Owner of Gold Class body shop believes in training, creating good work atmosphere

Portland, Ore.—As someone with several degrees including an MBA, Rhonda Phillips understands the value of education. That’s led her to earn the I-CAR Gold Class designation for her shop, Courtesy Auto Body, in Southwest Portland.

“It’s important for people to have education, whatever they do,” said Phillips, who pays for technician training provided they stay with the company for at least a year after taking a course. “And the guys actually like learning. One of them was previously at a facility for years that never paid for them to do any I-CAR training. So he had a lot of it to do in his first year here, but he was happy to have the opportunity to take the courses.”

Philips has a long history with the shop she now owns, having started with the company as a receptionist in the 1980s. She purchased the business from its second owner in 2001, and now has six employees, including manager Joe Miller, who also worked at Courtesy in the 1980s and who Phillips rehired about four years ago.

Philips said one key challenge for the business is space. The shop is currently operating in its original 5,000-square-foot L-shaped building with limited outdoor parking. For a number of years, the business had expanded into an adjoining building, but when the properties came up for sale in 2008, Phillips was able to buy only the parcel with the original shop.

It meant moving the shop’s paint department back into the original building with the purchase of a new Global Finishing Solutions booth. But she still hopes to acquire additional property nearby.

While Phillips is not a fan of insurance direct repair programs, and although the shop participates in a few for smaller insurers, she said she makes sure those customers understand they have a choice as to where they take their car.

The company relies on its website and AAA certification, a longtime large fleet account, and the repeat and referral business developed over 40 years in business in the same location.

“I think we’re here because we don’t have unhappy customers,” Miller said. “We don’t have to go on TV and tell everybody how great we are. People who have had their cars fixed here will tell other people. Our customers are our marketing department.”

“If there’s something they’re not happy with, we take care of it,” Phillips added. “We do really go above and beyond. One of the things I really like is when people come in with an estimate from a bigger facility they comment on actually feeling like they get attention here and they’re not a number. Joe and I remember their names.”

“I remember cars more than names,” Miller said, laughing. “But they’re pretty impressed that you even remember their car. And Rhonda is really good with names.”

The shop has been a longtime PPG user and made the transition this past year to PPG’s Envirobase waterborne line. Miller said with a solvent system, a painter can become a bit of a “bench chemist” to adjust the materials given the environment. The waterborne system requires more consistency.

“There’s no corner-cutting. It’s either right or wrong, no in-between,” Miller said. “It seems to have slower booth time but it’s a trade-off because there’s less tint time. The colors are just about spot-on. We hardly have to tint the color any more.”

Industrial Finishes has become a much-appreciate vendor, Miller and Phillips said, as is Landmark Ford.

“They give us such great service,” Phillips said, of the Ford dealer. “I think all of our vendors give us great service, but Landmark Ford stands out. And for some reason we do a lot of Fords.”

Phillips said a Compressed Air Systems compressor has been their only equipment purchase this year, but she thinks a replacement for the shop’s aging frame rack is likely next.

Miller and Phillips also agree that the technician shortage is, and will be, a key challenge for not only their business but the industry as a whole. They no longer see technicians regularly coming into the shop looking for work. They say they see younger people finding other ways to earn more money without the increasing amount of knowledge, skill and expertise required to repair ever-more-complex vehicles. Miller said he thinks jobbers may need to take a larger role as the industry’s labor pool, doing more recruiting and training.

“Luckily, we have a really good crew, and we’re not a gigantic machine like some of the bigger shops,” Miller said. “I don’t need 20 techs. There’s just five of us. And I’m still a hands-on guy, so if somebody is sick, I can pick up the slack. The painter can also do some body work and the body man can do some painting.”

Miller said he and Phillips also agree on making the shop a pleasant place to work, unlike some of his previous employers.

“Maybe those people get huge production numbers but nobody’s happy,” Miller said. “I didn’t respond well to that. Happy employees are productive employees are far as I’m concerned.”

“We just all try to work together,” Phillips said. “That really avoids conflict and makes everybody more productive.”

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.