Efficiencies gained during recession enables shop to invest for its future

Eugene, Ore.—Sharree Strausbaugh, who invested $5,000 in employee training last year, said she can’t understand why more shops aren’t maintaining the I-CAR Gold Class designation.

“We’re all about education here,” Strausbaugh said, adding that some I-CAR courses are even being held at her shop, A&M Autobody. “Technology is moving so fast. Plus, I-CAR is really starting to come into its own. In the past we’d hear complaints, but now our guys are coming back excited about these classes. I think that training is going to be important going into the future. Based on what’s happening in the collision industry, I think you will need to have that Gold Class level or better.”

Is she concerned that she won’t see a return on that investment in her 16 employees if they leave her shop after she has paid for their training?

“Well, first, we’re like a family around here. We have very little turnover,” she said. “We’ve retired three people after 40 years here. We have really skilled journeymen, craftsmen here. We did ask two people whom we re-certified in welding, which is expensive, to agree to pay us back for that if they leave within four years. But otherwise we pay for it. And we receive it back.”

Strausbaugh has owned and operated the shop for 16 years, purchasing A&M with a background in business but no collision repair industry experience. She takes pride in the fact that what was a long-standing but still-uncomputerized business when she bought it, is now among the most state-of-the-art in the industry, including being one of only 850 independent shops in the country designated by Ford as “aluminum-ready.” In addition to training, that designation required the creation of a “clean room” within the shop for aluminum work, and the purchase of an aluminum welder and tools – a total investment Strausbaugh estimates at $100,000.

“I actually went into our system and looked at how many F-150s we repaired each year,” Strausbaugh said. “We do a lot of Ford F-150s, so I know they’re coming and we’re ready.”

She credits the past economic recession for her shop’s ability to now invest in its own future.

“We looked at everything to cut our expenses and our costs in order to survive through that,” Strausbaugh said. “Everything, right down to counting every rag in the paint room and switching from having our rugs changed weekly to biweekly. I learned a lot through that process. On the other end of it, we’ve been blessed. It helped us create cost efficiencies to move into the future.”

Strausbaugh is quick to point out the quality of the team of employees, and she also has enthusiastic praise for some of the shop’s vendors. She said it was an honor to speak on behalf of Industrial Finishes when it recently was honored for “exemplary ethical leadership” by Northwest Christian University (where Strausbaugh’s husband, Greg, works).

“From day one, they have always worked with us so that we will be better,” Strausbaugh said. “I can always just pick up the phone to call and say, ‘Help,’ whether we’re having trouble with a paint booth, need a painter, or just want help in understanding or improving our numbers.”

Industrial Finishes, she said, helped her shop implement the Auveco clips and fasteners system, turning what had been a monthly expense of hundreds of dollars into a profit center. When the shop switched over to Axalta’s waterborne paint line, the transition “was seamless,” Strausbaugh said.

“Between Axalta and Industrial Finishes, what a team they are for us,” she said.

The 10,000-square-foot shop includes two spray booths, a Blackhawk frame rack and Chief Velocity measuring system, a Pro Spot SP-5 MIG welder and a Car-O-Liner CTR-1200 inverter spot welder.

But Strausbaugh said the best equipment means nothing without good people, processes, and procedures in place. She said that the shop’s cycle time always compares favorably with the marketwide statistics she gets through Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for example, in part because of smarter scheduling.

“I would say that 80 percent of the shops around the country still do the ‘in on Monday, out on Friday’ method of scheduling,” she said. “That’s totally a thing of the past here. We only schedule through our system, which is based on our capacity for each day. That has made a huge difference. Consistently, month after month, our cycle time beats everyone else in the area.”

She said that unlike some shops, she likes having the shop’s performance “graded” by customers, insurers, or others, because it helps her demonstrate that her shop can outperform larger competitors.

“Most people don’t like being graded, but I do,” she said. “Because it makes me better.”

A long-time member (and former board member) of the Northwest Automotive Trades Association (NATA) and other organizations, Strausbaugh said she is optimistic about the future for her business, and said she’d like to become even more involved with the industry.

“I think I could help other people in the industry, maybe even as a consultant someday — helping shops dissect their numbers or help them with processes and procedures,” she said.  Over the next five years, there’s going to be another transformation taking place in the collision industry. Be proactive to be ready for it. Don’t resist change — embrace it.”

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.