Expanding Schaefer Autobody Centers embraces OEM relationships, certifications
O’Fallon, Ill.—Traditionally, collision repair shops serving a non-transient population could rely on doing superior work to generate not only repeat business, but create word-of-mouth advertising for additional traffic. That was followed by insurance companies driving DRP work to shops. And now, OEM-certification programs promise to be the next trend, predicts Scott Schaefer, vice president of Schaefer Autobody Centers, with eight locations in the St. Louis area and another, in Columbia, slated to open in June.
“I see the dealerships and the OEMs being much more influential on where customers take their cars in the near future,” Schaefer said. “I think they’re probably going to be almost as influential as the insurance companies are.”
New-car dealer referrals also drive business
A number of new-car dealers throughout the St. Louis metro area are driving business to Schaefer Autobody Centers, Schaefer said, including Honda Frontenac, which provides referrals through its own employees.
“It worked out that their ethics, customer service, and quality were in line with ours,” he said. “It’s been a great partnership. Sometimes, there’s a parts-purchasing commitment you have to make, so now all our locations buy parts from Honda Frontenac. Or you can get creative with the discount or commission on sales performed. If the dealership is open to it, you can even station your own representative at the dealership as a satellite office.”
At Gateway Buick GMC in Hazelwood, that setup has worked well, where an experienced employee can appraise the damage, set up the repair at the closest repair center, arrange for a rental car for the customer, and have the vehicle transported on Schaefer’s own flatbed truck, if necessary. Schaefer said he just inked an agreement to have a similar arrangement with Weber Chevrolet’s Columbia, Ill., dealership at press time, with Weber’s Granite City, Ill., location expected to follow in mid-May.
Technology demands techs be kept up to speed
Schaefer said he and his father, founder and owner Steve Schaefer, had considered OEM-certification programs for some time, but they hadn’t seen their full value until recently.
“What really lit a fire for us was about a year ago, when my dad went to a CIC meeting and there was a Honda presentation talking about the desperate need for having better training programs and getting technicians up to speed on Honda’s required repairs,” he said.
A technician not aware of the proper repair techniques can accidentally damage the vehicle or cause it to be unsafe, Schaefer said, especially as quickly as vehicle technology changes. “So it’s very important to provide the resources online: the repair procedures, the information necessary, and making sure they’re going to enough classes to be informed on these new technologies.”
Schaefer Autobody Centers is now affiliated with two OEM-certification programs: Assured Performance, with certifications for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford (including the aluminum F-150), GM, Infiniti, Lincoln and Nissan; and Honda’s recently revamped ProFirst program.
Each program audits a shop’s facility, equipment and training, and Schaefer said the company relies on its I-CAR Gold recognition to keep each employee trained, going so far as having a full-time employee who’s tasked with monitoring each staff member’s training and scheduling needs.
The ProFirst program also provides free online access to Honda and Acura information including parts catalogs, parts and service bulletins, and collision and mechanical repair manuals. Being the first to market with OEM certifications is a competitive edge for the company, Schaefer said. “Even if they’re not generating a ton of sales today, as time goes by, we’ll already have a foothold in the program,” he said.
Examine repair methods, equipment needs of technology
The 2015 F-150’s aluminum body requires specialized equipment for repair. As a recognized body shop through Ford’s National Body Shop program, part of Assured Performance’s OEM-certification program, Schaefer Autobody Centers has all of the equipment required, Schaefer said, although it is focusing its aluminum-repair capabilities at its Crestwood location and will load-level repairs there as needed.
For shop owners not affiliated with a certification program, he encourages them to talk with other shop owners who have done aluminum repairs and to learn from them where to place priorities on equipment purchases.
“There are a lot of trends that are introduced to our industry,” Schaefer said. “And those of us who have been around long enough, we’re naturally skeptical. We’ll see a new production system that involves buying a bunch of carts or infrared dryers. It’s all very flashy and shiny and it makes sense on paper, but is it realistically what we need at this point in time? And if I’m a small business owner, I have to weigh out, ‘What do I spend my money on this year?’ And it may not be on building a clean room for aluminum repair — that may be later on down the road after we see how important it is.”
A shop owner should evaluate the vehicle population in his market, he said; if the shop serves a market with mostly newer vehicles, the demand will be there more quickly for the newer equipment needed to repair it.
Talking with an equipment supplier, such as Automotive Technology Inc., who Schaefer said relies on, can also help decide where to allocate resources.
“You don’t want to give your customers a reason to go to a competitor,” he said. “If you have to turn away a job because you don’t have the right welder to fix what needs to be fixed, then you could lose that customer’s potential business and their family’s for the rest of their driving life.”