"I can see how I'm doing month-to-month, compared with last year, and compared to other shops, both low performers and, more important to me, high performers," Sipos said. "It's alright to see how you're doing compared with averages, but I also like being able to know what the top dogs are doing."
Sipos' source for his business analysis information is VisionPlus Online (VPOL), an online "shop management toolbox" developed by BASF.
"It's instantaneous feedback, and the pie charts and bar graphs make it fast and easy to compare analyses month to month," Sipos said of VPOL. "I probably spend about 15 minutes a month entering data, and if you don't have 15 minutes to go over your numbers and see how you're doing every month, you probably should sell your business."
Like all of the paint companies, BASF is working to bolster its success by helping its customer succeed - and so poured several years of research and development into VPOL, becoming the first paint company to offer a set of web-based business analysis tools. The product was unveiled in a demo at NACE in 2000, and was launched the following year after more than 100 shops had been using it in its beta form. Now with more than 400 regular users, VPOL (https://visionplus.basf.com) can provide a broad array of data and tools to help shop owners improve their business.
"With VisionPlus Online, you can enter your shop's data and see hundreds of benchmarking options, best practices and planning tools, all customized to your own business," Guy Bargnes, director of marketing for BASF's Automotive Refinish Regional Business Unit, said. "It's a set of tools that a shop can use to measure and improve its operations and plan long-term financial strategies."
A BASF customer visiting the site can start by entering some basic information about their business to receive an instant "snapshot" of the business' performance, including key indicators and comparisons. The shop owner can use this report to pinpoint weaker areas in their business - and then find suggestions for improvement. Eleven aspects of the business - such as parts, sales and marketing, productivity, etc. - are evaluated. A click on any of these topics brings up a checklist of 10 to 40 "best practices" the shop owner can use to improve the businesses' performance in that area, including ready-to-use forms or worksheets.
"Here's information to solve the shop owner's biggest headache, and he got to it at the second click," Bob Roewer, manager of eBusiness development for BASF's Automotive Refinish Regional Business Unit, said. "He didn't have to dig through a 36-page report just to find some number that confirms what he thinks his biggest problem is, and still might not offer any solutions. He just says, 'This is the thing that's driving me nuts every day, and click, here's the solution."
By entering monthly financial data, the shop owner can use VPOL over time to generate analyses, progress reports and industry comparisons. Roewer said new interactive worksheets being added to the system will help shops determine how different employee pay plans will impact their bottom line, or how different shop staffing or layout designs will impact production levels.
"This stuff isn't magic - if you spent enough time on it, you could figure it out on your own," Roewer said. "VisionPlus Online just makes it easy and enables you to see how you're doing, how that performance compares, and how it could be improved."
Planning a new shop or a remodel? VPOL includes 15 model facility plans, ranging from 7,000 square feet to over 32,000 square feet. Roewer said BASF's facility layout service is efficient and economical thanks in large part to a web-based checklist of "owner needs and preferences."
"When planning a new building, shop owners often get a layout designed, and then think of two or three things that require it to be changed," Roewer said. "That adds to the time and expense of the process. The VisonPlus Online planning checklist questions can help shop owners think about more of those types of things up front, to help them get the design they want sooner."
One of the enhancements being added to VPOL, Roewer said, will enable users to quickly determine at any time how much "capacity" they have to sell. A shop using the system has already entered information on the number and productivity of its technicians and the average amount of labor per repair order.
"So by entering just two more numbers - how many cars are in process and how many are standing by - at any time, the shop owner can find out, for example, that the shop has 90 labor hours left to sell in the next five days," Roewer said.
Roewer and others at BASF say the goal of such online offerings as VPOL is to enhance rather than replace shops' interactions with BASF representatives.
"We don't see our web-based tools and services as a replacement for our sales force or the business development managers we have out there helping our shop customers," Roewer said. "We see it as a way to use technology to offer even more support to shops. It gives both the shop and our people the tools and information needed to help us work together to help them improve their business."
Shop owner Sipos, who has been using VPOL for almost a year, agrees.
"I'm very impressed with it," he said. "I've been in the automotive business since I was 11 or 12 years old, working with my dad. And understanding your numbers has become vitally important today. These types of comparisons help you see where, for example, you could pick up a percentage here or there. It's nice to see the paint manufacturers out there really trying to help collision repair shops. I can't say enough about VisionPlus."
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.