Life in the Fast Lane

June 21, 2023
Growth has come quickly, but measuredly, for Sean Guthrie.

The Guthrie family doesn’t do anything slowly. Whether it is in motorsports or in business, Car Crafters founder Jim Guthrie and his son and Chief Operating Officer Sean only know how to push the limit. Jim founded Car Crafters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1982, and even from humble beginnings in his parents’ house, he was always on the edge. 

“My grandma got tired of him leaving the hot water heater off, because he turned it off so that the pilot light wouldn't blow the house to smithereens when he was painting cars,” recalls Sean. “So they gave him the ultimatum: Stop it, or do it professionally.” 

While steadily growing the business into a well-known part of the Albuquerque community, Jim also pursued a life-long passion for going fast. He got his big break in racing in 1997, running a partial schedule in the Indy Racing League (IRL) that included starting in the second row of the Indianapolis 500 and scoring a shock win at Phoenix. Jim went on to win Rookie of the Year honors that season and raced on and off in IRL for the next few years before injuries and the mounting costs of racing led him to hang up his helmet as a professional driver for good in 2001.  

It was just a few years later that Sean was fresh out of high school and making his way up the racing ladder in the developmental Indy Lights series on a team Jim owned. As Jim knew well, racing didn’t always work out as a full-time career, and Sean looked to keep his options open. He tried college; his grades were good but missed too much school while racing. He also kept working at Car Crafters, where he’d started working summers in high school.  

Sean’s tasks progressed from sweeping shop floors to throwing himself into learning all he could from the shop technicians—he says now it was like having “10 dads” to show him the ropes and watch out for him. Being a body tech seemed to suit him best, he recalls, and he told his father that’s ultimately what he wanted to do. But Jim already had a fast track in mind. 

“’Well, son, I'm glad you have passion for the industry. I'm glad that you're working hard,’” Sean recalls his dad saying. “’You're not going to be a body guy. No, I’ve got bigger plans for you.” 

Sean was about to get a real-world advanced degree in all aspects of running a body shop, working his up through different roles like parts manager, estimator and production manager. By 2015, Car Crafters had long outgrown the Guthrie family garage but was still just a single location. That was about to change, and Sean was at the forefront of it, re-shaping the nature of the business in expanding from one to six locations in the span of 18 months. 

“We doubled in size, and revenue doubled in size as far as employee count, and went from one to six stores, in just 18 months,” Sean says. “I got to meet a lot of new people and really understand how you have to earn respect when people don't know who you are.” 

Having only worked at Car Crafters with his “10 dads,” going into these newly-acquired businesses was a difficult challenge Guthrie had to overcome. All they knew was that he was the owner’s son and perhaps misjudged the knowledge and experience he’d worked hard to collect.  

“It was a very difficult point in my career,” Guthrie says. “It was a huge building and learning experience. And I think that that has kind of prepped me for the venture we're taking on now.” 

The growth hasn’t stopped, though Car Crafters remains at six locations around the Albuquerque metro area. Car Crafters, however, is now just part of a larger business known as Open Road Collision that operates shops across New Mexico and Texas. Car Crafters eventually got to the point where there were no new markets to explore in Albuquerque. And, coming out on the other side of COVID-19 with the business still intact, it was time for a new growth strategy. 

“If you're not growing, you're dying,” says Guthrie. “… We weren't done doing the growth on our own and taking our culture and our love for our people to greater levels.” 

When Guthrie says “our” he means his dad, who is still involved in day-to-day operations, his mom, the shop’s lead accountant, and their team of employees that continue to guide the direction of the business. And that direction is always full throttle, eyes far down the road. 

How much more the business will expand, Guthrie isn’t sure. But for now the focus is on how to make the locations they presently have more efficient and more successful. Just as the Car Crafters name means something in Albuquerque, Open Road Collision has left intact the names of its acquisitions relevant to their local markets, such as Drury Moss Collision in Amarillo, Texas. 

“We only change what has to be changed,” says Guthrie. “And we maintain as much as we can, and we learn from our partners. Yes, we're going to put in a few processes and procedures that we know to be successful. But we've also picked up processes and procedures from all of our acquisitions, and learn from them. Because that's how we're going to get better.  

“Doing what you always have done will get what you always have got. We want to get more than what we've always got. We want to learn and grow.” 

Guthrie says that there have been two constants at Car Crafters—always taking care of people first and always changing. To the first point, Guthrie has overseen the partnership with a national insurance and benefits provider to serve all the new, far-flung employees. That was a top priority in being able to meet the basic needs of new team members upon acquisition. 

To the second point, the business is changing with the times in terms of embracing new technology and processes. In a conversation earlier in the year on CollisionCast, Guthrie shared the company’s strategies around embracing ADAS calibrations, and they now are a licensee of a calibration facility through Car ADAS Solutions. To Guthrie, the ability to change with the times and taking care of people are directly and intrinsically linked. 

“Having a culture that puts our people first allows us to have a culture that's willing to change,” Guthrie says. “They're willing to take a gamble on something new, because they know that it either is going to work, or it's not and we're going to go backwards, but no matter what they're going to be taken care of.” 

A racer’s mindset is to always push the envelope and keep shaving seconds off lap times. A zero second lap is impossible—but that doesn’t mean it’s not something to keep striving for. The Guthrie family business has some ambitious goals, too, such as reaching the No. 5 spot of biggest MSOs, behind the four “behemoths” as Guthrie calls them. 

“I don't know that we can get there, I won't say we won't get there,” says Guthrie. “But I think I think reaching kind of the top five is, is a good goal for us just to set something ambitious, but not out of touch today.” 

Jim Guthrie was never big on setting goals, says Sean. He believed that if you set a goal you might get complacent once you hit it, and he wanted the shop to always be striving for a little extra.  

“It was just, let's be better tomorrow than we were today,” says Sean. “And now look where we are because of that, we're growing. And we continue to grow.” 

The two generations of Guthries have plenty of years of running the business ahead of them with no plans to slow down anytime soon. Sean has two sons who enjoy running around the shop just like their dad used to do. As far as the future of the business, it will continue to be guided by the people with their hands on the steering wheel. 

“It truly does come down to the people,” says Sean. “I don't care if you've got one employee or 1000 employees, they’re who make the business and if you take care of them, they will take care of you. And then if you want to grow, you can grow with them.  

“If you think you can do it on your own, it's not going to happen. I don't care if you're small or big. This industry is too complex and too difficult for one person to grow it.” 

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