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Thursday, 24 October 2013 22:08

Virginia Body Shop Owner Says Collision is Easy Compared to Political Office

Throughout the years, body shops owners all over the country have run for political office and instituted changes at the local and national level. People have said that the skills accumulated while running a body shop can easily transfer into politics. By negotiating on a daily basis with insurance companies, coordinating literally thousands of details monthly and working with a crew consisting of a wide range of distinct personalities, collision professionals are well-suited for public office, according to Doug Conner, the owner of Conner Bros. Collision Centers in Richmond, VA., an MSO consisting of four locations.

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Conner, 69, started painting cars when he was 17, working for local car dealerships for roughly 15 years before starting his very own shop in 1976, with the help of his wife Jean and his brother Donnie, another painter. “I worked for another shop to learn the business and then got the nerve to start my own,” Conner chuckled. “We signed a three-year lease and were just hoping to get some cars in here at the beginning. During the first six months, we didn’t know if we were coming or going, to be honest. Our original location was 3,000 square feet. It was a long building, so if we parked them side-by-side, we could maybe get a total of six cars in the shop at one time. But, eventually, we saved about $10,000 and purchased some land close to our original shop. After our lease expired, we built our first shop. We never needed to borrow any money, which was very fortunate.”

Today Conner is semi-retired with his two sons Kevin and Alan running his shops, after serving two terms as a councilman of the ninth district in Richmond, VA.  He decided to run for the first time in 2004, when he began to see an alarming trend in local Richmond politics, he explained. 

“There was a period of time in Richmond here when we had a lot of council people ending up in jail for a wide range of reasons. For bribery, outright theft and other things—we were really in horrible shape here in Richmond for a few years. I was always under the impression that in order to be a public official, you need to have this degree or that degree, so I never really considered it. But eventually I realized that these politicians might have degrees, but they don’t have common sense. Their job was being a council member and that was it. They were professional politicians, essentially. So, that’s when I decided to get interested and involved. I served for six years, completing two terms from 2006 to 2012 and I never bribed anybody or stole anything from anyone.”  
During his first campaign in 2004, Conner lost in a three-person race, but it was a learning experience, he explained. “So, I ran the next time in 2006 and beat the incumbent in a close race where I won by only 250 votes.  It was great, because I knew I was going to make changes and I was excited about the opportunity to play a role in helping the city. It turned out to be an interesting new experience, with surprises every day—just like running a body shop.”

Conner immediately saw that he could apply his skills in the collision repair field to use in the political arena, he said. “All I can say is that body shop owners are more than capable of holding any of these political positions and handling the responsibilities associated with them. A person running a body shop has tons of experience, both professionally and personally that can be easily transferred to being a council person, a congressman or even a senator or a governor, in my opinion. Education helps, but I believe real-world experience is the most important thing required for any job. Serving in public office parallels the collision repair business in many ways, because body shop professionals have to develop skills to make it, such as negotiation (DRPs), networking (community outreach), managing people (employees) and delivering results.”

Conner achieved a lot of really good things while being a councilman for Richmond and is proud of it. “We had drainage issues and problems with the infrastructure, so those were essential things that needed to be fixed right away,” Conner said. “We did some band-aid work, but we never really completely fixed it, and if I had won a third term, I am confident we could have gotten that done. I ran out of time. We had some huge projects that were taken care of and that is very gratifying. I started a career and education commission, which got labor people together working with our schools. It led to the establishment of a career training facility, which is being built right now, to provide nursing training for welfare mothers and people who need new careers for whatever reason.  We’re training people for jobs where there is demand in Richmond, like laboratory technicians, pharmacy technicians for medical coding professions, for example.  In one year, we can train someone to be a lab tech and we know that companies will hire them, because we’re also working with the employers.”

Another significant accomplishment that Conner is proud of involves his outsourcing of the city’s fleet, he said. “We went to Baltimore and checked out a fleet service and determined that we could save $200,000 a month by outsourcing our city’s fleet. With roughly 1,000 vehicles and their equipment, it was a huge undertaking. The thinking behind outsourcing is just like a shop running on salary vs. commission. The people who were running the fleet were on salary. Now, sure they weren’t making a lot, but they also weren’t doing much either.  By using an outside company, total accountability became a part of it and there was a huge difference right off the bat. If you have someone working for commission or flat rate, they’re obviously going to be more motivated. By outsourcing our fleet, we saved several million dollars every year, because it’s 100% based on performance, so we’re not paying for people or cars sitting around doing nothing.”

After a year in office, Conner began to see the bad side of politics, he said, and it’s called inactivity. “When it comes to government, nobody wants to stick their necks out, because they’re afraid to lose their jobs,” he said.  “So, nothing happens except for a lot of talking and posturing. They’re real good at coming up with reasons not to do something. It’s very tough and if you want to achieve anything, you have to stay on it and work at it. It takes a long time and that’s why we have so many problems in this country—the inactivity can kill you.

“In planning, for instance, it’s all about what you can’t do,” Conner said. “For example, some of the sign ordinances in this city are ridiculous. They would block new businesses from getting new signs, for example, with these lame restrictions, but I told them, ‘How do you expect new businesses to come here when we won’t even let them have a sign?’ We need new businesses to become successful, so that we can build up our tax base and offer services to our folks, but you’re going to wrestle with this small business owner about the size of his sign? It’s in a commercial area, I told them, but you would think we’re in Hollywood, the way they were reacting. In every situation, I was advocating small businesses and their rights, because that’s where I came from. But, red tape will slow you down and discourage you, because there is so much of it. It took a lot of time and effort, and I did get some things done, but it was tough.”

Accountability was something else that Conner eventually realized was non-existent in local politics, he said, at least in the city of Richmond. “The average politician talks a lot and makes a bunch of promises.  They’re hoping that people eventually forget about what they said. If you do what you say you’re going to do, people will remember that, you know? I feel like I was different because I followed through and cared and that’s the most important thing I can say about that.”

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