Brian Starcevich devoted himself to his wife, his daughters, and the family business, Lakeside Collision II, until he died suddenly of a heart attack in June 2019.
He was the loudest parent in the bleachers, the love of his wife’s life, and a self-proclaimed tinkerer, according to his obituary.
“It was a drastic pivot for me,” says his widow, Kim Starcevich, who in January this year became sole owner of the Merrillville, Ind., shop, which was co-owned by Brian and his father.
With a background in sales and marketing, Starcevich says she never planned on owning a collision repair shop, let alone running one by herself. However, she says taking over her late husband’s business has proven to be one of her best decisions and greatest challenges.
“My husband and I had our own things,” Starcevich says. “[Brian] would tease me because I knew very little about cars.”
Before taking over the shop, Starcevich’s field of expertise was in sales, marketing, and social media.
“I know how to keep customers happy,” she says.
The shop was foreign territory, and that’s why after the passing of her husband, Starcevich, at first, came to the difficult decision to sell.
Brian learned the ins and outs of the industry from his father, Chuck, who founded the original Lakeside Collision (also known as Lakeside Collision I) and had recently retired. Kim says that with Chuck in retirement and Brian gone, she felt she had few options, so she put the shop up for sale, until an unlikely ally pointed out the impossible.
“We had a potential buyer bring in their own consultant, and she looks at me and says, ‘You have a really great business here, are you sure you want to sell it?’
“She was the first person that really made me think, ‘I can do this on my own,’” says Starcevich.
Taking the Reins
Once she decided to keep the shop, Starcevich brought in reinforcements, saying she knew she could do it as long as she surrounded herself with people who knew the business, and the collision repair industry.
Her father-in-law came out of retirement at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Starcevich, and has been a great help ever since.
She says she’s been slowly but surely adding her own “personal flavor” to the business. When she first came on board, she says the changes were small and primarily directed at the workplace culture.
“I was making little changes like adding birthday celebrations, Friday meetings, hand-written thank you notes, things that came very natural to me,” she says.
While the early changes benefited the business, Starcevich says she was aware there were still missing pieces.
“Where I have gaps, I’m smart enough to know that I need to surround myself with smart people,” she says. “All of a sudden, we had this huge hole, and Charlyn stepped up.”
Bridging the Gender Gap
Charlyn Vlasic, Starcevich’s sister-in-law, began learning the collision repair ropes from her brother, Brian, when she was 18.
“Brian taught me everything, from welding to wet sanding to buffing, and even paint prep,” Vlasic says, pointing out she also learned the administrative side of the shop, such as writing estimates, from her father.
However, she didn’t pursue the family business. Instead, she started a floral shop, which catered to large weddings. Vlasic’s business was one of the pandemic’s many casualties, which she says allowed her the opportunity to return to the collision repair world.
“It’s challenging for sure,” says Vlasic of being a female leader in a shop and industry mostly staffed by men.
Starcevich says Vlasic helped pave the way for her as a woman in the industry.
“You have to get a lot of confidence and be able to tell [employees] exactly what you want, and what you expect,” she says.
Breaking the Mold
Starcevich says Lakeside Collision II was built on strong relationships, so much so that most of her current customers are return customers, though she says that isn’t enough.
“We want to retain customers, but we also want them to be our advocates,” she says.
Lakeside Collision II still operates as it did when it opened nearly 50 years ago; Starcevich says she plans to bring it, and its loyal customers, into the 21st century.
“We just upgraded CCC,” she says, “So our customers, and their insurance companies, will be getting texts throughout their repair process.”
Starcevich says she chose to upgrade the shop’s software to save time and to introduce some automation. She notes there are few written processes in place at Lakeside Collision II, because they’re in everyone’s head.
“They’re so used to doing what they’ve been doing,” she says of her seven-person staff, noting she has plans to change that.
“I’m a process person and a technology person,” she says. “I want a process and I want it to be automated, where it can.”
Takes a Village
In the early days of taking over Lakeside Collision II, Starcevich says her only tasks were “reading, asking, and doing.”
“Every estimate that would come through the shop, I would read through it, familiarizing myself with the steps and the language,” she says.
Much of her automotive education, Starcevich says, came from her staff and peers in the industry.
“I am not afraid to reach out to people and make connections,” she says. “I call people to pick their brains on how to deal with insurance companies, customers, or even estimating.”
Everyone has been eager to help her learn the way, she says—one of her biggest pieces of advice “is to not be afraid to ask questions.”
Honoring the Past
In a typical year, Lakeside Collision II brings in roughly $1.2 million, though 2020 was down by about 20 percent. Starcevich says she’s attributing it to COVID-19, as well as to losing her husband, who was the face of the shop. The latter part of the year began trending back up, she says.
To honor Brian, his family started the Live Like Brian Scholarship Fund, which will award scholarships to both men and women going into the trades, says Starcevich.
“My husband was very passionate about his trade and all trades,” she says.
The hardest part about her transition to leading the shop, Starcevich says, has been doing it without the encouragement of her husband.
“He would tell people I could do anything I put my mind to,” she says. “I always said I used to live to make him happy. Now I live to make him proud.”