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Tuesday, 06 August 2013 16:45

Repairer-Only Roundtable Airs the Issues Important to Repairers

For the sixth time since the Repairer’s Roundtable began over a year ago, collision repairers from across the nation gathered for three and a half hours on Tuesday, July 23 at the Westin Boston Waterfront. The exclusive event, intended only for representatives of collision repair businesses, was hosted by AASP-MA, but, while Aaron Schulenburg, Executive Director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), was present to kick off the meeting, he repeatedly told the attendees that the “goal here is to have discussion from everyone in the room,” stressing the concept of “your agenda, your meeting.”

Over forty individuals gathered to discuss current concerns with the collision repair industry and possible solutions. The dialogue began with a local shop owner objecting to the fact that Massachusetts has the lowest labor rates in the country, a travesty he partially attributed to steering. Regarding a possible solution, it was suggested that there could be a national campaign to promote consumer awareness and education; distributing a common message to association members who would, in turn, relay the information to their customers seemed to be the most viable option for disseminating this important message.

As options for educating consumers were introduced and debated, one suggestion was to distribute a nationally consistent message through social media, on either a weekly or monthly basis. Another suggestion was made to provide and disseminate pre-packaged material for social media consumption. Tony Ferraiolo, President of the Auto Body Association of Connecticut (ABAC), emphasized the need for a joint effort between national and local associations as well as shops to promote the message, noting “insurer steering is easy because consumers just don’t know.”

In addition to utilizing social media, the group endorsed the effectiveness of Public Service Announcements as consistent with the way consumers obtain their information, directing them to association websites for further information. Ferraiolo acknowledged that there are no simple solutions, “but we can do a better job of educating consumers” through the vast array of technology not being utilized currently.

Seeing a parallel between consumers and repairers when it comes to the distribution of information, Schulenburg noted that lots of information intended for collision repair shops is never utilized, asking what the key to inspiring the use of these resources could be. One attendee noted that OEMs will be funding Public Service Announcements this fall to explain that new vehicles which are being released cannot be safely repaired the same way as older vehicles, but the message has nothing to do with selling more OEM parts. It’s about maintaining the safety and value of the vehicles. It also stresses that modern repairs require specific educational and equipment components and that the fact that the industry is changing.

The conversation turned to the issues surrounding manufacturer certifications with some repairers seeing the value of becoming certified while others, such as Tony Lombardozzi, President of the Coalition for Collision Repair Excellence (CCRE), took a more skeptical view. Lombardozzi asked “what good is a certification? It’s just a piece of paper that says you have knowledge, but you can have knowledge without that paper.” He suggested that this issue may create crises in the industry as a shop can have all the proper training and equipment and still not complete the repair correctly.

This debate led to a general question: do repairers trust OEMs? Several clarified that their issues with manufacturer certifications are less related to trust than ‘pecuniary inequalities,’ especially in the MA market where labor rates are so low, making it difficult to pay the costs associated with the certification. Several attendees then engaged in a conversation about OEMs offering training to independent repair facilities because they’re interested in vehicles being repaired properly. The ideas that shops are expected to invest in additional training without expecting any return on their investment led Schulenburg to ask, “is this really an issue of whether or not we should invest in training and equipment, or is the model of how we do business broken?”

As participants discussed which issues to tackle later in the meeting, one participant compared the collision repair industry to a sinking ship; though there may be many leaks, the first step is to find the biggest hole and plug it up. Many participants pointed to the low levels of local collision repairer business representation in the room. Lombardozzi immediately concurred, citing an overarching apathy in the industry as the biggest obstacle faced. Most repairers see the problems, but they assume that someone else will fix them. This apathy allows others (insurers, OEMs and so forth) to assume control of the industry, but Lombardozzi insists, “we don’t need anyone [else] to tell us where we’re headed; the experts in our industry need to determine where we’re going.”

Peter Abdelmaseh, former Executive Director of AASP-MA, added that there is a huge distrust of associations within the industry, and it is necessary to look outside the associations to understand their limitations. They can’t do everything repairers want them to do unless they are strengthened. Another repairer pointed out that it is impossible to overcome this distrust if those repairers are not in the room.

In addition to the difficulties in getting away from their businesses and spending money to attend events and meetings, low self-esteem is a major contributing reason that many repairers opt against participating in associations and industry events, according to Lombardozzi who believes “the only way we can change that is to bring the message to them.”

Nearly all of the attendees agreed that too many third parties are inserting themselves into the collision business, so repairers must be very cautious when deciding who to partner with.

As the roundtable continued, many topics were broached without being pursued in great depth. There was some discussion about repair standards, and several attendees expressed concern with the domineering growth that multi-shop organization (MSOs) are taking in the industry and how this will affect smaller shops’ competitive abilities. However, one opposing view suggested that the recent interest of private equity firms and their decision to invest in MSOs could see these firms taking a stand to demand the right to establish their own pay rates which could, in turn, benefit the entire industry.

Schulenburg’s inquiry regarding how to take the voices of those in attendance and present it at larger forums, led to an impassioned discussion about CIC’s agenda and significance to actual collision repairers. Several expressed belief that CIC has abdicated their role as a leading organization in the collision industry. Some expressed sentiments that they feel CIC has been “overtaken” by special interests and no longer works.

The discussion of third-party interference led back to repair standards and who should be involved in the process of establishing and implementing them. Most attendees agreed that the creation and establishment of repair standards has nothing to do with insurers and should be left to OEMs and repairers, yet there were some dissenting views about whether insurers should play a role in the implementation of the standards since they do possess their own areas of expertise that may be important in this part of the process.

Many of the attendees agreed it was necessary to walk away from the meeting with at least one unified position that could be shared as a consensus of the repairers represented at the meeting, and this particular topic was chosen by the audience participants. The repairers in attendance represented as wide a diversity as exists in the collision industry—single location and both regional and national multi-shop operators, DRP and independent shops, family-run business and dealerships—but even in the diversity, there was commonality in their beliefs. The discussion concluded that nearly all in attendance felt it was important to convey that any formulation of standards for the collision repair industry should be developed and managed by the collision repairer, inviting in expertise in certain areas when needed, but never relinquishing control of the standard.

As the Repairer’s Roundtable’s time drew to a close, Schulenburg announced that the next gathering will be held at SEMA in November, and he asked what can be done constructively to result in meaningful action and to be certain that something relevant comes out of the meeting. Everyone agreed that the most important way to improve these meetings is to encourage everyone in the industry to attend.

The take home message to repairers is: ‘So what are you waiting for?’ As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” Don’t let anyone bend your back! Join associations. Attend meetings. Support and institute change today for a better industry tomorrow.

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