Collision shop owner banks on commitment to customers and ongoing tech training
Salem, Ore.—Tom Fleming of Fleming’s Body & Paint is trying a new approach after experiencing how difficult it can be to locate experienced technicians.
“It’s hard to find them when so many of the full-blown experienced guys are retiring because they are tired of the trade,” Fleming said. “Also, when you hire someone with a lot of experience, you’re dealing with an ego battle, and I’m just not into that.”
Instead, he’d rather hire entry-level workers who start off washing cars so he can see how they interact with the company’s eight employees.
“I tell them the most important thing at this shop is getting along,” Fleming said. “We’re a team. We’re a family here. And I want no arguing whatsoever. So if someone new fits in, he can learn the rest of the stuff. We’re taking guys from the ground-up and teaching them.”
One of his employees has a friend who is an auto body instructor at nearby Chemeketa Community College, and Fleming said he is considering bringing some of the students in to work at the shop for several months while in school.
“We’ll help teach them, and we’ll have the pick of the litter,” Fleming said.
That philosophy also has helped build camaraderie among his employees, Fleming said, noting that they all participate in activities together outside of work, such as excursions to the sand dunes.
Fleming started his own career in the industry as a teenager, being introduced to the trade by his brother who was a custom painter. Fleming eventually became a painter at several shops before launching a powder coating business for a decade. He sold that business, and in 2012 opened his own body shop in 4,000 square feet of the company’s current facility. Since then, he’s added a second shop in Stayton (with three employee) and expanded into almost all 20,000-square-feet of his Salem building.
The growth has so far all been based on customer referrals rather than insurer direct repair programs.
“We’re old-school in that, 100 percent, the customer is always right,” he said. “Always. I don’t care what it is. They’re right. I tell my guys that.”
He recalls one customer who came back six months after the shop replaced a fender because the mudflap was falling off.
“As the guys are putting a screw in to reattached the mudflap, I see the customer just melt as he realized, ‘You didn’t even replace the fender on that side, did you? Why didn’t you tell me,’” Fleming recalled. “I told him we just want to fix it. It’s no big deal. He said, ‘I'm going to refer everybody to you.’ I see shops all time try to blame it on the customer. We don’t do that. Even if they aren’t right, we take care of it and move forward. Ultimately, it will pay for itself in the long run.”
Fleming has added a 50-foot paint booth to expand the fleet, RV and bus repair work the shop can offer, and he’s considering adding a large truck frame rack to supplement the shop’s existing Chassis Liner rack.
“Nobody is really going that direction, and now if you want to survive, you can’t be just another guy waiting for the insurance work to come through the door,” he said. “You’ve got to be different from everybody else.”
He also is installing two newly purchased Ameri-Cure paint booths to supplement the Garmat paint booth currently in use. In addition to a “great deal” on the booths, he liked that they are made in America.
“Every part for those, I can get from a Grainger catalog and replace if I ever need to,” he said. “I can order the part and put it in myself.”
The company switched to AkzoNobel Coatings’ Sikkens paint line about a year ago.
“I used to be a rep for them when I was younger, so I know it’s a great company,” Fleming said. “Their color-matching is better than any paint out there, though all the paint companies have come a long way, so what you look at is the service.”
Purchasing the company’s paint and shop supplies along with non-OEM parts through LKQ Corp. has led to savings on all those purchases, he said.
The shop has earned I-CAR Gold Class Professionals status not because of insurance company requirements but because of Fleming’s belief in the need for ongoing training.
“Things are definitely changing in our trade right now. Our techs need to know this stuff. They need to learn it. We’re putting customers in these cars, and they have to be done properly. If my kids are in those cars, I want to know they’re done properly.”
The company’s training record, growth and reputation among customers is attracting insurers’ interest, Fleming said, and several have approached him about adding the shop to their direct repair programs. It’s something he’ll consider, he said, but only if it allows him to still put his customers’ and employees’ best interests first.
“If you’re taking care of your customer and taking care of your employees, you’re going to be fine,” he said.