Finding the Passion for the Business

Sept. 1, 2011
Running a successful body shop requires more than skill; it demands a real passion for the business.

I recently planned to eat at a favorite restaurant, but when I got there the building had been torn down and a huge condominium complex was being built. The restaurant owner obviously had discovered that the appreciation in the value of his property greatly exceeded anything he could make operating the restaurant business, so he sold. Would a collision repair shop owner in a similar situation have done the same? Not necessarily. Perhaps some would have sold, but others may enjoy the game of business too much to cash out and sit in a rocking chair.

“There may be some businesses you can just step into with a little knowledge of purchasing, marketing and bookkeeping, and survive. But I don’t believe collision repair is like that.”

It reminded me of a shop owner I met in mid-1990s. He had come into some money and was told by a friend that the body shop business was very profitable. Without knowing a thing about the business, he bought a shop and hired a guy he thought was a knowledgeable manager. Within six months his manager had robbed him blind, run up a stack of unpaid parts invoices, and essentially destroyed the entire business. A while later, I learned, that manager had done the same thing to another shop-owning novice.

There may be some businesses you can just step into with a little knowledge of purchasing, marketing and bookkeeping, and survive. But I don’t believe collision repair is like that. There are so many facets to operating a profitable body shop that I doubt that someone with no background in the industry could possibly survive in the business. But I believe there is one more quality a successful shop owner must have: A real liking for the business. That’s why some shop owners won’t sell out just because their property has appreciated greatly in value. That affinity for running a body shop amounts to a strong dedication to doing quality work and getting satisfaction from seeing his or her vision of what a shop should look like actually become a reality.

When I first began calling on shops in the ’90s, I met a few owners who showed me what real dedication looks like. One owner with very little capital started his shop on what looked like part of an old farm. His office was in a trailer and the driveway was just gravel. I thought he wouldn’t be there for long, but I was very wrong. Every time I went back to his shop, there were major improvements. The driveway had been blacktopped. The shed that housed the frame machine had been rebuilt, and within a year or two, the trailer office was replaced by an attractive structure. I think many of his employees were family and I doubt that he took much income from the shop at all until it was fully developed. That took major dedication.

The first article I wrote for a collision industry paper came about because I called on a shop owner who had just bought the shop. The shop had been there for twenty years, run by a Southerner who had come to California in search of gold or fame. He soon found that neither was easily obtainable so he opened a body shop and ran it until he decided to retire. Then he sold the shop to his chief body man. When I visited the shop, the body man had just taken over and had no clue how to run a shop. I told him what I could about marketing and managing it, and when I went back to see him a few months later he was still surviving. I spoke with his sister at the front desk and she told me he worked until midnight, slept in his car and went right back to work in the morning as soon as he woke up. As far as I know, the shop is still thriving, a testament to this guy’s dedication.

It also takes real dedication to thrive in a location where no one would think a body shop could prosper. I called on a shop so far out in the country I had a terrible time finding the place. When I found the shop, I was stunned by its quality. The place was beautifully painted and every building was immaculate. I had to ask the owner how he had done so well in such a remote location. He said he did well because he was the only shop in horse country. He loved horses and was so determined to live in this location, he checked out every possible business he could go into to stay there.

A few friends told him they needed a convenient place to get their horse trailers painted so he looked into what it would take to do it. What he found was a need to create an entire body shop complete with a paint booth. Once he had done that, he soon learned that the wealthy horse owners in the area also owned high-end cars that often sustained body damage. He had doubted that he could have a successful body shop in this remote rural area, but he soon discovered he had been wrong. His dedication to the area paid off, and when I found his shop, he had been thriving for many years. Like the others, that one characteristic was part of the key to his success.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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