Drew Geiger, 44, is the chief lobbyist for Communication and Management Services in Helena, MT. He’s been a lobbyist for more than two decades and began working for the Montana Collision Repair Specialists (MCRS) seven years ago, representing the organization in the Capitol and acting as a watch dog as he steadfastly keeps an eye on proposed bills for its membership.
Geiger’s connection to the collision industry goes all the way back to his high school years, he explained. “The body shop guys in high school kept my $500 car on the road, so I’ve been indebted to this industry ever since then.”
Geiger respects the collision repairers he works with at the MCRS, he explained. “The board at MCRS is a very mature group consisting of very successful body shop owners. You could take this board and give them another business and within six months, they’d be running it successfully. They’re sharp business people who started out working on cars, but then they took it to the next level by understanding how to run a successful business. It’s been a good relationship, because they seem to like my counsel and we’ve been able to achieve some good things over the years. We’ve gotten some bills passed that have helped the collision industry significantly in Montana and so it’s worked very well.”
Geiger has been stressing from day one that body shops are good employers and important contributors to the economy in Montana. “Back when I started with MCRS, I did some research and found out that body shops in Montana pay 30% above the state average in wages and give the majority of their employees health care,” Geiger said “So, we’ve really tried to communicate to the legislature and the public about the industry in general. A proposed bill might be opposed by the insurance industry or have proponents, but we want to show that we have a broad public interest when we walk into the state Capitol to start talking about legislation, and we’ve been successful at doing that.
“We also stress the level of professionalism in this industry,” he said. “When a customer’s car is in the shop, the insurance company obviously plays a role, but ultimately, the body shop professionals are the ones that are saying, not only are we going to get you your car looking fine, but it’s going to be performing the same way it did when it was towed in here. There’s a huge public safety component here as well, and we stress that. The point is that body shops are main street businesses and my clients are fixing their neighbors’ cars. We have more deer than people here in Montana and almost all of our legislators have been in a deer-related accident, so our body shops have helped them more than once, in some cases.
We stress all of this, because we want to illustrate that we’re a useful industry that helps the public and that’s what legislators respond to.” There have been some big wins for the MCRS and Geiger since he began in 2007, he said. “The most significant bill we’ve encountered during the seven years I’ve been in this position was HB 265, sponsored by Representative Gordon Vance, which prohibits the insurer from disregarding cost items identified by an estimating system. In some states, this same bill is 500 pages long, but here in Montana it’s basically one sentence: ‘An insurer may not unilaterally disregard a repair operation or cost identified by an estimating system that the insurer and the auto body repair business have agreed to utilize.’ It doesn’t get easier than that, does it? We had some major push back from the insurance side on this bill.
In the end, it’s a David vs. Goliath situation here. You have a larger industry being told by a smaller industry that we need to sit down and negotiate and you can’t tell us what to do, essentially. It took a couple sessions, but the legislature ultimately said that it shouldn’t be a problem for us to sit down with the insurance companies and work it out. It impacts the body shop, but if you’re a customer and it’s your car being repaired, you want your car back in that same condition. But, if procedures are denied by the insurance company, how can you be sure what’s being done and what isn’t being done? So it’s absolutely a consumer protection issue and that’s why it passed in 2011.”
Geiger is also concerned with steering practices in Montana, he said. “Steering is absolutely a problem here in Montana and an ongoing issue. If the insurance companies could take it off the books, they would do it absolutely. So, we have to be vigilant when it comes to steering. Our Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen is absolutely open to working with us and she’s had an open door policy since day one.
She’s pro-consumer and has been good for the collision industry in Montana. She knows many of our board members by name and we hold regular informal meetings in her office all the time. My office is two blocks away and I see her at the grocery store, which is definitely an advantage of working in a smaller state like Montana.”
One of Geiger’s jobs is going through each and every bill with a fine tooth comb. “Our legislature meets every other year for four months and there are roughly 2,000 bills that get thrown out there,” he said. “So, I have to read through all of them, to make sure they don’t contain anything that can negatively impact the collision industry in Montana. My MCRS members don’t have time to read 2,000 bills every year and that’s one of the main things that we provide.
Knowing how to act while working with the legislators in Montana is important, Geiger said. “With 2,000 bills in play, you want to have a presence but you don’t want to be pushy. You want to maintain a fine balance between being around and being engaged, but you also want to be respectful of the fact that these legislators have to study, decide and vote on 2,000 bills. You have to learn the process and the protocol if you want to get things done. You don’t want to go in there and make demands and stomp your feet. You have to be professional and pragmatic with your presentation if you even want to be considered.
The people I work with at MCRS get it and understand that and I think that’s why we’ve had so much success.”