As a result, he has been able to make it in a highly competitive environment, but not without many trials and tribulations along the way.
The owner of Scratch Busters in Buffalo, NY, Kumm is troubled by things such as under-the-radar shops, underpaid body techs, rampant steering, a lack of qualified personnel and the fact that talented people are gravitating away from the collision repair industry, he said.
Hiring good employees is probably his #1 concern. Kumm has had his share of bad technicians who simply don’t want to work, he said. "The bottom line is if you don't have pride in your work, it's evident and the finished product will be substandard," Kumm said.
The problem is compounded because the insurance companies won't pay body shops sufficiently on repairs, Kumm explained. "The insurers don't give us enough time to fix these vehicles, so we're constantly struggling with that. They tell me it will take 2.5 hours to prep, tape, paint and re-assemble a panel and I know that it's going to take more like four hours and I'm fairly confident that they know that, too. That panel could be in bad shape and it may take more time, but will the insurance company adjust for that and give us some additional time? No."
A shop that wants to do top-tier, high-quality work is at a disadvantage from day one, Kumm explained. "One of the main issues is that the insurance companies don't consider us skilled workers, and in the end, they have us by the short hairs. Our labor rate has been stuck at $46 per hour for many years and that's where they want it to stay. These big insurers spend millions and millions on advertising, yet they want to cut corners when their customers get into accidents. There is one word to describe it: greed."
16 years ago, Kumm changed his business model and started doing Paintless Dent Repair (PDR) after finding a new way to fix scratches easily and quickly. "I worked with a chemist to find a better solution and we developed a system that requires minimal sanding and zero buffing. There is so little clear coat on these cars now that if you sand too much, you're done. With my system, we are experts at blending clear and doing touch-ups that are dead-on."
With four decades within the collision repair industry under his belt, Kumm realized a few years ago that his days of hard, physical labor were no longer a reality. "Once I turned 50, my body started to feel the wear and tear of this business," he said. "I had to get one of my shoulders replaced and it's now all made of steel. I have a herniated disk in my back and arthritis in all of my joints, left shoulder and hip. All of these things are related to all of those years of working on cars."
What would Kumm tell people who might be interested in a career in collision repair? "I get calls all the time from young people asking me how to get into the business and I tell them this is not a great career to get into, honestly. In a body shop, you will never make a fair wage, because there are too many forces preventing it from happening. They're now raising the minimum wage, which will not help us, because we can't afford to pay these entry-level people more than what they're making now. If someone wants to work in automotive repair, I tell them to get into the mechanical side, because those people are paid better than body techs."
With an average wage for collision technicians starting at $15 and maxing out at around $20 in the Buffalo area, more and more young candidates are looking elsewhere, Kumm said. "To be honest, the really good ones are starting their own shops, because they want the control and they can't find good people either. In this market now, it makes more sense for these people to start their own shops, if they have the right attitude and are willing to work long hours."
After painting a dire picture of the future of the collision repair industry, does Kumm know where it's headed? "We need more people in this industry who are proud of their work, like ourselves, and can take on the insurance companies," he said. "And we need highly-trained techs to work on these cars, so that we can demand more money and get it. If we can achieve those two things, everyone can win--consumers, insurance companies and body shops."