent to keep them in the loop," says Berman. "There are few things worse for an agent than not being on top of a repair if a customer calls."
Reaching out through the Web
Collision Care provides customers with an additional electronic tool to assist with the claims process. Its online accident diagram (available in multiple languages) allows customers to use a computer mouse to map out an accident.
The tool is a significant development since statistics show that 52 percent of the claims for multi-vehicle mishaps are delayed because verbal descriptions of an accident alone don't supply adequate information to assign liability. The tool was developed as part of a lean Six Sigma project aimed at addressing such problems.
Berman says Collision Care is proud of this accomplishment because it developed the tool before the market demanded such a product. Its availability on the shop's website is part of a larger strategy to market the shop to customers with tools that educate consumers and make them more comfortable using the company's services. The site features a host of diagrams and videos describing the repair process. It also prominently displays customer testimonials and logos of recognizable, third-party entities that certify the shop's work, along with links to sites like Yelp for third-party reviews.
A good neighbor
Collision care is active reaching out to its local community with a personal touch. For two decades it has helped support causes like St. Baldrick's Foundation for Child Cancer Patients and Greentree Schools, which serves the needs of Philadelphia-area students with emotional disturbances.
It's also been a long-time supporter – sponsoring the annual fundraiser and toy drive – of Louie's Voice, an advocacy group that helps families with autistic children. Berman serves as the group's president and is the father of an autistic child. With Collision Care's help, Louie's Voice has set a goal of helping to provide residential housing for an increasing number of autistic children.
Additionally, Collision Care supports the Glenside Youth Athletic Club and the Go Green Initiative Association.
"We're looking to create better relationships with everyone: customers, insurers, vendors and our community," says Berman. "We want to continue in a positive direction."