Going Lean and Green

June 1, 2009
Jerry Gilbreath has long been a fan of lean. Combining it with green, he’s discovered, reduces waste, improves efficiency and cuts costs.

When a business displays a sign that says “under new management,” the unspoken message is that things will be better. A-One Collision in Albuquerque, N.M., is under new management, and things are, indeed, better. In fact, the shop is greener, leaner and more profitable than ever. In the past year, electricity bills are down 32 percent, and the gas bill has dropped 69 percent. Even the gas company took note of that one, making a trip to the shop to be sure the gas meter was still working. It most definitely is, and so are many other changes.

New Family Business

A-One was created by several Ford dealerships in 2002. In January 2008, those dealerships agreed to sell A-One to Jerry Gilbreath, the body shop manager at the time. Now, Gilbreath owns the shop with his wife, his daughter and his son-in-law. And since the Gilbreath family took over, the changes they’ve made have saved them thousands of dollars.

A-One Collision is a 27,000-square-foot shop with 21 employees, including one part-time and six full-time body techs, four paint techs, a glass and bedliner tech, and one detailer/porter. The team moves 125 to 150 vehicles through the shop each month. In March 2009, the shop did $290,000 worth of business. Last year, the first full year of Gilbreath family ownership, the shop did $3 million in sales. The shop is on track to hit $3.2 million this year.

As an employee, Gilbreath was the shop manager. He’s now the president of A-One. His wife, Mary Beth, is chief financial officer. Amber Drennan, their daughter, is the shop manager, and though her husband holds an ownership share, as well, he does not work in the shop. A-One is set up as an LLC with each of the principals having a quarter stake in the company.

The transition was rocky at first. Amber and Jerry were old hands in the auto industry, but they were used to the dealership side of the business, and the demands of the independent side were new to them. “We had some hurdles to get over, definitely,” says Gilbreath. Starting with spending all that time together. “But we’re a tight family,” he says, “and it’s working out pretty well.”

Drennan, who used to be a service manager at the Porsche/Audi dealership in town, agrees. “I’m a lot like my dad, so it’s been easy to work together,” she says. “It was harder for me to transition from the service side to the collision side than it was to transition into owning a business with family members.”

Green Saves Green

A-One has 14 metal stalls, three frame stalls and three mechanical stalls. With two stalls for glass, another for spray-on bed liners and two detail stalls, the shop is equipped for a lot of cars to roll through. With 10 paint prep stalls and three downdraft paint booths, it’s also equipped to use a lot of energy and materials.

Gilbreath grew up in southern California, and he was interested in making a shop green long before he owned one. “I’ve been looking at waterborne paint systems for two years,” he says. “When I took over this shop, I went to Sherwin-Williams and told them that I wanted to be the first [waterborne] shop in New Mexico.” A-One introduced waterborne color paints in June 2008.
They also use air-dry clearcoats.

Since Gilbreath took over the shop, both cycle and drying time have come down for the paint side. He’s eliminated 99 percent of his emissions to the atmosphere from the paint operation, and he’s reduced his on-hand paint inventory by about half. But the biggest change has been in the shop’s utility bills. After the changes Gilbreath led, A-One’s electric bill from January to March of 2009 dropped to $5,957, compared to $8,709 in the same period in 2008. The shop spent $20,963 for gas in January to March of 2008; in that same period in 2009, they only spent $6,491. That’s a savings of 69 percent.

Technology and Culture

Not all of those savings came from switching to waterborne paint and air-dry clearcoat, although that was a big part of it. Some of the savings came from improvements in employee behavior. For example, Gilbreath has been talking to his techs about the importance of turning the paint booths off when they’re not in use. He’s emphasized avoiding waste in mixing paint, asking them to mix only what they need, rather than what they think they need. The paint system mixes to the ounce rather than to the pint or the quart, and Gilbreath says that he talks constantly in production meetings about avoiding waste as well as getting it right the first time.

“I’ve had to change the culture of what they used to do and how they used to do it,” Gilbreath says. “But it’s been worth the time, because I don’t see nearly the waste we used to have.”

Gilbreath is also saving money with the new paints despite the fact that they’re more expensive than solvent-based paints. He hasn’t yet calculated the difference, “but the savings comes in when we use only a third of what we used with solvent-based paints, because waterborne covers so much better,” he says.

Dollar Energy

With success like that, why stop there, Gilbreath reasoned. So he got in touch with a Richardson, Texas–based electrical consulting company called Dollar Energy Group. Techs from Dollar came to the 28-year-old shop building and spent two days running load tests on the electrical equipment, checking the lighting, and examining every control panel and power box in the building. Then they submitted a proposal to Gilbreath to invest in some changes that would eventually save electricity and money.

In the end, Gilbreath agreed to convert all of the shop’s T12 lights to T8s. That required an outlay of $41,273.29, and Gilbreath expects to begin seeing a return on his investment in five years. Dollar Energy also installed power converters in every electrical panel, paint booth and air compressor. These converters regulate the amount of power that a device uses to start up, cutting it by as much as 50 percent. After the improvements and other changes, from January to March of 2009, the shop spent $5,957 on electricity, compared to $8,709 in the same period in 2008.

“Most of my guys have their [tool] boxes pretty well sorted, but I’ve known a couple of techs to spend 30 to 40 minutes looking for a hammer. That’s not lean, and that’s got to go.”
-Jerry Gilbreath, co-owner, A-One Collision

Lean and Green

The connection between lean management—which is all about finding and eliminating waste and inefficiency in processes—and going green isn’t hard to see, Gilbreath says. Both hinge on continuous improvement, constantly searching for ways to use less, save more and increase efficiency. And Gilbreath and Drennan came up with more ideas for how to do that after taking Sherwin-Williams’s EcoLean course, which teaches shop owners how to cut their resource consumption, measure the results, and be more productive
Gilbreath has always been interested in lean principles, and he’s visited a lot of shops over the years to see how they implemented the ideas that help reduce waste. “It’s always been a focus of mine, but when you’re working for dealers, it’s hard to convince the manager or the owner that you have to blow up the shop and start all over,” Gilbreath says.

He’s found that to be true of his own shop as well, and he’s not going to “blow up his shop” either. But now that he’s in charge, Gilbreath has been talking to the techs about what it will mean to go lean, and how they will need to change in order to support it. “I’d say 95 percent of my technicians are with me and they’re ready to give it a shot,” he says.

The other 5 percent aren’t so sure, and that’s because Gilbreath intends to make changes in the shop dictated by lean principles that might not sit well with everyone. For example, he and Drennan are looking at eliminating some equipment that’s no longer used. He plans to trade toolboxes for toolboards so that it’s clear where each tool is located and where it belongs once a tech is done with it. “I’ve started to talk to the guys about sorting their own toolboxes and getting rid of the tools they never use,” Gilbreath says. “Most of my guys have their boxes pretty well sorted, but I’ve known a couple of techs to spend 30 to 40 minutes looking for a hammer. That’s not lean, and that’s got to go.”

Gilbreath also wants to eliminate the waste that work processes sometimes create. For example, his first lean goal is to create two teams that work on heavier collisions, and a third team that works on quicker jobs, such as bumper repairs that only take a day. In each team, whichever type of work they do, everyone from the estimator to the detailer will work together on the same job. That structure will lend itself to more focused and efficient operations, Gilbreath says.

All the talk about eliminating waste has created a culture where techs work at getting it right the first time. The shop’s estimate accuracy has improved to 88 percent in February and 93 percent in March, according to the direct repair program A-One works with. Gilbreath hopes to get that number to 97.8.

Green Mission Brings in Customers

A-One’s mission and vision of commitment to greener practices has also helped to drum up new business. At the Albuquerque Home and Lifestyle Expo/International Green Ideas Show last October, A-One was the only collision repair shop, and they got a lot of attention from the 23,000 people who attended. The shop’s radio commercials, which use a jingle to tell potential customers that A-One cares about them and the environment, have also created business. Gilbreath says that his receptionist has reported that new customers mention the commercial (and its green message) as the reason they chose to call A-One.

The best thing about both green and lean principles, Gilbreath says, is that they’re a gift that never stops giving. “Just like you never get 100 percent lean, because there’s always one more thing you can do to be more efficient, you can never get 100 percent green; there’s always another way to reduce your carbon footprint,” he says. “You can always do better.”

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