As the 1980s dawned, the collision repair industry began to see some profound changes, and some shops tried their darndest to keep things the same as they had always been.
Say No to Foreign
Some ideas die hard, like saying “no” to working on “foreign” cars. By the early 1980s, “foreign” cars had been pouring into the U.S. for more than 20 years, yet some shops still did not want to work on them---despite the fact that some “foreign" nameplates were now made in the U.S.
They complained about thinner sheet metal, difficulty matching paint, parts that were hard to get and volatile parts prices.
However, so-called “foreign” cars were becoming a larger part of the repair landscape, and the global automotive landscape was growing more homogenized. Moreover, domestic cars were becoming more like “foreign” cars inasmuch as the thickness of sheet metal, difficulty matching colors and the fact that, like “foreign” cars, most domestics were using unibody construction.
According to Ward’s Automotive Reports, import car sales were 14% of total U.S. cars sales in 1972. By 1981, that jumped to more than 27%.
Some shops tried to ignore the foreign market, but they could not do it forever and survive.
Investing and Franchising
The 1980s saw the traditional body shop business model begin to change. The empirical approach of advancing into the collision repair business---moving from technician to shop manager to owner, or passing the business from father to son or daughter---was changing to the emerging concept of investing and franchising.
A trade magazine, in the fall of 1987, announced the launch of the USAutobody Network, the latest concept in franchising body shops. The article noted...
...there had been many attempts in the past to franchise shops, but this was the first to attempt the concept on a nationwide scale.
USAutobody Network was a concept developed and administered by Chief Automotive Systems, makers of Chief EZ Liner equipment. The article noted there would be no “company-owned” shops, nor would the franchise agreement call for the homogenization of shops.
All shops would continue to be locally owned and run, but would have to meet certain criteria to qualify for the network, not the least of which would be the ability to repair unibody vehicles, something the industry still struggled with.
Along with equipment requirements---which oddly did not require Chief products---each shop would be responsible for having properly trained technicians and managers.
The USAutobody Network franchising group opened its first four shops, all in Nebraska, in the fall of 1988. All were established shops that had been in business for between five and 40 years.
It is unknown what caused the demise of this initiative; however, the USAutobody Network trademark was cancelled Feb. 6, 1995.
In 1989, the CARSTAR franchise was founded by Lirel Holt and proved to be much more successful. Holt had been a shop owner and an expert in collision management for the 3M company.
He shared his knowledge with thousands of shop owners and managers as director of the much-heralded ARMS workshops. There, he developed a belief that a network of quality collision repair facilities across North America would be a benefit for consumers and welcomed by the insurance industry.
Holt used his knowledge and contacts and dedicated his efforts to building the CARSTAR franchise system. He was the first to...
...apply customer satisfaction, financial measurements and ongoing improvements and consistency on a large scale.
Some shops tried to ignore the franchising concept, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t.
Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind
The early '80s also put the industry on the cusp of later EPA and OSHA regulations.
A 1983 trade magazine article dealing with body shop toxic waste noted it was only a matter of time before a number of local or federal agencies realized that body shops generate a lot of nasty waste and have no good way to get rid of it, many doing so illegally.
Changes were proposed in 1983 that would require most body shops and auto repair places to register with the EPA and to properly store and dispose of hazardous waste.
By 1985, those proposals had become a reality. Businesses generating a minimum of 220 lbs. of hazardous waste per month would come under regulation. This meant most body shops would need to track their waste from the time it left their shop through certified carriers to its final resting place.
The Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986, also known as Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, brought a harsh reality to the doorsteps of every body shop in America.
It required those employers dealing with hazardous materials to provide...
...Material Safety Data Sheets for every hazardous chemical used in the business by employees. The shop would also have to make this information available to local authorities and first responders, such as fire departments, so they would be aware of what they are dealing with in the event of a fire, chemical spill or other emergency.
This meant collision shop owners would be responsible for training employees about their rights under the legislation, the nature of the hazardous chemicals in the workplace and the information contained in MSDS sheets; labeling information about potentially hazardous chemicals; and record keeping.
In the summer of 1988, Southern California shops owners found they were targeted for some special environmental rules. Shops in southern California that fell under the auspices of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SQAQMD)---basically the Los Angeles area---were faced with a dire issue concerning compliance with the SCAQMD’s recent interpretation of the 1977 Clean Air Act.
It said if larger shops, spraying more than 25 lbs. of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), wanted to expand their business, they would need to buy very expensive equipment to capture the VOCs, rather than expel them into the environment, use low VOC paints, or both.
Smaller shops would be able to get away with low VOC coatings. This caused permits to build new paint booths to take four to six months.
The industry was realizing it could no longer ignore its state and federal lawmakers, because lawmakers were no longer ignoring collision shop owners. It was all the more reason to belong to a local or state auto body association.
In September 1988, the California Autobody Association met for its annual expo and convention at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, CA.
Among the various speakers was Fred Simonelli, legislative advocate for the State of California. His message was, “Whether you like it or not, you have a partner---the government.” He encouraged shop owners to get involved with government to help drive legislative decisions that would affect their future business.