Thriving on Dealership Relationships

Nov. 1, 2009
Boyce Body Werks relies on dealership relationships and customer referrals— rather than DRP agreements—for double-digit growth.

Boyce Body Werks operates by a simple motto: “quality is never an accident.” Also not an accident: the shop’s 20-plus years of solid, steady growth. Ken and Marcia Boyce, who opened the business in their garage in the spring of 1985 and grossed $186,000 in sales that first year, now bring in more than $5 million annually from their two Northern Illinois shops, repair more than 250 vehicles a month and employ 26 people. By any measure, their shops are a success, with a long record of double-digit annual growth and outstanding CSI scores.

Boyce Body Werks’ consistently impressive growth isn’t the result of direct repair agreements, but rather a solid business foundation—relationships with repeat customers, a reputation for impeccable workmanship—and a couple of very smart moves, like developing rock-solid dealer relationships and shuttering a struggling third location, that have proven critical to the business’ success.

Dealer Relationships Drive Business

From the very beginning, relationships with employees at dealerships helped the Boyces build their business. With an initial focus on paint work (not surprising, given Ken’s background as both a painter at a Mercedes-Benz dealership and a rep for a paint company) the bulk of Boyce Body Werks’ (BBW) business in the early days came from painting and installing body kits for AMG of North America. (At the time, AMG was an independent German company that offered engine modifications and body customization for Mercedes vehicles; today it’s a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz). That business was the result of a referral: A colleague of Ken’s from the Mercedes dealership went to work for AMG, and recommended BBW.

While the work kept them busy, the Boyces knew they needed to expand their services in order to grow. So they added more equipment. They had already invested in a downdraft paint booth—one of the first in Chicago. New additions made them a full-service collision repair shop in 1987. Serendipitously, the Mercedes dealership that Ken had worked for closed its body shop and started sending its business to BBW.

Thanks to that Mercedes dealer and a few others, BBW revenues jumped from $186,000 the first year to $300,000 in 1990. That year, again thanks to a referral, the Boyces started getting work from Lexus of Naperville. That put them on the road to serious growth. By 1995, sales were $1.2 million. “We’ve grown with their business,” Marcia Boyce says. “They’re our major dealership.”

Today, BBW counts eight dealerships, including Lexus of Naperville and Toyota of Naperville, among its loyal customers. Incredibly, the Boyces even have one dealership client that sends them work despite operating its own collision repair shop.

Referrals have been instrumental in getting dealership business in the door, but quality work is what keeps the business coming to BBW. “Their workmanship is impeccable,” says Mike Jones, service director at Lexus of Naperville. “With the level of customer care that they use, we don’t have to go back and call them and check on jobs; [We know] that they’ll be taken care of as if they’d been done here and we had control over them.

“They have probably 95 percent of our business,” Jones adds, “and we feel very comfortable putting all of our eggs in that one basket.”

With dealership relationships thriving, the Boyces simply haven’t needed to pursue DRPs, which amount to less than 5 percent of their business. And while not having that guaranteed work poses a business risk, the Boyces believe their system allows them to better serve their customers.

“We didn’t set out purposely not to have DRPs; it just evolved that way,” Marcia says. “We’ve always been busy [without them]. And we looked at a couple DRP programs early on and just didn’t agree with some things that they want you to do—or not do.”

To that end, Marcia, who is the immediate past president of the Chamber of Commerce in Batavia, Ill., actively spreads the message that customers have a right to have their car repaired at a shop of their choosing—not their insurance company’s. “It’s amazing how many people are unaware of that,” she says.

Knowing When to Fold

Another smart (if painful) business decision was to close an unsuccessful shop location. For the most part, BBW growth has been steadfast: The original Batavia location expanded three times before the Boyces built a new, 17,000-square-foot location in 2001; and the Naperville shop was carefully planned—and located near their largest dealer client. But this past January, an unexpected opportunity arose for the Boyces to open a third shop location, just six miles west of their Batavia shop, when good friends of theirs bought a building that had previously housed a body shop. “Opening a shop in this area, which is very close to where we live, was never in our long-range plans,” Marcia says, “but since we had no long-term commitment, and didn’t have to invest in lots of equipment, we thought we’d give it a try.”

They invested in some new equipment and spent what Marcia calls “a huge amount on marketing, which we normally don’t do.” But the timing was poor: Overflow from the other locations dried up, and in April, they closed the shop. “We realized early on it just wasn’t going to work,” she says. While the equipment can be salvaged, Marcia estimates they lost “a couple hundred thousand dollars” on the endeavor.

Despite the dollars lost, there was a lesson learned: Expansions have to be thoughtfully planned and located. “If the economy stabilizes and we decide to expand in the future, we would once again go to where we have a more established customer base, and possible dealership relationships,” she says.

“Their workmanship is impeccable. They have probably 95 percent of our business, and we feel very comfortable putting all of our eggs in that one basket.” —Mike Jones, service director, Lexus of Naperville

Successful Foundations

Of course, you don’t develop solid relationships with dealers and individual customers without excelling in business basics. Here’s the foundation that holds the Boyces’ business steady:

A Personal Touch: BBW doesn’t actively market to dealerships to generate business; rather, it relies on word-of-mouth referrals. “People move around,” Marcia says of dealership service managers, “and [they] remember you when you do good work. A lot of times they call us.”

Still, the Boyces nurture those relationships. Ken and his two general managers visit his dealerships almost every day. “That’s what’s required—your actual physical presence,” he says. “You have to be accessible.”

In fact, strengthening their personal connection with Lexus of Naperville is the main reason the Boyces opened a second, 7,000-square-foot shop in Naperville in 2006.

Stellar Customer Service: When you’re building your business by word-of-mouth, customer satisfaction is critical. So the Boyces have taken steps to ensure the quality of their work, including hiring CSi Complete, a third-party CSI service, in 1994.

BBW was one of the first collision centers in the industry and, more importantly, in their market, to do so, says Kent Carlson, of Collision Resources Inc., who has worked with BBW as a business consultant since the mid-1990s. “In the mid 90s, third-party CSI was still an unusual service for a collision repair center to purchase,” he says. “This proactive approach to obtain customer input is indicative of Boyce’s focus on customer service.”

Indeed, BBW’s CSI scores are consistently stellar: “I can’t recall a year when we’ve had less than a 99-percent rate of customers who said they would refer friends or family to us,” Marcia says. “We take it real personally if someone isn’t 100-percent happy.”

Marty Malecki, a BBW customer since 1985, was so impressed with the service and quality of work done on his Mercedes that year—the Boyces drove to his house on a Sunday night to personally pick up his car, and returned it to him a week later—that today he drives 25 miles to the Batavia location when his car needs repairing. “I’m in sales, and I thought, to get that kind of service is exemplary” he says. “It’s worth the trip.”

BBW also guarantees its repairs for life, is strict about quality control—Ken still looks over a majority of repaired vehicles personally before they go out the door—and tries to go above and beyond what’s expected, such as wet sanding and buffing cars to ensure they sparkle before going back to customers.

“The bottom line is, you have to first provide the best product and service. Then no one has any reason to want to look anywhere else,” Ken says. “It doesn’t matter how good your relationships are; if your work and service aren’t there, you’re gone.”

Learning Lessons: BBW’s “quality is never an accident” philosophy has served the business well: Sales have grown at least 10 percent nearly every year BBW has been in operation; average sales growth over the past seven years has been 14.5 percent. Given the current economy, Marcia expects their sales will probably end up down 5 to 8 percent this year over last, but changes in overhead are making that decline less painful.

Those changes—in the form of staff reductions and reshufflings—were another lesson learned for the Boyces. “We hung on to a couple of people longer than we should have, and it cost us a lot of money,” Marcia says. “We’ve really learned that if it’s not going to work, it’s not going to work, and we need to make a change sooner rather than later.”

Building for the Future

The Boyces haven’t ruled out another expansion, but there’s no immediate plan for a new location. Business has picked up this summer, and with leaner overhead costs, the Boyces are optimistic that their dedication to quality work and customer care will serve them well in the future.

“There’s no rocket science here,” Ken says. “[We] just try to do the right thing all the time and keep at it. There’s no sitting back.”

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