Tuesday, 26 July 2011 18:28

Reorganized Lehigh Valley Collision Repair Association Now Serves Pennsylvania

Written by David Brown

The re-energized Lehigh Valley Collision Repair Association is serving eastern Pennsylvania, including cities such as Allentown, Easton and Bethlehem. The one-year-old group comprises 18 auto body repair facilities, jobbers, parts suppliers, information providers and rental car companies, says its president, Matt Dewalt, AAM.

“Our mission is to promote the professional image of our industry through safe, quality and ethical repairs,” explains Dewalt, vice president of Scott’s Collision Centers, which is celebrating its 40th year serving the Lehigh Valley.

“We want to educate and lead our members to better themselves by allowing the free exchange of ideas and assist with ongoing training,” he adds. “It is truly an organization made up of members who want to better our industry.”

His father, Scott, a past and current member of LVCRA, started their business in 1971, and today the two locations, in Easton and Stroudsburg, comprise 34,000 square feet and generate about $5 million in annual sales.

The original LVCRA has roots at least 50 years deep and was very active in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, sponsoring golf tournaments, hosting monthly meetings and holding I-CAR and other classes, Dewalt says. At the time, Scott participated with his early shop, but membership dwindled and meetings stopped about 10 years ago.

LVCRA had a regular following of shops early on, says Garry Sandt, a current board member with 23 years experience in the collision repair industry. “However, over time it became basically the same six or seven shops that were attending, and it grew stale, although this was in no part related to the efforts or energy of those participating.” Today Sandt is district manager for National Coatings & Supply -PA and NJ Group.

“It was a real struggle to get shops to come out and get involved — regardless of timing and/or content of the meetings,” he adds. About two years ago, the association stopped growing completely. One reason: “Shops that were not participating were concerned that they would be looked at unfavorably by the insurance companies for participating.”

Joe Hepp, a past member and current secretary of LVCRA, agrees that low membership was attributable to industry divisions in the 1980s. “Some shops were not on speaking terms with other shops because of poor communication,” he says. “To help create better camaraderie among the shops, I originally joined the association and have been a member since.” In Allentown, his Hepp Brothers Collision Center is celebrating its 35th anniversary.

About a year ago, Rich Daku, past member and current treasurer of LVCRA and a partner in Daku Auto Body of North Catasauqua e-vited former members to his shop one night to view his building addition. His fourth-generation family business was founded in 1948, and in the early years, his grandfather was president of what was then called the “Auto Body Association”—his father was later a board member.

“While there, discussions turned to the old association,” Dewalt recalls. “Rich mentioned that there was still a few hundred dollars left in the account and suggested donating it to the local technical schools. He said, ‘Unless someone wants to get it started again’—and everyone looked at me.”

So Dewalt volunteered, helping to re-establish the organization on a challenging budget. “I said that I have no idea how to run an association but that I could get a group of people together and get some great guest speakers.”

He was motivated to help the local shops: “I remembered that when the association was going strong, shops seemed to be doing well. Once the association dwindled, it seemed a disconnect happened over time amongst shop owners. I always felt that we are stronger working together toward a common goal.”

In addition, Dewalt had been a member of the DuPont Business Council IV for many years. “I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to learn a lot of great things from a lot of great people,” he says. “Now I have a chance to share that with others.”

The group met again a few times and formally restarted at a Sept. 27, 2010, meeting. They established a structure of four officers and two board members and quarterly membership meetings, held at members’ shops or a hotel meeting room. Mike Anderson of Collision Advice spoke to that first meeting, with 50 people attending, he recalls.

Since then, Aaron Schulenburg, SCRS executive director, has also spoken to the group and, as a result, LVCRA is exploring an affiliation with the national organization. Just recently, Chuck Sulkala, who was in the Lehigh Valley area at the time, spoke about I-CAR and the NABC.

To prevent the fate of the original organization, the new group is focusing on membership expansion— up to 50 miles away from the Lehigh Valley base. “The association is working hard to recruit a more diverse membership so that there is a wider view to all of those involved with our industry,” Daku says. “We are explaining that we are here to help each other to improve relationships with each other and the insurance companies.”

Emphasis, too, is on education: Future meetings will discuss database enhancement gateway (DEG), estimating and blueprinting, new metals and equipment as well as feature speakers, Dewalt explains.

“Through educating ourselves, if we can help define the rules of engagement that are fair for everyone in the industry, then the association will be successful,” says Andy Estojak, past and current LVCRA member and owner of Andy’s Champion Auto Body in Bethlehem. “At the same time, the association also provides us a unified front as collision shops.”

“Our industry is getting tougher and tougher all the time, due to higher customer standards and insurance cut-backs,” Daku adds. “We constantly have to change with technology and structure our shops to be most efficient at how they are run.”

Keith Stephens and his son, Benjamin, agree on the group’s educative mission. “One major element for us is helping our fellow shops understand the complexities of estimating systems —aspects such as ‘P’ or procedure pages,” says Keith, a current member and past president of LVCRA. He owns North Star Automotive in Bethlehem, which he founded in 1984. “Every aspect of the business is more complex than it was in the past.”

“There’s a learning curve for all of us,” says Benjamin, LVCRA’s vice president and general manager/estimator at North Star Automotive. “But the more people from the area who can participate, the better everyone will understand the changing nature of our industry. Add to that, there’s a great sense of camaraderie within the group.”

Adds Dewalt: “There is a lot of comfort in knowing that what you are currently going through with your business, there is someone else experiencing it also. The association provides a forum where people in the industry can get together and freely exchange information to better themselves.”

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