Anticipating industry trends and proactive shop management leads to fast growth
Sunnyvale, Calif.—Shawn and Lisa Saidi, co-owners of Active Auto Body, are riding a wave of fast growth after having moved into a new facility and more than tripled their staff over the past eight years.
The couple started the business in Mountain View, in a 4,000-square-foot shop with just four employees, but within three years, it had outgrown the facility. After searching for an affordable lease at a larger facility in town — incidentally the same town where Google had started buying up space — and finding nothing, they moved to their current 10,000-square-foot location in Sunnyvale, where their staff has grown to 17 employees.
Shawn Saidi, who has been on the board of the California Auto Body Association (CAA) since 2003 and was president for a time, said the company made the switch to spraying PPG’s waterborne paint when it moved to the new facility, which was perfect timing.
“We were the first shop to start spraying waterborne on this side of the Bay,” Saidi said. “We made the switch early enough that our vendors were able to spend a lot of time training us on the new product. A few years after that, everybody was scrambling to convert to waterborne and crying out for training from the overloaded paint company reps, and we were already rolling. The timing was very fortunate.”
He added that being a member of the CAA affords him the benefit of foresight in an increasingly complex industry. A peer group of other local shop owners and educators, as well as company reps, get together every three months to talk about what new tools and equipment will be needed in the future, and how to solve specific problems such as recent corporate buyouts and the increasing number of corporate MSOs aggressively moving into the area. Saidi said another hot topic presently is aluminum training and tooling, which he said he will probably invest further in this year.
Despite having moved just five miles south of its old facility, the I-CAR Gold Class shop was the first to be granted industrial zoning in that part of town, Saidi said, and for approximately two years it remained the lone automotive business in the complex. But in 2012, another collision shop moved in across the street, and just last year a mechanical shop moved in next door to it.
“The city called me and informed me that another body shop wanted to move across the street and I told them, ‘Great. Have them do it.’ They thought I’d be worried about competition, but I’m not. My father emigrated here from Iran and he always says, ‘In Iranian bazaars there are 100 vendors selling gold right next to each other, and they’re all doing well.’ That’s my philosophy about competition. As long as we keep our clientele happy, they’re going to come back to us,” he said. Part of Saidi’s customer retention plan is a rigorous quality-control system. He currently has State Farm and Progressive as DRP partners, and uses Collision Link and Parts Trader regularly, both of which he said have been good for his business. But he refuses to let them dictate how he repairs his customers’ vehicles.
“The conception is out there that the insurance companies ‘drive’ things in the collision industry, but in my view the responsibility is and has always been with the owners,” Saidi said. “At this shop we order any part that is required on our DRP estimate, but we inspect it before putting it on a customer’s vehicle. If it’s poor quality, scratched or dinged, we’ll photograph it and continue doing the job with OE parts that we order from one of our trusted suppliers. If we have to, we’ll put an entire front end together to show the insurance provider that the parts they wanted us to install didn’t fit.”
To support that type of system, Saidi said that all of his technicians are paid an hourly wage as opposed to flat rate. He added that when choosing a parts supplier, he prefers OE parts and looks for experienced staff and OE franchise dealerships with large inventories.
“We’ll follow experience. We changed our BMW supplier to Weatherford BMW because the parts manager, Luis Romano, moved up there and is very on top of it. He’s backed us up with a warranty claim when other dealerships wouldn’t, and his inventory is scratch- and dent-free. We have a series of dealerships who we choose to do business with for those same reasons,” Saidi said.
The shop recently purchased a new Snap-on Edge scan tool from its tool and equipment rep. They also use a Chief measuring machine purchased in 2008 from Chief's equipment rep Adolph Cosio. The body techs also regularly attend technical training through Chief, and Saidi said he sends his painters to two training seminars per year through PPG, in addition to regular I-CAR training.
“As a new employee, if you stick with it, you can still move up quickly in this industry. One of my technicians who started here a few years ago was riding a bicycle to work and now he drives a Lexus. This industry is ripe with opportunity for people who are willing to work at it, and desperately needs training for people who have an interest in getting into this business.” Saidi said.