“When I see what an improved and improving organization was able to deliver in fiscal 2008 in a difficult economy by most measures, I’m optimistic about our challenges and our ability to meet them over the next 18 months,” CEO John Edelen told attendees at the annual I-CAR gathering, held in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Neither Edelen nor board chairman Robby Robbs made any effort to gloss over the struggles I-CAR has had since announcing a $1.1 million dollar loss in 2007. Last fall, Edelen moved from his position as board chairman to become interim CEO when long-time I-CAR employee Tom McGee was asked to step down from that position. (McGee is now I-CAR’s director of industry relations and product operations.) Last March, after months of internal restructuring, I-CAR laid-off approximately 10 percent of its staff. And in June, after an executive search process during which the board changed its profile for the ideal candidate, Edelen, a retired Allstate executive, was chosen to stay on as CEO.
The changes helped I-CAR slow its financial losses, ending its latest fiscal year with a loss less than half that of the previous year. And Edelen was able to report another piece of good news: a 15 percent rebound in attendance at I-CAR classes. The 115,000 “student units” taught – one unit equals one student taking one class – was still far from the peaks of 150,000 or more in the late 1990s through 2002, but was about equal to I-CAR’s average annual student counts for 2003-2006 fiscal years.
Chairman Robbs said I-CAR has made progress and that those who have seen only “doom and gloom” for I-CAR are being proven wrong. Still, he acknowledged, I-CAR can do more to reconnect with its customers, volunteers and instructors.
“We need to continue to work toward a better understanding of market needs, and to be clear in our long-term strategy so that our underlying core technology supports our future direction and, most importantly, provides simplicity for those wishing to do business with I-CAR,” he said.
Feedback and suggestions
As part of that effort to listen to the various segments of the market on which I-CAR depends, the organization set aside three hours of its annual meeting as an open forum to hear feedback from shops, insurers and automakers. About 150 people turned out to share their questions, frustrations and suggestions for the training organization.
Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
• Gary Wano of GW & Son Auto Body in Oklahoma City, Okla., was one of several attendees who said shops often learn the necessity of a certain repair procedure at an I-CAR class only to be told by an insurer—in some cases, someone who attended or even taught the same class —that the procedure is not something the insurer will pay the shop to do. “How can you teach it if you aren’t going to pay for it,” Aaron Schulenburg of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association said. “It comes down to the perception of legitimacy of that instructor.”
• But trainer, consultant and association leader Tony Passwater said the problem Wano and Schulenburg described is not new—nor, he added, is shops attending classes but not performing the procedures taught—but is one I-CAR can do little to control. He said he would like to see I-CAR’s online training be made more affordable rather than “twice as much as a classroom-led class,” and that more of I-CAR’s training be offered online.
• Bob Rogers of State Farm in Washington, D.C., said he thinks it would be helpful if rather than just pass/fail results, students received details about what types of questions they answered incorrectly on I-CAR’s post-class tests.
• Roger Cada, senior claims education and training instructor for State Farm, suggested that I-CAR produce 5-minute preview YouTube-style videos to promote its courses, making the promotion (and where possible, the classes) less scripted and more visually-appealing for those who learn best that way.
• DeLee Powell of Bakers Collision Repair in Mansfield, Ohio, said she has taken more than 40 I-CAR classes and, like her shop’s technicians, have never found any of them to be “a waste of four hours.” But, she said, better course descriptions would help students—as well as local I-CAR volunteers scheduling the classes—avoid some of the perceived duplication of content among some of the classes. (Passwater added that requiring that students take some classes before others also could help because the repetitive information is sometimes currently needed because I-CAR doesn’t know in which order a student may take classes.)
• Marc Essig, a retired college autobody instructor in Oregon who now teaches nearly full-time for I-CAR in six states, said I-CAR’s Gold Class points system has students taking no more than the two classes required each year, and often choosing classes based more on availability than on those most relevant to their work. “I just finished (teaching) a refinish program; half of the students were body technicians who never had a spray gun in their hands,” Essig said. “What good does that training do? All they’re after is that two (Gold Class) points. I see the value of our training as a result going down.” (See Essig interview on FF 1 this issue.)
• But another I-CAR instructor, Gene Lopez of Seidner’s Collision Centers in So. CA., said he’s not averse to body technicians taking refinish classes. “I want the body man to understand why it’s critical that he finishes in 150 grit,” Lopez said. “So I welcome that body man into my refinish class, and vice versa. A painter is never going to weld. But how many painters are going to look at a core support that has just been welded on and be able to understand whether that’s a good weld or a poor weld?”
• Other participants at the forum said I-CAR should offer more in-depth damage analysis and estimating training, or should research and create repair procedures like it has done in the past with sectioning and —in its earliest days—unibody vehicle repair.
“I-CAR needs to understand that not everything you do is wrong,” Jeff Hendler of J.D. Hendler & Associates, said, concluding the session. “But you also need to understand that if everything you did was right, there wouldn’t be 120+ people in here.”
Change in the works
Edelen said I-CAR is already working to address some of the issues raised at the open forum. Six I-CAR industry advisory councils have been created, each focused on a specific industry segment, Edelen said, and corresponding staff teams also have been created internally to ensure “the voice of the customer for the six industry segments will be sought and utilized to shape the direction of I-CAR’s activities in the future.”
Edelen added that a committee is helping ensure I-CAR invests “only in the development of those products and services that would be valued by I-CAR customers.” For example, I-CAR is developing new classes on alternative fuel vehicles, and on hazardous air pollution reduction for shops in response to a new EPA refinish regulation (scheduled to go into effect in 2011) requiring such training. Improvements to course descriptions will be designed to help students select the training most relevant to their needs, Edelen said.
He said I-CAR is reviewing all its pricing, acknowledging that online training pricing may be too high.
“In addition, we have needed to address our discount structure,” he said. “We need to continue to acknowledge our best customers with an appropriate discount, but we have needed to reduce the overall discounts.”
A change in I-CAR’s fiscal year will make planning and adjustment easier, he said, because it will shift I-CAR’s traditionally highest period of revenue to the first half of its fiscal year rather than the second half.
Edelen also said online class registration with payment required in advance will be implemented later this year, and that Gold Class and Platinum individual requirements, processes and reporting will be reviewed.
“We have heard how complex we have made it to do business with I-CAR,” Edelen said. “We have to go after that with a vengeance.”
Lastly, he said I-CAR’s instructor base is aging, and the organization must do more to recruit new instructors and volunteers.
“I believe that I-CAR would not be what it is today, nor will it be what it needs to be tomorrow, without the commitment and hard work of our volunteers, committees and instructors,” Edelen said. “For 99% of our customers, they are the face, the eyes and the ears of I-CAR. We owe these volunteers, committees and instructors our gratitude, our respect and appreciation.”