Since taking over the family body shop in Lincoln, Nebraska during the 1980s, the business has grown to include two shops and now employs 50 people. His sister is a part-owner in one of the shops and two of his four sons are also part of the successful company. Autobody News talked to Tracy about the benefits of marketing and building a brand as well connecting with the community and others in the industry.
Q: How did your family get its start in the auto body business?
A: My parents started the shop in 1969 in Lincoln, Nebraska. They were from a small town about 25 miles from here. My father was a bricklayer and he had a construction company. He decided to get involved in the body shop business. He thought it would be something that might supplement him during the winter because a lot of times in our locale usually the winter meant no work.
I went to school thinking I was going to be a contractor. My education was a combination of going to a construction-type of technical training and working in the business. I had a lot of good mentors along the way. My father was a good businessman but didn’t have much to do with the body shop other than owning it for several years. Back in the 1980s, we were debating if we should sell it or keep it. It was during the recession and I was thinking about starting a different construction company, but the timing was wrong. I ended up telling him, “Well, let me see what I can do with it.” That’s how my career in this industry started.
Q: What were some of the changes you made when you began working at the shop?
A: First of all, I wanted to be a businessman. I always had the dream of doing that. When I started managing the shop and improving the business, I looked at the way we were doing things and a lot of it didn’t make sense.
It reminds me of the Pink Floyd song, “Another brick in the wall.” I learned a lot about how to work by doing a repetitive type of job. One of the main things that I did was run the ground crew. The ground crew had to have all of the right things in place so that the bricklayers could actually do their jobs. If that didn’t work well, you didn’t go anywhere so it made me think a lot in those terms.
My father was a very supportive person. He would allow me to do whatever made sense so we started making some changes. For example, we got involved in wheel alignment. We also began using the 3M Ambulatory Revenue Management Software (ARMS) and bought what I believe was the first downdraft paint booth in Nebraska.
I had some early encounters with the Europeans and that was really awesome because they were way ahead of us. It kind of blew me away in some ways because I always thought that everything made in America was supposed to be the best. I found out they were creating paint that was so much better than what we were producing here.
Early on, we started a relationship with the Sikkens paint company, AkzoNobel. We got involved with Acoat Selected, AkzoNobel’s business development program for the Sikkens brand. I had to buy the paint from Kansas City because there was nobody around here I could purchase it from.
Q: What was the experience like with the 20 group you joined in the mid-1990s and how can shops maximize their participation?
A: I was involved with a 20 group that had some really successful shops in it. That was great about Akzonobel. Most of their shops were really good players. Randy Stabler was in our 20 Group as well as shops from St. Louis, Wichita, California and Texas.
When we went to the 20 groups and the conference, I had some great experiences. I definitely have traveled as much as possible, especially the last 15 years. I learned a lot of things and met a lot of great people.
We would meet twice a year and have open discussions about a variety of things. I was in a multiple store group, and we were non-competitors for the most part. It was good information and you could see how you were doing compared to other people. We would share financials as well as different ideas, such as marketing, equipment, new technology, HR concerns, how to deal with people and insurance relationships. You just feed your mind and go through the equation and become a better strategist and a better thinker.
We left that group a few years back. Later, I became interested in what PPG was doing with their Green Belt training, which was more instructional, and I ended up moving to that group. I also sent about 15-18 of my employees.
Q: What approach do you take when it comes to customer service?
A: Our customer focus for the most part is: be friendly, be kind, be good. We try to make sure that our customers are going to come back. A few years ago, we were introduced to Steve Schoolcraft from Phoenix Solutions Group at an AkzoNobel conference. I gave it a lot of thought, and we started a relationship with him.
That really helped how we delivered cars and engaged customers. He would come twice a year to Lincoln and would have dinner with our office personnel to talk about our results. We were already doing well, and I think we started to do a better job. It’s one of many things that ended up helping us in our marketplace.
Q: What practices have you employed at your shop that have helped you stand out from the competition?
A: I think what makes us unique is we work really hard to market our business. I’ve been mainly engaged in marketing for the company since I started working as the CEO and had a lot of good mentors, whether they were from radio or television.
I went to several marketing events that were put on by either the television or radio industries. During one of the most effective events I attended, they said you have to advertise like Coca-Cola. The whole nature of that statement is to break it down and say, “If I follow these basic advertising theories, something good is going to happen.” I agreed with that and we established a different campaign.
Then we came up with a slogan, “Thanks Lincoln.” Part of that came from an idea that hatched from Steve Schoolcraft about how you should be thanking your customers. It became a huge success.
What it did was it brought to life repeat customers and all of the good will we had going for us. It was just phenomenal what came from that. We’ve been busy pretty much for as long as I can remember.
Q: What advice can you share with others in regards to marketing?
A: I think that one thing that a lot of shops haven’t focused on enough in the past is marketing and building a brand. When you have to write a check to build a brand, sometimes it’s not that easy to do but you have to pound the drum. Sometimes major media, whether it be television or radio, is about the only way you can enough attention to build that brand. You need to figure out how to do that efficiently and you have to stay engaged in it long enough to make it work for you. Once you do that, you have a lot of marketing power.
It’s like snowball rolling down a hill. Once you get it big enough, and you’ve been doing it long enough, your brand is established.
I think it’s important to drive people to your website too. We’ve done more of that in the last couple of years. It’s where people can learn more about what you are doing. It makes a difference. People might spend five or six minutes on your site and then they will have an idea about what they are getting.
In marketing, if you think about what we are selling as a body shop, it’s about trust. When you can build that kind of trust, I think people really care about that.
Q: What are some of the unique types of community involvement your shop has initiated?
A: Through our AkzoNobel 20 group, we challenged each other to donate a car. This was before Recycled Rides started, which we were part of later. This last December, we gave away our 21st and 22nd cars at an event.
Five years ago, we started a relationship with the Lincoln Children’s Museum and built what we refer to as our third location. In an area of the museum called Tiny Town, they have Tracy’s Collision Center where kids can practice tuning up a car and applying paint.
We made some television commercials to support the museum and bring awareness to the exhibit. I had two different customers tell me that they came to the shop because they took their grandkids to the Children’s Museum and they were so impressed we would support the museum with an exhibit they decided this is where they wanted to get their car fixed.
We also became involved in a community action group called Lincoln Lancaster Community Action. They manage Head Start and a lot of other government programs. That has been a great relationship. We started a Head Start classroom with our name on it last year, which has been kind of fun.
Community involvement does a lot of good for your employees because it gives them a chance to give of themselves and their talents. We’ve done it for a long time so it’s something they look forward to. Our goal with the car giveaway is to change somebody’s life and I think we’ve been able to do that.
Read more about Tom Tracy’s story in regards to building a brand and connecting with the community and industry in The Secrets of America’s Greatest Body Shops, written by Dave Luehr with Stacey Phillips, scheduled to be released in early 2017. For more information, visit www.bodyshopsecrets.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com.