These were the words Joe DiFatta, DeRussy Motors, Waveland, Mississippi, told me this past January at his shop. This statement is now being echoed by countless other collision repair shop operators as they attempt to recover and re-open their businesses after Katrina's devastation.
t is after all human nature to help those in need? Right? Or do profit and loss statements and stockholders expectations cloud a company's ability to reach out and help? Should a long-term customer that normally paid their bills on time expect any special treatment after such a catastrophe. When people reach out for help, does the almighty dollar reign or do common sense and decency prevail? These are all questions and values put the test post Katrina.
Given the response to Hurricane Katrina, shop owner/operators feelings are mixed. But one thing is for sure, those challenged with rebuilding and re-opening their shops will be loyal to those that helped them far into the future.
Drowning in paperwork
One major problem that shops are tackling is trying to settle business insurance claims. Shops are embattled over coverage questions. Insurers debate whether damage is flood damage or wind damage while shop owners burden the cost of rebuilding on their own. Cash flow has been a problem for operators to re-open and re-establish themselves in the marketplace. Unless one has an open line of credit or many tangible assets, pulling one's self out of a long-term closure can be very challenging and unfortunately many will probably not recover.
Many of the major paint companies and their local jobbers immediately came forward and helped their customers. Word is the auto insurers paid the shops fairly for work in progress and parts. Our industry rose to the occasion and formed Collision Industry Relief to help our brethren in need (www.collisionindustryrelief.org).
However, too many other organizations did not or hesitated to offer assistance.
"Our data base provider sent late notices and threatened to send our account to collections," commented Mike Pike, Pike's Collision, Slidell, Louisiana. "Yes, we received disks every month but we could not write any estimates for over six months. I was seriously considering the competition. How could they not know the challenges we were faced with? Finally common sense prevailed and they waived eight months. We opened two weeks ago."
Paul Reynolds, body shop manager, Mossy Motors expressed: "Our body shop was one of only six open in the New Orleans area. We had insurers contact us about being Direct Repair Providers for them. We had to think, where were they prior to Katrina? We chose to take care of the insurers who believed in us all along. We will add the other carriers when we can. It was our turn to show them our loyalty."
This idea of being loyal is a two-way street. What goes around comes around.
Calvin Schenck, CarCraft, Chalmette Louisiana, used what leverage he had left. "I was frustrated with a local family-run GM dealership. I had been buying my parts from them for over 38 years. They cut me off (COD) after falling three months behind." Well, Schenck paid his bill and now does business with another company. His GM parts business was estimated to be around $300,000 per year.
Sears steps up to the plate
Another shocker. None of the mobile tool companies offered assistance to our technicians. You know the trucks that stop by every week and drop off tools and collect checks from technicians. A gulf coast shop owner had this to say. "We were very disappointed with the companies that make their living off the backs of our technicians."
After no commitment from any of the major tool suppliers, we turned to Sears Craftsmen tool division. They came forward and gave us deeply discounted pricing on starter tool sets for metal technicians. I tell everyone I know to do business with Sears to thank them for supporting our colleagues in need.
As the Gulf Region comes back, those that make it will be stronger and bigger than before Katrina. And Joe Difatta was right - collision repairers will remember those businesses that helped them. And that, Mister Stockholder, you can take to the bank!
Notes from the gulf coast
By Janet Chaney
May 24, 2006 - just 5 days shy of the nine-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans one can still drive for miles through unpopulated neighborhoods, 21st century ghost towns. No grocery stores, no gas stations, an occasional FEMA trailer in a yard, where someone is putting their stake in the ground and rebuilding their lives. A local paint jobber had 308 shops on his call list, pre-Katrina. He now has six. The economic impact of this event is staggering.
Yet the spirit of renewal is evident. Traffic is flowing, in spite of many traffic lights still not working. One new Toyota dealership has a trailer parked in front of the building. They are operating and selling cars off the lot out of that trailer. For now, no showroom there.
A body shop owner in Chalmette has one chair sitting in front of his fax machine. His new office - and he is thrilled to have it. Hotels are open and inviting with lobbies full of relief and support people - rather than the business suits of the past.
Still facing an unclear future, those that have stayed on the Gulf coast are forging ahead, taking control of their own destiny. They are still in peril. Most have dwindled away personal resources to stay alive and rebuild. Financial assistance is almost impossible to acquire.
Government bureaucracy is blocking expedient rebuilding. Many insurance claims are embroiled in "who is going to pay what." It is a daily fist fight to recovery - a true test of the human spirit.
Collision Industry Relief needs more help. Simply put - more money! There are more people on the list than resources available. Please contribute what you can. It could be you or your family someday in this untold, unprecedented circumstance. We need help to help our own. After spending time on the gulf coast - it is apparent that if the situation were reversed, our southern colleagues would be helping us.
To contribute, go to www.CollisionIndustryRelief.com, or call Jordan Hendler at the National Auto Body Council at 888-667-7433.
Janet Chaney and Michael Quinn, 911 Collision Centers, Arizona, are on the Gulf Coast conducting follow up visits with shops that are being helped by the Collision Industry Relief fund.