The sons and daughters of shop owners usually either love the collision industry and take to it like ducks to water, while others will do just about everything they can to opt out of the business and pursue something else--anything else.
In this case, Laura Bertolli, the owner of Bertolli's Autobody in San Rafael, CA, is a prime example of a second-generation shop owner who initially rejected the collision industry and then later embraced it. By working hard to learn everything she could while changing her approach to managing people, Bertolli has been able to keep the shop that her father started in 1977 flourishing in Marin County, where there are more hot tubs than cars.
Bertolli began working at her father's shop on the weekends and after school as a teenager, but she never envisioned it as a career. "At first, I was doing a lot of filing and organizing paperwork," she said. "And then, when I was 16, I began working after school doing the bookkeeping. This is where I got the drive to be a business major and become a CPA."
After graduating from high school, Bertolli earned a B.S. in Business Administration from UC Berkeley’s highly-respected Haas School of Business. After graduating from Cal, she went to work for an accounting firm in Novato, CA, but her father was having issues with his bookkeeper, so in 1985, Laura returned to do of all of the shop's bookkeeping and accounting.
Bertolli learned on the fly and eventually figured out how to succeed in this male-dominated industry. "It was definitely on-the-job training," she said. "Since I had the accounting background, I was able to track the numbers well, and that really helped me over the years. This is surely not an easy business to be in, but by stressing quality and customer service, we've been able to perform at a high level for almost 40 years."
Laura Bertolli, the owner of Bertolli's Autobody in San Rafael, CA, is a second-generation shop owner who never imagined that she would eventually take over her father's business.
In 1988, Bertolli became the shop's general manager as her father began stepping away from the business to pursue a highly lucrative second career in commercial real estate. After a series of shop managers came and left, Laura assumed full control of the business. But when she finally announced to the shop's crew that she was now in charge, their reaction wasn't positive, to say the least.
"I called a meeting that very first morning and after I told them that I was now running the show, they all walked out," Bertolli said. "They all quit on the spot, which was terrible, but in a way it was also exciting. So, I immediately called all of my vendors and told them I need people. Thankfully, there were some friends out there who helped me until I was back with a new crew. It took a while, but I eventually was able to put together a good team. One of those original hires is still here after all those years."
Once she had a new crew, Bertolli decided to change her managerial style for a fresh start. "I realized that I could not manage these guys successfully by barking our orders, because they did not want that from a woman. So, instead of telling them what to do, I started asking them questions about what should we do and it worked right away. How long is the job going to take? What parts do we need, etc.? If you ask a tech a question, he buys in--because he wants to do the job right and he feels like a team member when you ask instead of tell."
With a modest, highly-productive crew currently repairing roughly 60 vehicles every month out of a 7,500 square foot facility, Bertolli has cut the fat without sacrificing quality. "We have four people on the shop floor--two body techs, one painter and one detailer and they all do an amazing job," Bertolli said. "We keep them working and busy and it makes for a positive environment because they share my passion for doing a great job on each vehicle that comes in here."
With a small crew, Bertolli's Autobody repairs approximately 60 vehicles out of a 7,500 square foot facility without a DRP.
Every car that Bertolli's repairs comes from referrals, repeat business, local networking through a local Business Networking Institute (BNI) chapter and other sources, but not through any DRPs with insurance companies, Bertolli explained.
"When the DRP system started, we got a few of them, and the relationships were totally different back then," she said. "The insurance companies let us pretty much fix the cars the way we wanted to, but eventually that changed. Pretty soon, they were telling us what to fix and how to do it, and that's when I began telling them no. I'm not going to compromise my standards to meet their financial needs, because my family's name is attached to that vehicle. So we haven't had a DRP here for many years and have had less drama as a result. It has not affected our business because by now we're well-known in Marin for doing excellent work, and in a town like this, a solid reputation goes a long way."
To build a strong customer base, Bertolli has done TV commercials and embraced the internet and social media before many others were even considering it. "We did TV ads during the San Francisco Giants games until they started winning the World Series every other year and it became too expensive," she said. "And we got a website back in 1995, when they were still pretty much in their infancy."
Looking back and seeing where she is now, does Bertolli feel that taking over her father's shop was a good move? "Yes, definitely," she said. "I came into a very tough, male-dominated industry and the odds were probably not in my favor. But, by working hard, learning along the way and focusing on the things I know how to do--like selling and marketing--I built a good business, and that is truly satisfying."