From unibody to aluminum, family business is at home with innovations

Aug. 6, 2015
In keeping with a long-standing tradition of embracing the most up-to-date wrinkles in automotive repair technologies, Suburban Collision has again moved to the forefront by establishing an innovative aluminum production facility.

In keeping with a long-standing tradition of embracing the most up-to-date wrinkles in automotive repair technologies, Suburban Collision has again moved to the forefront by establishing an innovative aluminum production facility. The third-generation family business is steadily obtaining OEM certifications for serving a specialized market that shows solid signs of ongoing growth.

“Body shops basically work for the insurance company,” says owner Angelo Papotto Jr. “With aluminum, I work for the manufacturer. For the first time ever, we are getting control of the repair process.”

Based in North Olmsted, Ohio, Angelo’s three locations grossed $9.54 million in 2014, with expectations of reaching $11 million this year.

Suburban is among a limited amount of repairers certified by Tesla, and the ambitious enterprise additionally holds aluminum certifications from Jaguar, Land Rover, Ford F-150 and Mercedes, and is currently in the final audit process with Porsche.

“We are always in the process of evaluating other OE programs to see if they fit within our future strategy – this includes Volkswagen, Audi and others,” reports Candace Papotto, Angelo’s daughter who serves as managing director. Another daughter, Lauren, is also involved with the operation.

Aluminum-bodied vehicles have pulled up to the bays atop flatbed trucks from as far away as Maine, Massachusetts and Virginia.

“We recognized the trend early and began our first OE certification in aluminum almost 10 years ago in conjunction with Jaguar. We took a slow and steady approach, researching programs and making sure they fit in with our strategy and with our other programs before initiating a new application,” Candace recounts.

“For instance, on the heels of Jaguar we were approached by another program that we didn’t feel was a good fit at the time, and we passed based on the duplication of equipment required and what we felt was a cost factor that would decrease in the future along with demand. We’re seeing this happen now, as other programs have allowed for shared equipment in certain cases,” she explains.

“The key was to recognize the trend early, just as with introduction of unibody repairs many years earlier, and take a slow and measured approach to the programs, selecting the best ones for our facilities,” says Candace. “We also maintain a strong business in our non-aluminum segment in order to fund the investment in the future. It’s a balance we’ve always felt was the key to success in innovation and profitability.”

Shop owners interested in moving forward with automaker certifications are advised to consider a series of factors when weighing your decisions.

“Each shop must look at their current work mix along with their strategy for the future in deciding whether or not to pursue an OEM program,” according to Candace. “We would encourage shops to be prepared not only for the upfront cost, but for the continuing costs of education and loss of technicians for the training periods. Most of the OEM programs require travel – we’ve sent technicians to San Jose, Calif.; Atlanta; and Wisconsin, to name a few.”

An important element of the negotiations is to ensure that the OEM has parts-delivery restrictions in place. “This means that non-certified shops cannot receive the parts, thus prohibiting false entry into the programs. This is one of our key requirements for considering a program,” she says.

“Another topic with the manufacturer is supply and demand. How many shops do they plan to allow entry for in your area? Are there non-compete terms within a zip code region? Shops considering OEM programs must above-all have a solid financial footing before considering what will be a significant investment with a longer-term payoff,” according to Candace.

“We have made a huge investment in training,” she notes. “Now we just have to hope the brands are selling. But it can take several years from a vehicle’s release before we will start to see it in our shops.”

Thriving on process

Angelo Papotto Jr. has had a keen interest in exploring industry innovations dating back to his teenage years of working in the original Suburban Auto Body business owned by his late father, Angelo Sr. He recalls realizing that he had higher aspirations from Day One.

“He was a painter, and then he learned to write estimates in the front – and he found that he had a knack for growing the business; he also has a brain that’s always looking for ‘the next thing,’” says Candace, admiring her dad’s willingness to contemplate the latest in lean technologies and his steadfast insistence on running an honest and reputable operation where all of the employees are treated as family members.

“When unibody came out many, many years ago, my father was among the first to get a unibody frame machine and recognize that this was the direction that the industry was heading,” she recounts.

Angelo adds that he thrives on process, scheduling and properly load-leveling his technicians for continued success. “There is no perfect system,” he asserts. “You’ve got to keep thinking.”

This thought process includes a bold willingness to reach out for professional advice, carefully contemplating the suggestions and then following through with implementation.

The shop-design department at paint supplier Sherwin-Williams was enlisted to assist with a remodeling plan for the North Olmsted headquarters location to remedy a pattern of split paint and body operations because of the main structure’s limited space.

“We thought that we couldn’t house that all under one roof given our sales volume,” says Candace. A small addition combined with shifts in the production pattern solved the problem. “We took the Sherwin-Williams design and applied it to operations – how we staged the cars and moved them around.”

“Immediately after construction was complete, Suburban recognized reduced cycle time, improved quality of repairs, and a better culture for the technicians as they are now one team,” reports Judy Lynch, marketing manager at Sherwin-Williams’ Collision Repair Design Service. “This really started the facility on their lean journey. A new profit center was created as the old paint shop now became a stand-alone Geico facility.”

“Geico has a specific business model that’s significantly different from the other accounts, so we decided to dedicate that building to that account,” Candace explains, noting that the plan has resulted in improved efficiencies.

Suburban’s adoption of aluminum repairs required a similar forward-looking stance, according to Lynch.

“Equipping an aluminum repair room requires an investment in technician training as well as tools, equipment and space,” she says. “Every manufacturer requires strict guidelines to be followed before certifying; not only individual technicians, but the shop itself. This requires a huge financial investment for a collision shop owner but also a large portion of their current production space may now be allocated to aluminum repair,” Lynch continues.

“Realizing the possible loss of production space and the change in their process of including aluminum repair is critical,” she says. “It is beneficial to take a look at their entire process and ensure space requirements are met for the entire facility.”

“There has to be a section of the shop that is separate from where the steel repairs are done. It’s like a shop within a shop,” says Candace, referring to a curtained-off area on the shop floor. “You have to avoid cross-contamination.”

Price-matching parts

Along with developing numerous body repair partnerships with car dealers throughout the Northeastern Ohio region, Suburban promises its customers that it will effectively work with all insurance providers while carrying 16 direct repair program (DRP) affiliations.

Ensuring excellent customer satisfaction through personalized service and attention to details drives a strong array of repeat business and referrals. Maintaining positive relationships with insurers is achieved by adhering to the various programs and delivering on the desired performance metrics.

“Back when my grandfather was operating the business it was all about relationships,” according to Candace. “Now it’s all about performance – they’re looking at other shops and they’re looking at the numbers.”

Regarding aftermarket verses OEM parts and other variables of a given repair, “It all depends on the customer’s policy. We also price-match a lot; we  will often purchase the OEM option if the supplier will price-match it,” she says.

As the component procuring process unfolds “our No. 1 priority has become how quickly they can get the part to us,” says Candace. “We expect a 24-hour turnaround and we expect the vendors to have daily deliveries.”