Nurture. Foster. Develop.
Santa Clara, Calif.—Upstairs and nested above Akins Collision Center’s offices is a library of non-industry business training books for staff to finger through. Below, the customer lobby’s walls are weighted with numerous certifications from I-CAR, AMi, and OEMs. None of which should come as a surprise once Santiago Lozano begins talking about the importance of his shop’s culture and nurturing employee talent.
“We encourage everyone to think outside of the box to make the business grow,” says Lozano, who assumed ownership last year after having started with the shop in 2004. “It’s how I become engaged. Allowing people to grow is a large part of our culture. They can’t be pigeon-holed, because it stagnates growth.”
The previous owners, Bill and Anne Rupp, always provided opportunities for employees to excel within the Santa Clara, Calif., company, who they fostered through training and business coaches at various points of their careers. Lozano, who has I-CAR Platinum designation, is determined to continue that legacy with his employees.
“If you’re not teaching them more and allowing them to experiment, they’ll eventually hit a plateau,” he said. “Of course, we’ve all made mistakes, but we’ve learned from them. We just move on and evolve — it’s important not to stay in the same place.”
Lozano began working at Akins in the parts department and worked his way up to the estimator role, eventually landing in the front office. He assumed ownership in February 2018.
“I’ve done everything from marketing to visiting with agents and attending Chamber of Commerce meetings — I’ve had a lot hats. It took guts for the Rupps to let someone such as myself, with limited ability at the time, to go out there and represent the company. They helped to mold and cultivate me as to how they liked to run the business with the conviction that we’re the right shop for our customers because we do it the ‘right way.’”
He said the Rupps built a “great reputation” and foundation for his staff with the shop’s partners throughout the years.
“I don’t intend on changing much of it. I was raised in the culture they developed and I believed in what they were trying to achieve. Moving forward, it’s important to evolve with the industry.”
The I-CAR Gold Class shop (24 years) refuses to take shortcuts, even if it means replacing — and paying for the difference — a part with an OE, though a DRP may seek an aftermarket. As big MSOs continue to elbow their way into their market, Akins’ strength is its control in the product that it delivers to customers.
“Delivering the best product every time is hard and it can be a struggle,” Lozano said, “but each team is held accountable and it’s driven by pride in their work. We don’t push cars out just to get the numbers.”
Blueprinting and T&E investments
Akins’ production team has adopted the lean single-piece flow model and transitioned to blueprinting with the assistance and training from I-CAR and AMi, which has improved efficiencies.
“We flirted with blueprinting for many years,” he said, “experimenting with different varieties. Along the way, we identified there’s a different skillset from customer service to blueprinting, so we have front-end estimators work with clients while blueprinters concentrate their skills in production.”
Dan Balsi, one of Akins’ two blueprinters, says the blueprinting process is thorough and it lays another layer of controls and increased productivity in the workflow. “We use our experience to identify everything so we minimize supplements, which are typically in the low single digits.”
The staff of 25 turn out an average monthly car count of 135 in a 25,000-square-foot facility. Average cycle time is 9.8 days, which the shop’s finance manager, Melissa Ibanez, says is more than a day better than its competitors. Average annual revenues are $5 million, which have increased in recent years.
Most of the work comes from DRPs, though the shop has diversified within the past year to include more non-DRP repairs (75/25 percent, respectively).
There are considerable decisions to be made in the near future regarding new tool and equipment purchases, but Ibanez and Lozano are taking a measured and calculated approach before making investments.
“Our goal is to better define our needs in the coming years, especially with manufacturers changing many procedures and repair guidelines,” she said, noting the shop’s BMW rivet gun that’s rarely used.
Akins is presently trending more toward Hondas and Toyotas. Business counsel meetings with Axalta have also illuminated vehicle demographics in its area, though Lozano said the shop must play to its strengths in talent and tooling when selecting what vehicles to focus on and how they can adapt.
In addition to the main shop, Akins also has a satellite location in Almaden Valley. It serves as “drop-off/pick-up” center where an estimator and office personnel inspect vehicles and handle rentals for two of the company’s three primary DRPs. It allowed them to increase DRP business by the location’s zip code.
“Where can we get better? And where can we get more market share? That’s what works for us,” Lozano said. “We believe in the long term and we’ve been around since 1971.
“Hopefully, I can take care of this business and allow it to grow beyond me.”