Learn as you go and hire the right talent
Boise, Idaho—Dave Higgs said that working with a handful of other shop owners about six years ago to revitalize the Idaho Autobody Craftsman Association, which had been dormant for nearly a decade, has had a positive impact on his business, Franklin Auto Body.
“It’s important to get shops together to talk about the industry,” Higgs, who serves as secretary on the association’s board, said. “We wanted it to be about education, and I’ve learned a lot from the other guys and the speakers we bring in a couple times a year. After we started that, we really began to figure out some of our headaches here at the shop.”
Higgs had an abrupt start as a business owner. After attending the collision repair program at Boise State University, he worked as a painter, joining the staff at Franklin Auto Body shortly after the shop opened in 1985. In the late 1990s, not long after he had moved into the office to learn that side of the business, the shop owner died in a helicopter accident. Higgs became business partners with Jennifer Vandyke, the former shop owner’s daughter, and they have run the business since.
“So, obviously, I was thrown into it really quickly, without much training,” Higgs said. “It’s been learn-as-you-go.”
About two years ago, Higgs hired Greg Feigel, who had more than 15 years experience managing dealership body shops in Oregon, to help run day-to-day operations.
“He really knows a lot about the industry,” Higgs said. “Like me, he’s been in it forever, but he’s run the front office [in other shops] more than I have. Within a couple of weeks here, he was off and rolling, and has things dialed in, and it’s working great.”
The company employs 13 people in all, repairing about 20 cars a week in two 4,000-square-foot buildings with a large vehicle storage area in between. After more than 30 years in the same location, about half of the shop’s business is repeat customers or comes in through word of mouth, Higgs said, adding that the shop is also on direct repair programs with State Farm and USAA, receives referrals from a number of local dealerships, and is seeing an increasing number of Open Shop assignments through CCC Information Services.
Tool and equipment investments
The shop’s four body technicians use a Chisum Freedom frame rack and the Spanesi Touch measuring system, and recently purchased a Polyvance plastic welder, and has geared up to do more aluminum repair work with a Pro Spot Smart MIG welder and a Dent Fix Aluspot aluminum repair station.
“We’ll do aluminum quarter panels and repairs, but if it’s a bigger job, like a frame rail, we’ll refer a customer to a certified shop,” Higgs said. “If a Jag comes in that’s hit pretty hard, for example, I’ll suggest they take it to Portland or Salt Lake to a certified shop. I want to work on stuff that we know and can do safely. If we get something that’s above that capability, there’s no sense us working on it.”
Franklin Auto Body also recently purchased a battery-powered squeeze-type resistance spot welder from American Innovative Manufacturing in Spokane, Wash.
“It’s worked well, fantastic,” Higgs said. “We didn’t have to put in the three-phase [electrical service] so that saved me some money. I demo’ed some other units, and for the money, I don’t think you can beat this one.”
He said the shop’s next purchase will likely be air conditioning equipment for the R-1234yf refrigerant.
In the paint booth
In the paint department, the shop has a Viking booth that Higgs converted to a heated downdraft, and a Nova Verta booth he upgraded to handle waterborne. For now, the shop has remained a long-time user of BASF’s Diamont paint line purchased through National Coatings and Supplies (NCS), and Higgs calls both NCS and BASF “good partners with us.”
“The solvent has worked really well, and we really haven’t had any issues other than we’ve had a few cars where they’re not making the solvent color, so we had to use waterborne for those jobs,” Higgs said. “We just sent one of the painters to training and certification in the Onyx paint line, so we may switch to that or Glasurit next year. We may need to upgrade our air compressor to do that.”
Higgs said the paint shop has used IRT heat lamps in the paint shop for years, but has more recently been using more UV-cured primers.
“That works really well as far as getting things done, quickly and correctly,” he said. “If you need to do a quick bumper job, within an hour it can be out and being put on the car.”
Taking care of customers
Feigel and Higgs both said that keeping up with new vehicle technology is the biggest challenge they see.
“Every car you pull in seems to have some new safety system,” Higgs said.
“And those safety systems are a non-negotiable,” Feigel added. “Our main concern is that the vehicle and its occupants are safe. So all those systems have to be right. That, and helping customers through a hard time, are our main concerns. Let’s face it: collision repair from a customer’s perspective is a pain, a disruption in their life when people are so busy. But we have to understand that every person who walks through that door needs our help. We need to get them through the process as quickly and smoothly as we can. There’s a lot of places that herd customers like cattle. We concentrate on the customer experience, and try to make it the best we can. That’s our main goal with the understanding that the safety of the vehicle and a correct repair are a given at Franklin Auto Body.”