Tuesday, 31 July 2001 10:00

Would you rather send your customers to a dealership?

Written by Tom Slear

Bill Willix had a funny notion back in 1989. The former parts salesman had seen firsthand how much electronics had revolutionized the automotive repair industry. Technicians who could build distributors from a few scraps of plastic and old newspapers froze when they saw a computer chip. 

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The problem, Willix knew, was lack of training, and it was killing the independent shops he sold to in northern New Jersey. Dealerships had the wherewithal to keep their repair technicians current. Independent shops, however, still operated on the "bay mentality" - technicians learned from their mentors in the repair bay. Most of those mentors knew nothing about electronics or computers. The mentors and apprentices alike were doing the repair equivalent of boxing shadows - cutting wires, replacing one sensor after another, but rarely solving the problem. It got so bad that shop owners suffered the ultimate indignity with little discomfort - recommending customers take their cars to dealerships.

That's when Willix envisioned Mechanic's Education Association (MEA). The shops on his client list would pay a monthly fee and MEA would provide the training needed to stay on an equal footing with the dealerships.

However, there was a catch in Willix's business plan. He needed roughly $80,000 to get started. Education, he quickly discovered, is an expensive undertaking. Top instructors wanted top dollar. Rookies needed at least two years of seasoning before they could be trusted in front of a class. Course material had to be up to the second, which meant two to three classes a week year-round. Equipment costs would be high.

Willix's vision extended beyond classroom instruction. He planned for a technical hotline. If a member shop had a problem, help would be a toll-free call away. The person answering the call wouldn't be a stranger, but one of the instructors the technician met at a recent class. If the problem couldn't be solved over the phone, the instructor would pack the necessary tools - some of them too expensive and specialized for shops to own - and drive to the shop for an on-site diagnosis.

All of these services would cost a mere $128 per shop per month. But Willix needed seed money, and he planned on getting it by asking for donations from the 126 shops on his sales route. His part-time accountant laughed in his face. Willix would get a steak dinner from a vegetarian sooner then he'd see a dollar from repair shops for education. On a rainy day 12 years ago, Willix set out to prove him wrong.

How do you think he did? He needed each shop to donate, on average, $635. The $128 monthly fee would be extra. How many mechanical shop owners would be willing to put up that kind of money for the intangible benefits of education?

How many body shops would put up the money is no longer a hypothetical question for the collision industry, according to Lou Craven, owner of Design Technology, Inc., a technician training center headquartered in St. Peters, Missouri.

"The times are changing and collision shops will have to change with them," he says. "Who do you think sees all of these electronic safety systems first? People get into accidents far more often than the systems break down."

Continuous, technical education is no longer an option within the automotive repair field. Well, yes, there is, in fact, an option - send the unhappy car owners to dealerships.

For independent collision shops, the option will be to send cars to well heeled consolidators such as Sterling, which now has the financial backing of mighty Allstate. When asked recently what will differentiate the Sterling/Allstate shops from their independent brethren, Bobby Thompson, vice president of new stores and process development for the Sterling/Allstate venture, said that with Allstate's abundant capital, Sterling "will have the highest technology equipment, and the training for people to use that equipment."

Here's the good news - Willix's plea for money was an unqualified success. Sixty-six shop owners handed over money. When all was said and done, Willix had $166,000 in cash and checks stuffed in a box. Upon hearing the amount, the accountant nearly went into cardiac arrest. One shop owner handed over $20,000.

Word of MEA spread quickly. From the original 66 shops, membership grew within a month to over 100. Willix hired a second instructor. Both gained a reputation for technical brilliance. Bob Everett, owner of Bayville Auto Care in Bayville, New Jersey, still remembers some 10 years later his first call to MEA.

"At first I was turned off," he says. "I called about an EGR position sensor on a 1982 Lincoln Continental with an EEC III system. The car wouldn't idle. The guy told us to do this, do that, and we thought, 'Hey, who are you to tell us?' We didn't listen and went back to work on the car for another day until we finally realized that he was right. It was the first time we had seen the problem, but he had trouble shot it many times before. He knew exactly what he was talking about."

MEA is going strong with membership of more than 200 shops throughout New Jersey. The monthly fee is up to $187, pocket change, still, when stacked against the benefits. (The on-site diagnosis is extra. The charge ranges from $100 to $200.) No other organization in the United States does so much for so little.

Now for the bad news. Willix, who runs MEA as a non-profit organization, believes there should be a waiting list to join, but that's hardly the case. The depth of shops in New Jersey who never want to endure the humiliating experience of turning a car over to a dealership is only 200 or so. And as for collision shops, forget it.


"I admit, we're built for mechanical shops 100 percent," Willix says, "but collision shops could use us 60 percent and we have maybe one or two shops. It got to the point where I just gave up on body shops."

Collision shop owners don't need another lecture, least of all from a former auto parts salesman. And I'm not here to do marketing for Willix. But he raises a worthy point. Shop owners for years have been complaining about the shortage of technicians. Willix wonders what shop owners do with the technicians they have. As cars become more and more electronic, how will technicians at independent body shops keep up? How will they stay as proficient as the technicians at, say, Sterling? Why aren't shops around the country demanding MEA knockoffs?

"The shops have to see education as a cost of doing business, just like insurance," says Willix. "And it has to be continuous. It can't be one week, one time a year. Things change too much."

Carlos Ramirez owns a mechanical/body shop in West New York, New Jersey. Two months ago, a Mercedes came out of his body shop with the "Check Engine" light on. He spent a day trying to get to the source of the problem. He called MEA and had the answer in a few minutes.

"Without MEA," he says. "I would have had to send the car to the dealership."

For $187 dollars a month, Ramirez feels he's getting a steal. He makes the fee back with any one of the dozen or so phone calls he makes to MEA every month, to say nothing of the classes his technicians attend every week.

So why don't more shops join?

"I don't know," he says. "I just don't know. Maybe it's gotten too easy for some shops to turn jobs away."