In what has become an increasingly disquieting trend, shop owners are reporting greater difficulty in convincing their children to carry on with the family business. This undoubtedly is a product of the difficulty repairers face these days in creating a successful operation. For many potential next-generation owners, life in a different industry is far more appealing.
Bucking this trend is the Gardella family, the father and son owners of County Line Auto Body in Howell, N.J. Far from walking away from the industry, the two generations are joining forces to revitalize a long-standing successful shop and place it on an arc that they hope can make it one of the most innovative shops in the industry.
Knowing this family's history, it should be no surprise that sons Richard and Gary Jr. would want to stick with collision repairs. Both were practically raised in a shop.
Their father, Gary Sr., was a tech/manager at his father's collision shop, A-Z, in Staten Island, N.Y. Gardella Sr. was so involved with the running of A-Z he moved his family across the street from it for a time.
Looking to create a better life for his family, in 1980 he relocated them to central New Jersey and opened his own two-bay shop in Howell. That small shop grew into what County Line is today – a 38-bay business with 31 employees and annual revenue of almost $5 million.
Its training pedigrees are impressive. All techs are I-CAR Gold, with five holding Platinum status. Techs also are ASE-certified and certified to work on Jaguars, BMWs and Nissan GTRs. In addition, the shop offers mechanical repairs and specialty services such as headlight restoration and aluminum repair.
Richard and Gary Jr. have both worked at the shop for the last 12 years, though Gary Jr. has spent time away working on a racing career. Even then, the shop leveraged his time away into something positive as it gave Gary Sr. an opportunity to travel, tour other shops and bring back new ideas to help his own business.
Gary Jr. has since decided to devote all of his time to the business in a family effort to retool and retune the shop. Why the rush to change for a business already churning out impressive numbers?
"The industry is changing," says Gary Sr. "It used to be easy to make money. Today, it just gets harder and harder."
Gary Jr. points to the sharply declining number of shops in New Jersey as proof. He says an I-CAR official has noted that in 2004 there were 5,000 shops in New Jersey. Five years later that number dropped to 2,500 and the decline continues, he said.
Several years ago, County Line began taking some significant steps to address this new business reality, first by implementing a lean operation. These efforts eventually hit a wall.
"We went as far as we could go with it, but we found we faced a major problem," explains Gary Jr. "Our business sits on a campus that uses several buildings. We're constantly moving vehicles from one building to another, and that's costing us time."
County Line's answer is a soon-to-open new 10,000-square-foot shop. The new facility will house the business's damage discovery department and be home to collision repairs. The current shop will be split in two, with one part used as a prep and refinish area and the other as a drive-in for DRPs.
The remodeled operation will see some new business ventures. County Line is in the process of setting up a fast lane repair program. Gary Jr. is investigating cutting edge one-day collision repairs and is testing a new fast-drying clear coat, UV primer and a special UV light.
The shop also is changing its approach to parts sourcing. Taking a cue from Gary Jr.'s racing experience, they're looking to form new vendor partnerships that will give them access to new ideas and present vendors with a loyal customer and fresh sales opportunities. To make this happen, they've invited existing and new vendors to make new business proposals. The shop reports the new system is working.
The customer waiting area has undergone some significant changes of its own. County Line recently installed three iPad kiosks and set the home pages to its Facebook and Twitter pages. The addition – inspired by a similar setup at a nearby frozen yogurt store – has proved an instant success according to Gary Jr. who reports the idea initially was rejected by his father and brother.
Gary Jr. promises even more innovations in 2013. Instituting this number of changes so quickly in a family business driven by several owners – all with a passion for the industry – does come with a price, namely, tension within the family. County Line has a proven solution in place for this hurdle – mom Rita, who plays referee in working out a common course of action for her husband and sons.
Her presence also is a reminder that, even with the focus on operations and systems, County Line is a true family business. As such, it succeeds foremost by being a family-first shop.
That lesson isn't lost on either generation.