Think juggling is just for the circus? Try running a small shop, says Dennis Cataldo Jr., general manager of D&M Auto Body in Old Bridge, New Jersey — between managing the office and team, talking to customers, writing estimates, and ordering parts, he’s juggling all day every day.
With five employees, Cataldo runs a true-blue “small shop” — the team consists of his father, himself, two repair technicians and one refinish technician. In operation since the 1960s, the shop has been owned by his family since 2014, when his father purchased it after selling his former shop in Brooklyn, New York, that he operated for over 30 years.
“We work on most of the vehicles that are currently on the road today, apart from Tesla and the higher end production vehicles that I do not have the tooling for,” says Cataldo. “I run the office and write estimates, research repair procedures, and order parts. It is a lot and often too much to do by myself, but I make it work.”
Because he’s running a small shop, Cataldo must constantly maintain the right balance between the space he has available and the number of jobs his team can realistically handle at any given time, factoring in parts delays and other issues that inevitably arise each day. He needs to keep his team busy (but not too busy) and take in enough jobs to pay the bills without creating backlogs that are impossible to work around.
“I would say space is my biggest concern, especially when dealing with ongoing parts issues,” he says. “I run out of areas to 1) store parts and 2) store the vehicles waiting for said parts. During the height of the parts delays a year ago, I had parts taking up two car bays waiting for a complete order.”
Cataldo says he tries to be as efficient as he can, because “no one likes having their vehicle sit.” But sometimes the issues hindering the repair are out of his control.
There’s also the need to maintain the right number of employees at all times for the amount of work that’s available. “If I have too many employees, I run the risk of not having enough work to feed the production machine.”
To circumvent the issues the parts delays were causing, Cataldo implemented a system to coordinate the timing of drivable vs. non-drivable vehicle repairs — a triage system, if you will. Before anything else happens, he determines if a car is immediately repairable; if it is, work starts on that car right away. If it’s not, those jobs are set to the side while he waits for parts. He’ll schedule out a week or two in advance, but not much beyond that, and does his best to “plug jobs in wherever they fit.”
“A few years ago, I started to take parts deposits on drivable vehicles, and once a completed parts order arrived I would start the repairs on that vehicle,” a practice that keeps people in their vehicles while they wait for parts. “Non-drivers were disassembled, a completed repair plan performed, and parts ordered accordingly. When that order arrived in full, I would move on with the repair.”
“Of course, I need to remain fluid with this plan,” he added. “At one point a few months ago, for example, I had three jobs waiting for exhaust parts to arrive in order to be completed.”
The ability to maintain flexibility and course-correct is a must as a small shop owner, as Cataldo knows well. And it’s imperative to have a staff willing to flex with you.
“I would say that’s mandatory,” he said, “because everyone has more than one role in a small shop.”
Time management is essential as well, given how much a small shop owner has to juggle day-to-day. In his own business, that means not accepting “walk-in” estimates off the street, and fitting administrative work in around his scheduled estimates.
Walk-ins detract from time that can be spent on the guaranteed work you already have, says Cataldo, and just looking at a car without disassembling it is counterproductive in his opinion.
“It's almost guaranteed that whatever you look at, once the car is taken apart, there's stuff damaged behind it, so the estimate is going to increase exponentially,” he says. “So, what's the point of guessing? Because that's all you're really doing is you're guessing.”
“One benefit of running a smaller shop is that when business slows down I really do not need to panic — I can move with the ebbs and flows of this chaotic industry.”
When those quiet weeks come, he says, it’s easy enough to keep “all the pieces in place and operating” because you don’t have to worry about feeding a larger production machine.
“It’s not terrible — I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’m not happy when we have quiet weeks — but you can manage it way better, that's for sure. Everything gets quiet certain times of the year and then it picks up again. I don't panic because I know it'll get busy again.”
During those slower times, says Cataldo, is essential to have a team who’s willing to jump in and help with other projects or shop maintenance to stay occupied.
Another key to successfully moving with those ebbs and flows? Having mentors and fellow shop owners to talk through issues with, and share best practices.
“My biggest suggestion to any shop owner is to join your state collision association; if there isn’t one, join a national one like the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS). The wealth of knowledge you can gain from other shop owners is an unbelievable resource. I have learned a great deal from being a member of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of New Jersey (AASP/NJ) and even more so becoming a member of the Board of Directors. You get what you put into this industry and sharing knowledge and educating ourselves and our employees can only return dividends.”
The more effort you put in, he says, the more benefit you’ll receive in return.
Surround yourself with a staff who’s willing to be flexible and wear multiple hats at any given time, and find a system that works to keep your shop flowing given the space and resources you have — that’s a small shop owner’s key to success.
Plug into industry groups and resources to learn from your peers, too, and share your knowledge freely for the benefit of the industry as a whole.
“A rising tide benefits all boats,” after all!