No Supplements Allowed


My techs stopped speaking to me for a while, but once they started reaping the benefits ($$$) of our new system for heavy hits, they liked me again. And I liked the fact that my shop was more efficient and profitable.

by Andy Batchelor

 

When I was very young, I built my first tree house. It was my own private space where I could dream of being Prince Valiant or Injun Joe. This was a special place, and I felt it was a must to put a sign on the ladder leading to my tree house that read: "No Girls Allowed."

 

This was my first "executive decision."

 

Years later, I found myself making a new executive decision and a new sign that read: "No Supplements Allowed."

 

The same lesson accompanies either sign: You're up a tree and all alone.

 

The "Supplement King"
In 1980, I'd only been in business for a handful of years and was still just a small pebble in a sea of body shops in our local market. It was this year that an adjuster - in my shop on a repair supplement - mentioned that this was the first supplement he'd had to write here in some time. From the tone of his voice, I could tell that he was pleased about not coming to my shop often. He then said he was leaving my shop and heading for the "King of Supplements" shop.

 

I, of course, had to ask what shop that was, and the adjuster fired back at me with, "You mean Mr. Supplement?"

 

I said, "Yes, who is that?"

 

The adjuster replied with no hesitation, "Don't you know, that's Bud Kingman at Kingman Auto Body. He supplements everything and then complains about everything. He makes me feel like a crook!"

 

Then, as he turned to leave, he said: "I'll see you on the next one."

 

Wow! I was shocked. At that time, early in my career, I didn't even know that adjusters talked about shops - let alone giving us nicknames!

 

At that moment I decided I'd never be the next "Supplement King."

 

Then We Got Lazy
We worked hard building our business, trying to avoid any nicknames, and as we grew, so did the technology that drove the business.

 

As the technology and DRP arrangements came along, we gained more trust and control of the estimating process. It seemed that since it was so easy to only write what you could see, it was justified and understandable that there would be many supplements. And since systems were built on trust, it made it easy to bill the insurance company for all the damages, even if it was at the end of the repair.

 

I know what you're thinking, and no, we didn't bill for items not repaired or replaced - that would have been like signing one's own death certificate. However, we did become lazy and sloppy in our estimating because the system was so friendly and no one seemed to mind all the supplements.

 

I found myself thinking about all the large repairs we were doing, and it seemed apparent that we made less per job on the big jobs than we did on the smaller jobs. Also, the customer satisfaction was generally much lower on larger repairs. After all, the big jobs have many areas that can hold up the repair - parts on backorder, surprise parts, labor shortages and adjusters who simply misunderstood required frame and unibody time on larger repairs.

 

Down deep, I kept thinking there was a way to make good money on these jobs and still keep everyone happy. Thing is, we'd tried everything we could think of - the team concept, the pull-them-in-and-put-them-down concept, the mentor-and-shadow technique, and the putting-employees-on-an-incentive-plan technique - but nothing worked.

 

Becoming the "Hard Hit" King
I was about ready to auction off my six frame racks and put up a sign that said, "We Don't Do Heavy Collision Work Anymore." I figured I could put the money in the bank and say, 'Heck with it, it can't be done.'

 

However, my stubborn pride kept me from this extreme. As much as I wanted to give up the big hits, my pride wouldn't let them go, even if I didn't make as much money as I did on a smaller job.

 

By sticking by my instinct, I did get a nickname that I was OK with: the "Hard Hit King."

 

We were well-known from four counties away that this was the place to take your vehicle if it was hit hard and needed good repairs. We could put almost anything back together just right.

 

Our only problem was still the fact that we made so little profit for such aggravation and for such customer frustration and worry. Why keep beating yourself up?

 

Yet I couldn't quit.

 

A Good Idea Shot Down
I had almost given in - and given up on hard hits - until in the year 2000, when I read an article in Hammer and Dolly about a man by the name of Ed Garneau. The article was about a system called "The Garneau Method of Heavy Repairs." It was about a two-step process:

 

Step 1: Get permission to totally tear down the vehicle and write one, and only one, complete estimate.

 

Step 2: Do not start repairs until all parts are in the shop. And this means every part. There's no sense tying up stalls with non-productive cars waiting for approval from insurance companies and missed or uncovered damaged parts. Not to mention that the extra waiting while nothing was happening further worries the customer because he can't understand why it's taking so long.

 

After reading this article, I went out to my copy machine, made copies of the "Garneau Method," gave it to management and employees, and told them I wanted them to start using this method on the next 10 hard-hit repairs and see what happens.

 

One fatal error on my part was that I neglected to get my people "bought in" to the concept before I tried to implement it. You see, they'd been playing in the sandbox for so long now that they didn't want to get out and play with anything new.

 

They came back at me with things like: "I don't want anyone else tearing my jobs down, and if they do, I won't fix them."

 

So, for lack of management support and my own lack of leadership on this one, I let my newfound idea slip away.

 

Seeing Dollar Signs
Later that year, while attending a management seminar sponsored by my paint manufacturer, a similar concept was brought up in conversation. The difference was that it'd been tweaked around the edges and plugged with all the money to be made on parts and labor when fixing large wrecks.

 

The "tweak" in this plan was to tear down the job on the rack, pull for additional access and decide on repair or replace structural areas. After all these things were done and determined, document with photos, put the car back out and wait for the parts.

 

Again, a spark had been lit, and I was determined to go back to my shop and make this plan work. I was blinded by dollar signs this time.

 

When I got back to the shop, I looked up the article I saved about the "Garneau Method," re-read it and recognized that it was pretty much the same as this other plan. This time, however, I planned to handle it differently. I was going to enlist help on this plan versus just implementing it myself. And, this time, I was going to sell those frame racks if it didn't work!

 

Trying to Sell the Idea to Techs
I called a breakfast meeting with my management team, and I brought donuts and coffee for everyone (I figured a little bribery never hurt). I explained my idea, and we talked about how to implement the plan.

 

They presented the usual reservation: The techs won't like not tearing down their own jobs and putting them back together.

 

I was frustrated, so I finally told the management team what I really thought: What a prima donna group of babies we have working for us then! Don't we have any journeymen who know the basic construction of a vehicle?

 

Again, they continued to say that it wouldn't work.

 

I finally said: Fine, if they refuse a job, send them home and tell them we'll call them when we have an "easy" job for them to do.

 

The next morning, I asked my general manager to pick out the two most spoon-fed babies/whiners who worked for us and send them to my office. I'd decided that they were about to get bought in or booted out. As they say in Las Vegas - "Dealers Choice."

 

With my newfound desire to make this concept work, I laid out my plans to these two highly skilled prima donnas who'd lost their need to venture out of the box. I believed in my new plan so I pitched it hard - and I could see I wasn't going to get both men bought in.

 

One was a maybe.

 

I decided to take the "maybe" aside and explain what I wanted again and added that if it didn't work, he could go back to the old, wasteful, unproductive system. However, I explained, if it did work, he'd be more satisfied, less stressed and make himself and the company more money.

 

Unsuccessfully Implementing "The Plan"
So there I was, with only one man bought into my plan. But in my opinion, it was a start. So I picked our "guinea pig" job very carefully.

 

When a non-drivable 2002 Grand Prix came in the next week, I knew it was the one - and I was sure it was going to be a good test job. So I called my "half bought in prima donna tech" into the office and told him this was the one we'd try the new plan on.

 

At first, I suggested to him that we might use a lesser-skilled tech for teardown and have him bag and mark all bolts and parts. And then my spoiled tech told me he'd be glad to put in his two-weeks notice if anyone else touched the job but him.

 

So I re-phrased my plan, and I suggested to him that this teardown was for inspection purposes only so we could complete a total bid and get all the parts ordered before we started. Again, he objected to this absentee teardown.

 

As I was just about to tell him to oil the wheels on his tool box, he said he'd try it - just this one time. I think he knew that at this point, he might have been headed for the next chapter in my history book.

 

So we were now ready to try my new plan and see how it would work. But first, I had a long talk with the tech who was going to do the teardown so that he knew exactly what we wanted to accomplish. Then we decided to do the teardown outside - not necessarily the best place - but I didn't want to tie up inside space not knowing the availability of parts or if it could possibly end up being a total loss.

 

After the total teardown, we got the tech who was going to finish the repair and had him participate in the "no supplement" estimate. We wanted his input on judgment-call items so there would be no excuses later about why we needed more parts.

 

The first "test" repair went fine and on schedule, so we proceeded with two more repairs very similar in damage. The first one, a 2002 Malibu, also went fine, but the pickup that came in behind it was not going as well. After the truck was totally torn down, appraised and then loaded onto the rack, we uncovered some hidden but subtle damage to the left knee assembly - no big deal, but the parts had to come from Detroit, a four-day delay even with so-called "overnight service."

 

I couldn't help thinking that if the journeyman tech would have done the teardown, he might - I emphasize might - have seen this damage. Outside, without measuring, you couldn't be 100 percent sure which parts were actually needed. This was my bad luck.

 

Naturally, the tech used this against me and my new concept, and he said he wouldn't do any more of these absentee teardown jobs.

 

And that pummeled my concept that seemed to work so well for Ed Garneau.

 

My Way or the Highway
Another year passed, everything going along normally. Then we had ice storms visit us three times that winter, causing an extra large backlog of heavy rack jobs. The customers were getting cranky and constantly asking: When will my car be started on? It's been here three weeks now!

 

Normally I can handle pressure pretty well, but this backlog was bugging me because I knew a better way to move the jobs through the system, but no one but me was bought into the plan!

 

I don't like to motivate employees by putting fear into them - you know, the "do it my way or hit the highway" method - but I could see we were missing a lot of opportunity to maximize profit and raise efficiency by not doing it my way!

 

So, on a cold day in January last year, I called all my staff together and told them that we were putting all five frame techs on this new program, which meant there would be one man to tear down jobs before final estimates were to be written.

 

I said, "If you don't want to do this, I'm giving you notice - today will be your last day working for me. Love it or leave it."

 

I then told them that this system would work and that I didn't really care what they thought that day - that all I wanted was for them to do it. I know that sounds harsh, but you have to remember, this old way was a mindset. The techs had a comfort level with it and to them, change was bad, even if it was actually a good thing.

 

We got off to a rocky start, but all my techs decided to stay instead of leave, which meant they agreed to try my way. But they weren't going to do it without making it hard on me, that's for sure!

 

Showing Signs of Progress
A couple of weeks went by, and things seemed to be improving. A couple employees even said "good morning" to me a few times, which was a good sign.

 

But the best part was that we were seeing improvement in our cycle times! This new system wasn't allowing the techs to leave a job to do smaller repairs while they waited for parts on the heavy hit, and their efficiency was only rated on the rack jobs. They had to inspect and know they had all the parts to finish the job because if they got stalled on the job, for obvious reasons, then they'd lose efficiency, which translated into less money for them.

 

By March 2003, everything seemed to be in place - finally. Our heavy-hit employees were humming right along and made more bonus money in three months than they'd made in any single year in the past.

 

By May 2003, I could see our cycle time improving from an originally shameful 32 days, down to almost 21 days on most jobs.

 

By fall 2003, all our bottlenecks were gone, and I actually reduced our workforce by one frame tech. The jobs were flowing better with less days to complete them.

 

Our non-heavy-hit techs were making more bonus money, too, because they had more jobs to work on since the frame techs weren't doing them anymore.

 

At our Christmas party in December 2003, I wanted to dance a little jig and stand on the tables and shout, "I told you blockheads it would work!" However, my wife said she would leave if I danced or hooted. So I agreed not to rub it in, but it wouldn't stop me from feeling the satisfaction of implementing a system that was benefiting everyone involved.

 

The Andy Method
We're still using the system today, and we tweak it a little now and then, but I don't let them vary from the core concept that I acquired from Garneau. In fact, I thought I'd share what I learned from Garneau's method, with the Andy's Auto Body twist to it, which is:

 

  1. Tear down the car completely before estimating.

     

  2. Write a complete bid with technician input - sometimes.

     

  3. Don't start repairs until all the parts for the repair are at the shop and checked for accuracy.

     

  4. Keep the customer in the loop during the wait period. Some customers will get nervous, not seeing anything happen to their car. Explain the process and use that highly technical machine, the telephone, to keep them updated on parts and the date you plan to load the repair.

     

  5. Only allow the technician one repair to work on until it's done.

     

  6. Require, insist, demand zero supplements.

     

  7. Fix the car as fast as you can, but well, so you only have to fix it once.

     

  8. Call the customer and send the car home. Then put the insurance check in the bank and start a new repair.

     

I can honestly say that this system works well, but at our shop, it required a change in mindset and a dedicated discipline.

 

If you decide to implement this system - or a tweaked version of it - it'll make your customers happy, the insurance companies happy and your techs happy (once they come around). Best of all, it'll make you happy - since your shop will be making more money.

 

Andy Batchelor owns Andy's Auto Body of Alton, Inc. in Alton, Ill., and has been a self-employed automotive repair owner for nearly 30 years. He's a certified Automotive Specialist with training from Rankin Technical School and a Platinum-certified I-CAR member, and has Master Collision Certification from ASE and a degree in Business Administration from Lewis and Clark Community College. Batchelor also serves as I-CAR's Southern Illinois Training Chairman. Batchelor and his wife, Nancy, reside in Alton, Ill., and have two children, both married and living in the suburbs of Chicago. Batchelor can be reached at batchone@midwest.net.