It was in August of 2005 when the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States roared through the Big Easy, bringing death, destruction and seemingly insurmountable hardships to so many, including the owners and staff of Fradella’s Collision Centers. Not only was the business able to rally and recover, but in the ensuing decade owners David Fradella, Mike Fradella and Al Waller have expanded the operation to encompass three thriving locations throughout the New Orleans area.
“The fact that we were affected by this disaster is not newsworthy.
|At A Glance
|Fradella's Collision Centers
|Name of shop
|Greater New Orleans area
|David and Mike Fradella, Al Waller
|No. of shops
|Years in business
|No. of employees
|No. of DRPs
|Square footage of shops
|Average cycle time
|Average repair order
|Average vehicles per week
|Average weekly volume
|Annual gross at main location
|Annual gross at all locations combined
|KJ, Car-O-Liner, Body-Loc
|Frame machines used
|Estimating systems used
There are thousands just like us,” Waller points out. “The way we reacted and our families and employees reacted – that is something special. We could have given up, and at times the outlook seemed hopeless and we wanted to give up, but we didn’t. With our families and a great team we fought through the adversity of Hurricane Katrina to survive and prosper.”
As the Chalmette location sat in ruin, a mechanical repair industry colleague in Metairie, La. let them know that a neighboring shop-oriented structure was unoccupied and available. “It had 18 inches of water and the roof needed some repairs, but it had utilities and we were desperate for that,” he recounts, adding that a shower stall was a most-welcome amenity while a barbeque pit provided cooking facilities. The break room was repurposed as a bunkhouse and others camped out in a parking-lot trailer. Work alternated between getting the shop going and repairing everyone’s respective homes.
Displaced staffers shared rides in from Texas as rebuilding progressed. Then Hurricane Rita arrived, resulting in a re-evacuation of all the equipment and a disheartening start-over of the renovation process.
“It was amazing what everyone was willing to do,” says Waller, who still marvels at the challenging and ultimately fortuitous chain of events. “We can truly look back on that time and only see the good in people and how our team came together. Every time someone asks me about how Hurricane Katrina affected me, I always say, ‘I feel blessed.’”
The shop owners did whatever they could to take care of employees who returned and made sure the benefit packages never lapsed.
“There is nothing more important than making sure that we as a company take care of the people we work with,” says Waller. “We understand that people really want to know three things from their employer: Do you like me? Do you care about me? Can I trust you? We focus on making sure we live up to their expectations.”
Those same attitudes of excellence and good will are also applied to serving the customers. “People reach out to us because they need help. Many of them have never been in this situation before,” Waller explains.
“We let every customer know that we are not going to disappear after they pick up their vehicle. When we deliver a vehicle we stress to the customer that we have quality checked the vehicle, but if they are concerned about anything after they get back on the road call us immediately. We want to check it for them, even if they aren’t sure if it is related to the repairs – no questions asked,” he elaborates. “We want them to feel 100 percent comfortable with putting themselves and their families back in their vehicle and back on the road. If they don’t, we haven’t done our job.”
Two of the shops have onsite rental counters and the third has a rental company located close by. “We assist customers with rental arrangements in an attempt to remove friction from the process. If we are a DRP (direct repair program) for their insurance company the customer should not have to make another phone call in regards to their vehicle claims. We will handle everything,” says Waller.
The company’s three DRP relationships account for half of the company’s business.
“If we are not a DRP (for a particular client) we will attempt to set up and handle anything that we possibly can. If the customer needs to get involved for some reason, we will at least be able to guide them through whatever it may be,” he adds.
“We will also do anything we can to accommodate customers who do not have rental. We have brought customers to the airport, work, home, and even the mall if the repair is something that will take only an hour or so. We will deliver a vehicle to the customer’s home or work,” Waller says.
“Whatever we can do to make the process easier we will do,” he continues. “By doing small things like this, we can alleviate unnecessary stress and anxiety for the customer. This creates a sense of trust between us and the customer, so it allows us to do our jobs better. They trust us, so they know we are going to do whatever it takes to get the repairs done accurately and timely.”
A full mechanical facility is located at the Chalmette shop. “If a customer needs mechanical repairs and they are closer to Metairie or the Northshore, we will provide complimentary vehicle transfer from the drop-off and pick-up location of their choice.”
Waller goes on to tell about a now-repeat customer who had been turned away by several competing shops. “It wasn’t the most sought after repair, but we told him to absolutely come by and we would see if we could help. Long story short, we have done multiple repairs for him. After the first repair, we started noticing referrals coming in from a local business that does small mechanical repairs. It ended up being this customer, who does mechanical work,” Waller says.
“That’s why we always tell our CSRs (customer service representatives) and estimators that you never know who you are talking to on the phone,” he notes. “Treat everyone with kindness and give people the respect they deserve. Even if we can’t provide the service they are looking for, don’t immediately shut anyone down. You never know who could turn into your biggest cheerleader.”
Maintaining open lines of communication with insurance companies is another emphasized company policy. “We honor their requests, and if we can’t we communicate it to them. Keeping the customer happy and doing quality repairs is one of the biggest factors in a good relationship with insurers,” says Waller. “Keeping our eye on the KPIs (key profit indicators) is also huge.”
Within the past two years Fradella’s has been placing enhanced attention on its online presence by partnering with a digital marketing company.
“When we started we were buried on the second and third pages of Internet searches using the top keywords for our industry. Today we are at the top of the first page. When new customers search for a body shop in the area we are one of the first places they will see,” Waller reports.
“We also constantly strive to wow our customers to the point that we get them to refer us. Most people are not going to tell their friends and family about a good experience. It is going to be great or really bad, so we know just being good isn’t enough if we are going to rely on word-of-mouth referrals,” he says.
“We use a third-party company that contacts our customers post-repair and asks them about their service. They answer a series of questions and then have the opportunity to add comments. With the permission of the customer the company posts the reviews online. Good or bad, they are posted,” Waller adds.
“With a tremendous amount of consumers basing their purchasing decisions on online reputation this has been a major focus for us. We cannot afford to give poor service, because this is one of the main ways we attract new customers. It has been really important, because over the last several years we are seeing more referrals because of our online reviews,” he observes.
“We also re-designed our website and added an online estimate portal. This has been a great way for us to create a touch-point with new customers. We are the only shop in our area with this, so it has really helped us stand out. I would definitely recommend it to shop owners looking for a way to differentiate themselves online.”
Social media sites have been utilized with considerable benefits as well. “Facebook has really been a positive marketing outlet for us,” according to Waller. “The biggest success was when we started doing a throwback Thursday picture: People loved it, especially since so many of the people from our community have relocated after the Hurricane. We were blown away by the comments that people were leaving.”
Free touch-up kits are provided along with key chains, pens and other branded advertising specialties. “Recently we started to ask customers if they would like us to order the kit from the dealer since it will last longer. We order the kit and also offer a free touch-up whenever they notice a chip. Pass by the shop on a sunny, dry day and we would be more than happy to do a touch-up. So far we have gotten a really positive response and we are considering making it permanent,” Waller says.
“We have also wrapped two vehicles with our logo, locations and website,” he adds. “Since we have team members driving to different shops daily it has been an excellent rolling billboard. We also drove one of the vehicles in a parade, and it was a great way for us to get out in the community and get our name in front of people.”
Wages on the sly
While the 33-year-old partnership between the Fradellas and Waller began in 1982, Fradella’s roots began taking hold several years earlier in a tale of two Al Wallers. The late Al Waller – known as “Big Al” while Al Waller is called “Little Al” – was the vice principal at Chalmette High School who established a vocational education program in cooperation with an area body shop. Mike Fradella and his cousin Dave Fradella both took part in the endeavor, eventually going into business together.
As Little Al entered high school, Big Al was concerned that his son had little desire to go to college. It would have been considered a conflict of interest for Little Al to participate in the training program (Not necessarily just for Body Shops) that Big Al developed, so Big Al approached his former students – Mike and Dave – and asked if Little Al could come and work at their shop while Big Al paid his son’s wages on the sly without him knowing about the arrangement.
“My Dad continued to pay my paycheck the entire time I worked there,” Little Al recounts. “He would pay Mike, and Mike would pay me. I don’t think he ever knew that I knew he did that – Mike told me years later.”