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Tuesday, 13 February 2018 15:24

In Reverse: John Loftus – The Dragon Slayer

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John Loftus John Loftus

“In the early 1980s, body shops had it tough,” said industry veteran John Loftus in a January 2018 interview.

“They needed someone or something to pull them together and represent them on a national scale. They needed some cohesion. Every shop owner was fighting their own individual battles with insurance companies.”


At that time, auto body associations operated at the state level. One regional association, IASA, represented both the collision and mechanical sides of the business in 13 states. In fact, Loftus spent about three years as the Collision Industry Director for IASA after spending 13 years as the owner and operator of Hawthorne Auto Body in Hawthorne, CA, and several years serving in various volunteer roles for the California Autobody Association. Loftus was a key player in the formation of the CAA for southern California and spent a year as the director. ASA was around at that time as a national organization.


Loftus knew change was coming, but it needed help. Other industry leaders realized it too. So they formed a new industry organization, and gave Loftus the reins. On Sept. 25, 1982, the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) was formed with goals of providing body shops with technical training and management education, improving the quality standards of collision repair services, raising the professional standing of those engaged in the collision repair industry and securing the financial position of individuals within the industry. It was the first national organization dedicated solely to the collision industry.


When asked what SCRS was like in its early days, Loftus responded, “The SCRS office was wherever I said it was! I had a home in Texas, a home in California, and some friends in Missouri---Bill Wicklund of Wicklund’s Auto Body, where I stayed occasionally,” Loftus noted. “I was there so often, I became an ‘honorary Wicklund.’ If I had access to a phone and a fax machine, that’s where my office was. We made it work!”


Back then, as it does today, the position of SCRS Director called for a lot of travel.


Loftus continued, “I certainly stayed in plenty of hotels. But I often stayed in the homes of shop owners and industry colleagues---a great respite from a hotel room. They knew I was working hard for them, and they treated me like family. I always tried to return the favor. One of the shop owners even flew me around the Midwest in his private plane.


“The organization back then never had a lot of money. But we got by. And if I was asked to speak somewhere, somehow we found a way to pay for it. In fact, the first time I was asked to speak in Europe, I almost turned it down because I didn’t know how we would pay for it. But somehow it got done.


“When I first started, sometimes it was hard to get through to some shop owners. They just didn’t get it. I told them they had to start looking at their own costs, like the insurance companies look at theirs. They were wasting so much money. At one of my first speaking engagements, I talked for an entire hour and got zero reaction. At another place, I wasn’t getting through, so we pulled the table cloth off one of the tables where we had just had dinner, and I stood up on the table and spoke! Some shop owners had to listen to me say the same thing a couple of times before it sunk in.”


When asked about how many places he had visited and where he spoke, Loftus noted that he had been to 44 states and 20 different countries.


“I stood in front of an industry group in England [on my first trip to Europe] and told them how things worked in the U.S. and the battles we had with insurance companies and adjusters,” he said. “They all sat there nodding, because it was no different an entire ocean away. Then we went to France, and then Germany and then Canada… everywhere we went, the industry problems were the same. We went to Russia---that was almost comical. They were repairing cars there like it was still 1950.”


Laughing, Loftus said, “I don’t think they wanted me to speak---I think they wanted me to teach them modern repair methods!”


In the 1980s, the OEs generally were not as attuned to the collision industry as they are today. But Loftus was quick to point out that SCRS had a good relationship with Toyota back then, as they were some of the first to produce and widely distribute collision repair manuals. He noted that GM was also part of the collision landscape at the time.


If there is anything John Loftus is famous for, it’s his self-proclaimed mantra, “Working together is the most important work we do”---and he lived that every day. Loftus was a very one-on-one guy and liked to work with individuals. If shops called to tell him that they were having issues with a particular insurance company or a particular adjuster, he would visit them or get the parties on the phone and work things out.


“We never threatened to sue them,” said Loftus. “We were never condescending to any party. I always treated the shop and the insurance company with dignity and respect, and we always came to a resolution because I listened to all parties, and we kept the customer in mind. The consumers spent a lot of money in insurance premiums---now it’s time for the insurance company and the shop to make things right for them because that’s what they paid for.”


Loftus remembered one particular instance where an insurance company wanted a shop to clip the rear end of a car. The shop knew it was an unsafe repair, refused to do it, and the shop was removed from that carrier’s DRP program. The shop called Loftus to see what could be done. In a short time, Loftus had talked the insurers into totaling the car, the shop was reinstated in the insurer’s DRP program and the adjuster was exposed for having some ulterior motives for wanting the car clipped.


When asked about his “finest moment” as SCRS Director, Loftus pointed to a brochure called “Insured Motorists’ Rights.” One of the things that insurance companies had customers do was get three estimates from three different body shops, then make them choose the lowest estimate. Customers found that irritating. Legitimate shops found it counterproductive and less-then-ethical shops used it to low-ball customers to get the work. SCRS worked hard to eliminate that practice.


Loftus explained, “For the first time, we had a ‘tool’ that shops could use to fight the ‘three estimate’ practice.”


Loftus then went state-by-state, working with the local state-level affiliated associations, getting them to speak with their respective state insurance commissioner to make sure they could distribute their “Motorists’ Rights” brochures. In Illinois, the state insurance commissioner was very difficult to meet with. Finally, the commissioner was due to be at the Chicago airport for a morning flight and told Loftus he would meet him at the airport at a designated time if he wanted to talk then. Loftus hopped on a red-eye flight and made his appointment with the commissioner. The “Motorists’ Rights” brochure was approved 10 days later.


When asked if there was any work he had left undone at SCRS---anything he wanted to do but never had the time or resources to accomplish---Loftus replied, “We did as much as we could every chance we got. We never worried about the resources---We would find some way to get things done. It was a rewarding time for me, and people appreciated what we did. I have no regrets or work left undone.”


Loftus was the SCRS Director for 19 years, retiring in 2000, when the reins were turned over to industry icon Dan Risley. In 2003, Loftus and his friend, Larry Martin, began Loftus and Martin Long Range deep-sea fishing excursions out of San Diego, each trip escorting 23 anglers on a two-week cruise.


And that thing about the “Dragon Slayer”… when Loftus retired he was presented with a huge sword in a wood and glass case by the Kansas City and Topeka Chapter of SCRS, where he was deemed to be the “Dragon Slayer Extraordinaire”… the “dragon” being all the issues and problems Loftus tried to address and resolve during his time as SCRS Director. John Loftus was truly a champion of the industry---a Dragon Slayer Extraordinaire.

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