Old-School Evolution

Dec. 1, 2016
Bob Gottfred embodies change and adaptation with his new technological beacon in Chicago

As the fire ripped through the city, destroying miles of businesses and leaving thousands upon thousands homeless, one brick wall would remain standing. Ivan Goodmonson, a Norwegian immigrant who had spent years accruing funds on an Iowa farm, took that wall in 1934 and built a legacy around it, unaware of the fact that it had, indeed, survived the Great Chicago Fire just 63 years earlier.

Erie-LaSalle Body Shop was—and to this day remains—one of the only collision repair shops in downtown Chicago. And since opening on Erie Street 82 years ago, nothing has come easy for the tiny brick building, which has always found itself strapped for space.

But within those 8,900 square feet, Bob Gottfred, current owner of Erie-LaSalle and stepson of Goodmonson, has produced remarkable results since taking over in 1976: Fifteen technicians share the 4,000-square-foot repair floor to crank out 250 cars per month; the front office manages 25 DRP relationships; they opened two additional locations in downtown Chicago; and, overall, the staff of 38 employees pulls in $5 million per year. 

From the “old Chicago brick” that Gottfred boasts about to the charred basement ceiling beams that remain from the Great Chicago Fire, the aged building has come to symbolize Erie-LaSalle’s stability, its resilience, its ability to continually produce despite its handicap.

But as successful as he’s been in that building, Gottfred is addicted to updating processes and readying his team for the next step—the future of the industry. Just as he’s persevered through the inherent limitations his original location presented, Gottfred proved there are no limits to his old-school shop’s ability to adapt as he navigated through a strenuous eight-month process with an international company, outfitting a 12,000-square-foot location that will house Symach’s first FixLine repair process and gas-catalytic drying technology in the United States. 

The Backstory

When Gottfred took the business over from his stepfather 40 years ago, Erie-LaSalle resembled most collision repair facilities at the time: handwritten estimates, lacquer-based paint, no computers. The shop’s gradual growth in the following decades signifies Gottfred’s craving to evolve and remain in-step with the latest innovations.

“While at this shop, we saw automobiles morph from full frames into the unibody,” he says. “It became a whole different mindset of how to fix cars. Then computers came along. And then the downdraft spray booths. 

“I like to say I pioneered some of this stuff, because I was always one of the first ones to implement it. As technology has [progressed], we’ve embraced electronic measuring and downdraft prep stations and heated stations.”

The next step for his pioneering is Symach: an Italian company he connected with two years ago at the NACE/CARS Expo & Conference. Since then, Gottfred and Symach CEO Osvaldo Bergaglio have communicated back and forth, working out a timeline for establishing the first FixLine system in the country.

Shop Stats
Erie-LaSalle Body Shop—Downtown
Location: Chicago Size: 8,900 square feet Staff: 38 Average Monthly Car Count: 250 Annual Revenue: $5 million

Erie-LaSalle Body Shop—Downtown
Location: Chicago Size: 15,000 square feet Staff: 15 Average Monthly Car Count: 100 Annual Revenue: $2 million

Erie-LaSalle Body Shop—Downtown II
Location: Chicago Size: 12,000 square feet Projected Staff: 25 Projected Annual Revenue: $5 million

The Process

The Symach process (featured in FenderBender in February 2015) is designed to reduce vehicle movement and maximize throughput. It involves a very specific layout filled with the Symach equipment, including its gas-catalytic drying technology. The company claims the system (which has been implemented in several European shops) pushes out single-panel repairs in half a day, standard repairs in 1.5 days, and cuts delivery times on large repairs by 50 percent.

The FixLine formula involves specific layouts and equipment. Implementation requires either a full facility remodel or—as in Gottfred’s case—an empty building ready for design. After $1 million of investments and eight different revisions of blueprinting, equipment was installed over the course of July through October, which included four weeks of staff training (for both technicians and management).

Getting the Most From Your Bake

Tim Beal, owner of Beal’s Auto Body and Paint in Prescott, Ariz., set up a robotic paint drying system in his shop just under two years ago. When operating at full capacity, the equipment allowed Beal’s Auto Body to complete 13 repair orders in seven hours and achieve a record sales month of $320,000. A huge part of that was tinkering with the system and understanding what practices created a bake that resulted in a perfect finish.

We experimented a lot with our drying equipment, and we discovered it allowed us to bake the primer at the same rate at which you’d spray the primer on. We called several plastic manufacturers, talked to their reps, and found out as long as you keep that Bondo to 160 degrees, it’s cured.

Once you hit the primer with that heater, it’s long-wave infrared. It’s a catalyst. You heat it up to 250 degrees, it introduces the natural gas and it creates a catalyst, and that catalyst puts off a long wave infrared light. And that light is what works the surface molecules on the substrate that you’ve just sprayed to get them to catalyze and lock up and harden. So as long as you put the heat to the Bondo, you’re good. 

When you put it in the booth and spray the sealer, bake it, base coat it, bake it, clear coat it, bake it—it’s perfect. No pinch, no shrink. It comes out just unbelievably nice. And you’re done. If you need to polish something 30 minutes later, you can.

The Problem

While he now refers to it as a “throw-out date,” Gottfred and Symach had originally planned on opening the new facility in March. 

With this being the first Symach operation in the U.S., the blueprinting of the new facility and equipment shipment scheduling went through some growing pains. Bergaglio says the main issue was a difference between U.S. and Italian measurements and designs, which meant converting measurements that differ between the two countries.

“There’s no one party to blame. We both underestimated the scope of what had to be done to this warehouse on the electrical end and the gas end,” Gottfred says.

There was also an issue of upgrading from 800-amp to 1,200-amp service to power the facility.

“I’m not used to working with companies internationally. This particular situation was new for both parties,” he says. “It just takes a lot more time, effort and people. The scope seems to keep increasing and increasing with everything we have to do. It’s a learning experience.”

The Solution

Gottfred hired a project manager to keep tabs on the construction and received daily updates while managing the original location. He met on Fridays with his project manager and a team, which included his son (manager of the business’s second location), an architect, a team of mechanical engineers and two electricians.

Through cooperation, he was also able to fix the shop's power issue.

"While there were challenges in upgrading our power from 800-amp to 1,200-amp service, it was successfully accomplished through cooperation with the local utility company Commonwealth Edison," Gottfred says.

Gottfred’s architect and engineers also coordinated to install new gas lines through the walls so the equipment could be set up according to the blueprints.

The Aftermath

While the new building was scheduled to open in March, delays pushed back the set-up dates, and the facility will be fully functional on Nov. 15.

While March was more of a tentative date, delays at the new facility—which is expected to generate $5 million in annual revenue—meant the cost of keeping contractors on longer only piled on.

Despite challenges, Gottfred is delighted with the outcomes and expects an expedited return on his investment through the implementation of the Symach Fixline System. As far as operations, he says the third Erie-LaSalle location will not only provide more load leveling for the 8,900-square-foot facility (the new building is located just one mile away), but also embody the antithesis to its original location’s car movement issue. 

“Combining those two principles—speed of drying and movement of cars—is going to help us achieve the greatest efficiency,” he says. “The idea of continuous movement of the car without stopping is a lean principle that Symach promotes, and we’re looking to do it, too.”

“[At the new facility], there’s minimum movement of cars. There’s probably three or four times you move a car, as opposed to eight or 10.”

With goals of pulling in $5 million annually at the new facility, Gottfred expects to see a return within a few years. He’s transferring several employees from the other two shops.

The Takeaway

Gottfred says he learned the value of managing expectations from both sides when working with a partner, especially an international one, as the delay ended up costing his shop thousands of dollars. 

“We have to be very well coordinated when they ship, when they’re going to land, how they’re going to get through customs,” he says. “Then their technicians have to come over within a day or two and have to start unloading immediately because the shipment company wants these crates back, and then from there we get into the commissioning of the equipment and the training. 

“So we have to be very sharp in our scheduling, and then it doesn’t always go smooth. But you work through it and move on.”

Gottfred hasn’t decided whether the new shop will replace the brick building his stepfather moved into over 80 years ago—but if it does, it will be in the name of constant improvement, of evolution, of moving forward. 

The New Layout

The FixLine formula is a process that involves particular layouts and equipment:

  • 5 pieces of robotic drying equipment (4 Flydry and 1 Robodry)
  • 1 Spraytron (paint booth)
  • 16 stalls with Powerlux (Symach’s light system)
  • 12 arm-lifts in every stall
  • 1 FixStation (for panel repairs)
  • 5 vacuum sanding systems
  • 7 Box Multiservice (air filter, pressure regulator and power supplier)
  • 1 Drybox (booth for drying parts with Drytronic technology)
  • 1 paint mixing room (in ModulBlock system) 
  • 1 glass car washing station?

Adapting to Space

When Gottfred took over Erie-LaSalle, he inherited all of its customers, its employees, its success—and all of its faults. With limited space, he’s implemented several new processes and ideas (both inside and outside the shop) over the past 40 years, allowing annual revenue to climb from under $1 million to just over $5 million.

Revamping the scheduling process. With so many repairs for such a small body shop, Gottfred says organization up front is crucial. Scheduling 250 cars per month involves a detailed, color-coded folder system arranged in mounted wall bins, enabling the front office to oversee the shop’s repairs, finances and 25 DRP relationships with ease. The folders are arranged and colored by insurance company and expected date of delivery.

“We found that, even with as much computerization as we have, it’s much better for people to see things visually,” he says. “Every day these folders move. They have to be easily recognizable for what’s going on at a glance. By looking at the arrangement, you can tell if a vehicle is ready for delivery, if payment has been made, which location the vehicle is coming from—everything you need to know.”

Establishing lean philosophies. Imagine several vehicles constantly moving throughout a 4,000-square-foot shop, Gottfred says. With how the repair floor is arranged, cars must constantly maneuver to make way for the paint shop.

“A lot of times, we have to move three cars to get one out and put one back in,” he says. “Logistically, from an efficiency standpoint, it's a nightmare.”

To minimize movement, vehicles remain in one stall for estimates, teardowns and repairs before shifting into a queue beside the paint booths. The workflow setup stems from Gottfred’s lean philosophy: Reserve a stall for one repair until it’s reassembled.

“You keep going until it’s done,” he says. “Even if a tech is sitting idle and waiting for a car that'll be drying for 30 minutes, you're better off letting that guy sit and wait to put it back together, or to help on another repair, rather than put another car in the stall and starting a new process.”

Gottfred says building a culture of cooperation throughout the body shop that gets everyone on board for lean principles has ensured efficiency.

“Everybody knows it's a small shop, and you’re always aware of what’s going on around you,” he says. “You have to be ready to drop what you’re doing at a moment’s notice to help move another car along.”

Creating extra space. Gottfred streamlined processes by homogenizing the parts and paint departments. While that limited paint department space, parts no longer move through the body shop to be painted.

With parts carts taking up valuable room, Gottfred recently acquired an adjacent 900-square-foot building that connects with the body shop and store parts.

Also, to compensate for a fenced-in parking lot only allows for 30 vehicles, Gottfred pays for his employees’ parking permits in a nearby lot and rents out various auxiliary spots downtown to stow scheduled repairs.

Adding a night shift. Erie-LaSalle’s night shift not only eased the day shift’s burden, but also added 60 cars to the shop’s average monthly car count when it was established 10 years ago.

The night crew—which works from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. and consists of four body techs, one painter and one manager—only covers light repair work, painting, reassembling and washing duties. The shop’s morning meeting splits vehicles between the two shifts.

Focusing on load leveling. Establishing a second, 15,000-square-foot location (located on the south side of the city, roughly 8 miles away) three years ago was huge for easing the small body shop’s workload.

“It’s always a work-in-progress to decide which cars go down [to the second location], and which don't,” he says. “We look at the inventory for each shop, who needs work, and then we make a decision. If they’re running slow and need a big job, we’ll get a big wreck down there.”

Grassroots Marketing a New Location

Joining the Little Village Chamber of Commerce [LVCC] in the neighborhood where Erie-LaSalle’s second facility resides has proved to be a very valuable piece for Bob Gottfred’s marketing strategy and becoming the most trusted shop in the neighborhood—and a tactic he plans on employing with his new shop.

“Our name and logo is prominently displayed at events monthly,” he says. “We have a logo’d smart car in the Mexican Independence Day parade, which gathers 300,000 spectators annually. Participating in monthly events puts our name and face to its residents and business owners. The business we have gotten from my fellow board members alone have paid for the annual dues several times over.”

Establishing DRP Relationships

When Bob Gottfred took over Erie-LaSalle 40 years ago, DRPs were new and questionable—now they’re a backbone of his business, which required utilizing his fleet relationships and selling his shop’s unique location and history of quality repairs.

“Being downtown, we get a lot of fleet work from businesses in the city,” he says. “So we’ve always had an abundance of relationships with independent agents who managed claims for company vehicles. They would move on to work for insurance companies and recommend our shop, and then we’d have an in.

“I would also contact the insurance companies directly, ask who I needed to contact, and then send a profile of my business about our reputation and history. Then they would send someone to check out the shop and look over our equipment and how we work.”