Western Shops Deal with Uncertain Times
We were mentioned in a recent article in Autobody News
Some shops are doing everything they can to return to normalcy, but with so many questions and so few answers, the situation seems to change every day. Body shops are considered essential businesses throughout the West, and most of them have stayed open, but they are operating with smaller crews and limiting hours, in most cases.
If you are a body shop owner, you obviously have a ton of concerns right now about layoffs, furlongs, your DRPs, your customers and #1—how long is this going to last? No one knows, but by playing it smart and using safe processes and procedures, western shops are hanging in there and holding their own.
David Mello owns Anderson Behel in Santa Clara, CA and has been in the industry for more than 40 years. He has a shop full of cars, but few customers, he said. “We closed the shop the day the shelter in place order for Santa Clara County was issued, even though I learned a few hours later that auto shops were deemed essential,” he said. “I decided to stay closed until the next morning of the day the original order ended. We have a shop and a parking lot full of work in process, so we reopened to get all the work out and vehicles back to customers. It will take us two to three weeks to clear up the existing work.”
Mello has two of his managers working each morning to handle any business, phone calls, parts deliveries, etc. This way their techs will be ready when they come in to do repairs. “We are not getting many requests for estimates, or tow ins,” he said. “With people sheltered in place there is little traffic, and little desire to get vehicles repaired. We will see what work comes in while we are open these next few weeks, and then decide to stay open with a skeleton crew, or simply close. I’ve heard that business is down 50% elsewhere. I fear it could be worse here.”
As the orders to stay in place hold, Mello will be setting up new procedural systems to keep his customers and employees safe, he said. “We haven’t made a decision yet about picking up or dropping off cars, but by being closed, we haven’t had to make those kinds of decisions. We adopted ‘touchless’ interactions with customers and vendors the morning of the shutdown on March 16th, and of course, we will keep that in place.”
Mello has almost one-third his crew on unemployment and has told them to stay on it until further notice. Those who do come in are adhering to a stringent set of safety rules. “I’ve instructed all employees to wear surgical masks the entire time at work, to save their N95 masks for any hazardous type work to conserve them. They must take their temperature each morning before work, and if it’s over 100, they have to stay home. We are also doing all of the physical distancing, and of course they can’t come in if they have a household member who’s sick. It’s obviously hard to make plans when things change constantly, but that is our current status.”
Tiffany Silva, owner of Accurate Auto Body in Richmond, CA is the president of the CAA’s East Bay Chapter was experiencing record sales when COVID-19 changed everything almost overnight. “March was our highest sales month ever and at the same time I was furloughing four people, two body techs, one helper and one estimator,” she said. “Times are challenging and this all seems so unreal. We are honestly staying busy. We typically have a two-week backlog but now we can take vehicles in immediately.”
Silva is staying safe and positive, she said. “I feel blessed that we have not had to reduce work hours or furlough anyone else yet. We are sanitizing vehicles upon arrival and delivery. This is a process that we may continue once the virus has passed. I recently read an article that stated steering wheels have more bacteria than a public restroom toilet—so disgusting!
Mike Brockway owns Dabler Autobody, a 50-year-old shop in Salem, OR. One of his main concerns is retaining his 19 employees while staying afloat. “We are slow at the moment, which gives us enough time to apply for payroll relief and SBA loans that are available for small businesses. It involves gathering documents and it’s time-sensitive, but if we can get that funding, we can keep our doors open.”
Brockway has been in this industry since he was old enough to detail a vehicle, but he’s still a little shocked by this recent turn of events. “When you own a business, you assume a lot of responsibility and you have a ton of people depending on you,” he said. “We want to be able to pay our people and get enough revenue to survive for as long as it takes.”
Shawn Beckstrom owns Beckstrom Body Shop, another 50-year-old shop with two locations in Ogden, UT. He is working closely with his DRPs to make sure they’re hitting their deadlines without severely damaging their cycle time during the pandemic. “We usually repair 80 cars every month out of the two shops combined,” he said. “Right now, we have retained all of our 42 employees full-time and don’t have any plans to slow down. We are a family business with ten family members working here, so we are all working hard to keep our jobs and support our families.”
Beckstrom’s estimators have been using a mobile app for years, but now it’s playing a larger role than ever, he said. “We use Face Time to talk to the customer while they take photos and it has been working well. We get eyes on the vehicle quickly and it’s all done virtually, which makes the vehicle owner comfortable. We can do the entire estimate without zero contact.”
While some shops are having issues recouping the additional costs created by the pandemic, Beckstrom has negotiated deals with his DRPS that are fair and equitable, he said. “The insurance companies have been very understanding and paying for the time it takes us to sanitize the cars and cover everything. It comes out to 45 minutes to one hour per car, so it’s not crazy. But, it’s nice that our DRPs are willing to negotiate and be flexible, which makes things a little easier during these confusing times.”