Bryan “BJ” Barger was an Air Force jet engine mechanic for a decade and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea. Today, he is the owner of Son of a Fink Kustoms in Mountain Home, ID.
As a 2010 WyoTech graduate, Barger, 36, gives much credit to the school that helped him find a viable and profitable career in car restoration and customization. ABN sat down recently with Barger to discuss his journey and his opinions about the industry overall.
Q: How did WyoTech set you up for success in the collision repair industry, and how has it led to owning a shop?
A: I owe everything to WyoTech---that’s where I got my inspiration. The instructors are top-notch. I’ve never been in a place that offered as much instruction as you wanted. I took a ton of classes---automotive, high performance, collision, street rod---and finished at the top of my class every time. While I was there I would stick around after school every day and pick up as much as I possibly could. I’d even stick around for the next class and help the instructor just to gather more information and soak up as much as I could while I was there.
Q: How did that lead to you owning your shop?
A: Being at WyoTech made me want to own my own shop because learning all that information and getting all that training made me a jack-of-all-trades. It made me want more. Being a veteran, you come out of the military and you want to push yourself to be the best. Being at WyoTech, one of the best schools in the country, also pushes you to be the best.
Q: Do you hire veterans/WyoTech grads at your shop?
A: Yes. We have a lot of retirees here and I like to bring them in to do body work. I work with a lot of disabled veteran organizations around here trying to relocate vets. I hire them as apprentices and teach them a trade. I open up my shop to everybody because there are too many people who close their doors. My deal is if you come in and work for me for two hours, I’ll go work on your car for an hour for free. That way they’re learning. I like that they’re trying to better themselves. It’s all around great for everybody. Right now, I only have one partner in my business, and we have one apprentice. We like doing the apprenticeship program because we like to teach them.
Q: What are the three main things you learned while attending WyoTech?
A: The most important things I learned at WyoTech are that I can do it, to pay attention to detail, and that it’s best to learn as much as you possibly can when you can. The instructors at WyoTech put so much into me; they let me know that I can do it. They taught me to pay attention to detail and about the business. They pushed me, and inspired me to start my own shop. I owe everything to that place.
Q: As a body shop owner/restoration company, what are your top concerns?
A: My top concerns are keeping the doors open, keeping customers flowing and making sure that good relationships are kept with other body shops. I want to keep everyone, including the insurance companies, happy. We work hard to make sure our reputation stays as good as possible.
Q: How has the restoration industry in your state changed most significantly within the last 10-20 years?
A: The big trend we are seeing is that customers don’t want their car back the same color it came in with. Also many are moving towards graphics and customization. This trend is getting stronger in our state (Idaho). We can customize a car with aftermarket parts and make it better than when it was new for less than a traditional body shop using OEM parts.
Q: A body shop owner told me one time that the tug-of-war between body shops and insurance companies will never cease, although it will change and evolve over time. Do you agree and if your relationships with your insurers have changed, how and why?
A: I agree that our relationships with insurers have changed, but for us they have gotten better. They want to save money by using aftermarket parts – I suggest using after-market products with a warranty. The insurance guy in town sends customers to my body shop all the time. I often hear “I should get in an accident so I can get my car fixed” and I consider that a compliment.
Q: How has all of the new technology impacted your productivity? Customer service? Marketing? Online?
A: Technology is great. Facebook is key to driving customers and Instagram allows you to post pictures and hook a younger generation that is looking for graphics. We are surrounded with social media, which is why I created a social media team to drive more attention.
Q: In Idaho, do you still encounter midnight body shops that are operating under the radar? How do these shady businesses affect your bottom line?
A: We encounter midnight body shops a lot. They don’t affect our bottom line---they weed themselves out. The part that frustrates me the most is redoing the poor work they did on someone’s vehicle.
Q: Are you constantly asked by your insurance partners to incorporate more aftermarket and recycled/remanufactured parts into your repairs? Are some of these parts OK to use, or would you want to use OE parts on every repair if you could?
A: We are the ones recommending aftermarket parts to the insurers and customers. I prefer aftermarket, because I can make them fit better. We can cut and trim the parts and do a little customization to make it fit better than it did originally. Believe it or not, it’s really affordable. If more body shops were to offer custom work, they would see a lot more productivity and more people coming in.
Q: Imagine this industry in 20 years, and share your vision.
A: Twenty years from now it will still be pretty much the same. You’ll still have to fix dents and dings and chips here and there. We also do a lot of custom work, and people will always want to customize their vehicles. There will always be aftermarket parts and accessories and custom paint. And even if cars are all automated, people will still want hot rods and street rods.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: One of the restorations we're doing right now is completely restoring a 1966 Ford Bronco for TKO Clamping Systems called "Norma Jean" to appear at this year's SEMA show for TKO Clamping Systems. We're taking this diamond in the rough and turning her into a big star, and then taking her to Vegas! This is our first SEMA build and we are working with a lot of local artists on this project, so we're really excited.
Q: What would you say to other veterans who are considering a career in the collision repair industry?
A: It’s a good industry to get into. I would highly recommend going the custom way, but the collision industry would be great to get into. There will always be wrecks. You’re always going to have people getting into fender-benders, so you’re always going to have work. You’re always going to be able to put food on the table and it’s honestly not that hard; it’s a fun job to do.