In the East there’s the snow; in the Mid-West, tornadoes and hail and in the West there is El Niño —a strange weather phenomenon that seems to come around every 10-15 years, wreaking havoc on weather patterns across the globe.
"El Niño" got its name in the 1800s from Peruvian fisherman, who first noticed a mysterious warm current that would appear around Christmas. They called it the "little boy" or "Christ child,” but people in the collision industry call it “Our cash cow,” “El Dinero,” or “Overtime.”
The strongest El Niño on record is expected to drench the southern half of United States this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The meteorological phenomenon will undoubtedly bring benefits for some industries, and setbacks for others.
The big question is—how will it help the collision industry and if so, to what degree?
The last truly massive El Niño appeared in 1997-'98 and ended up causing an estimated $35 billion in destruction and 23,000 deaths around the world. It was also a major boom for body shops throughout the region.
David Mello, the owner of Anderson Behel in Santa Clara, CA has a love/hate relationship with bad weather.
“Well, aside from the obvious glee that must be withheld for the sake of political correctness, El Niño is the best thing to happen to the collision repair industry,” Mello said. “There is nothing like unrelenting rainfall to bring our driving errors to the forefront! Limited visibility, fogged up windows, slippery roads and debris in the road all add up to increased accidents and texting while driving always helps, too!”
Mello appreciates the added work that El Niño brings, but also realizes that he will have to adapt to get it done, which isn’t always easy.
“My thoughts are that with the onset of El Niño, customers will have to wait longer for repairs until shops can work them in, as we do not have the ability to increase capacity on such short notice. Ramping up staff takes time, and with nearly full employment for collision technicians, shops can’t absorb much of the increase in volume. At our shop, I don’t know how we will keep up with the anticipated demand, because adding a second shift is almost out of the question. In the old days, we could gear up for bad weather, but now it just means more cars in the queue. We can work some overtime, but in the end it’s just more work that we need to get done. But, work is work and this is what we do, so come on, El Niño, we’ll figure it out!”
Sal Pannazzo is a veteran of the industry and has managed shops throughout southern California for more than two decades. He experienced the 1998 El Niño firsthand and saw the huge amount of work that resulted. But, things were a little different back then.
“In the ‘90s, we could benefit more from bad weather and it wouldn’t impact our production like it does today, because the focus on performance and customer satisfaction wasn’t as crucial back then,” Pannazzo explained. “Now, with the insurance companies that are concentrating so much more on things like cycle times and which parts to use, things like El Niño are a little more difficult to accommodate.”
The old days of cramming as many cars as you could into the shop and pushing them out are long gone, according to Pannazzo.
“Today’s customers are more educated about our industry and that’s a big part of it. It’s actually made the industry better overall, because now we have both the insurance companies and the customers watching us, grading us and gauging our performance on every repair,” he added.
Staffing can also lead to other issues during a weather event such as El Niño, or even the occasional earthquake that hits southern California, Pannazzo said.
“Good people are harder and harder to find today, so adding staff for El Niño for example, isn’t easy. When you step up your production to meet the need, you have to have the right people in place, or that can make it even tougher to fix the added vehicles,” he added.
What are some solutions Pannazzo has developed over the years to be ready when the weather changes for the worse , or better (depending on who you are)?
“We have had some success doing pre-orders,” he explained. “We assess the damage, write the estimate and order the parts upfront. That way, when they bring the car in for the repair, it doesn’t take as long. We tell some customers that because of the weather, it may take a few more days for their car to be completed and almost everyone is fine with it, because we inform them in advance.”
Although El Niño can be challenging, Pannazzo also knows that it can bring added revenue to any shop if it can handle the deluge of cars. “The types of damage we get from El Niño make for great repairs,” he said. “They normally involve hoods, roofs and trunks and come in at around $2,000 each, so if you can handle the volume, El Niño can end up being a good thing.”
Joe Currin is the owner of Dings & Dents in Campbell, CA. He has been performing Paintless Dent Repair (PDR) and minor other types of repairs for car dealerships and body shops for 25 years. In 1998, Currin had so much work from El Niño that it kept him busy for literally six months, he said.
“There was no much activity overall during that last El Niño that it was crazy and I did not get much sleep for quite awhile,” Currin said. “Falling tree branches that cause little fender benders and smaller dents are ideal for us obviously. My wife laughs at me when I cheer about the rain, because when I see it, it represents money for me and my business.”