“It was a real struggle to get shops to come out and get involved — regardless of timing and/or content of the meetings,” he adds. About two years ago, the association stopped growing completely. One reason: “Shops that were not participating were concerned that they would be looked at unfavorably by the insurance companies for participating.”
Joe Hepp, a past member and current secretary of LVCRA, agrees that low membership was attributable to industry divisions in the 1980s. “Some shops were not on speaking terms with other shops because of poor communication,” he says. “To help create better camaraderie among the shops, I originally joined the association and have been a member since.” In Allentown, his Hepp Brothers Collision Center is celebrating its 35th anniversary.
About a year ago, Rich Daku, past member and current treasurer of LVCRA and a partner in Daku Auto Body of North Catasauqua e-vited former members to his shop one night to view his building addition. His fourth-generation family business was founded in 1948, and in the early years, his grandfather was president of what was then called the “Auto Body Association”—his father was later a board member.
“While there, discussions turned to the old association,” Dewalt recalls. “Rich mentioned that there was still a few hundred dollars left in the account and suggested donating it to the local technical schools. He said, ‘Unless someone wants to get it started again’—and everyone looked at me.”
So Dewalt volunteered, helping to re-establish the organization on a challenging budget. “I said that I have no idea how to run an association but that I could get a group of people together and get some great guest speakers.”
He was motivated to help the local shops: “I remembered that when the association was going strong, shops seemed to be doing well. Once the association dwindled, it seemed a disconnect happened over time amongst shop owners. I always felt that we are stronger working together toward a common goal.”
In addition, Dewalt had been a member of the DuPont Business Council IV for many years. “I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to learn a lot of great things from a lot of great people,” he says. “Now I have a chance to share that with others.”
The group met again a few times and formally restarted at a Sept. 27, 2010, meeting. They established a structure of four officers and two board members and quarterly membership meetings, held at members’ shops or a hotel meeting room. Mike Anderson of Collision Advice spoke to that first meeting, with 50 people attending, he recalls.
Since then, Aaron Schulenburg, SCRS executive director, has also spoken to the group and, as a result, LVCRA is exploring an affiliation with the national organization. Just recently, Chuck Sulkala, who was in the Lehigh Valley area at the time, spoke about I-CAR and the NABC.
To prevent the fate of the original organization, the new group is focusing on membership expansion— up to 50 miles away from the Lehigh Valley base. “The association is working hard to recruit a more diverse membership so that there is a wider view to all of those involved with our industry,” Daku says. “We are explaining that we are here to help each other to improve relationships with each other and the insurance companies.”
Emphasis, too, is on education: Future meetings will discuss database enhancement gateway (DEG), estimating and blueprinting, new metals and equipment as well as feature speakers, Dewalt explains.
“Through educating ourselves, if we can help define the rules of engagement that are fair for everyone in the industry, then the association will be successful,” says Andy Estojak, past and current LVCRA member and owner of Andy’s Champion Auto Body in Bethlehem. “At the same time, the association also provides us a unified front as collision shops.”
“Our industry is getting tougher and tougher all the time, due to higher customer standards and insurance cut-backs,” Daku adds. “We constantly have to change with technology and structure our shops to be most efficient at how they are run.”
Keith Stephens and his son, Benjamin, agree on the group’s educative mission. “One major element for us is helping our fellow shops understand the complexities of estimating systems —aspects such as ‘P’ or procedure pages,” says Keith, a current member and past president of LVCRA. He owns North Star Automotive in Bethlehem, which he founded in 1984. “Every aspect of the business is more complex than it was in the past.”
“There’s a learning curve for all of us,” says Benjamin, LVCRA’s vice president and general manager/estimator at North Star Automotive. “But the more people from the area who can participate, the better everyone will understand the changing nature of our industry. Add to that, there’s a great sense of camaraderie within the group.”
Adds Dewalt: “There is a lot of comfort in knowing that what you are currently going through with your business, there is someone else experiencing it also. The association provides a forum where people in the industry can get together and freely exchange information to better themselves.”