Sunday, 30 November 2003 09:00

Swenson brings passion and fire to CAA presidency

Written by Karyn Hendricks
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When Kelly McCarty Swenson is sworn in as president of the California Autobody Association (CAA) in February 2004, she will become the third woman to steer the organization - following in the footsteps of Maureen Holmes and Yumi Vaught. 

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Swenson definitely started from the ground up in CAA, joining when a salesman contacted her about enrolling. Her interest piqued, she started attending meetings, and was elected chapter president for the Ontario area. She then proceeded to merge two chapters, becoming president of the new chapter, after which she was asked to become a member of the executive board. Having served this past year as First Vice President for the state-wide organization, Swenson is poised to assume her duties as the leader of CAA.

"I am honored to be able to reap the benefits of those who came before me. CAA has been around for 30 years and a lot of hard work has gone into laying the foundation to make CAA what it is today; so we can have an association that operates so effectively to the benefit of its members," maintains Swenson.

Sharing information is major goal

One of her particular goals as president is to facilitate the educational aspects of the association. As an organization, CAA has the capacity to receive and disseminate information from all areas of the collision repair industry to its members.

In addition, getting together with one's peers in the industry can be an invigorating and educational experience, according to Swenson. A camaraderie develops among people who face the same daily challenges and can lean on each other for support. People feel protected as members of a group that is working for their benefit.

She expects CAA to expand its function as a liaison between legislators and the collision repair industry. The constituency has asked CAA to focus on legislation and the leadership has responded. Working with the lawmakers helps provide a better product for the consumer.

Over the past few years, CAA has developed more positive relationships with the insurance companies and the BAR. "We help members work more effectively with those groups so we can all do our jobs better," says Swenson.

Consumer must stay involved in repair

Swenson also points out that "consumers these days are busy and want to hand off as much responsibility as possible since car wrecks are not the norm in anyone's life. This concept is abetted by plans such as Progressive's Concierge program, in which the customer receives the benefit of 'one-stop shopping' but gives up control of the repair process. Consumers need to be actively engaged in the repair of their vehicles."

"When consumers bring their vehicles to a shop, they are trusting that shop with their second most valuable investment As owners, we have an obligation to acclimate the consumers and educate them to be more aware of the process.

"We are the car doctors, so to speak, and, like a patient, consumers need to be made aware of what is going to happen to their vehicle so they can make educated decisions."

On DRP relationships

CAA's past leadership has had a reputation among shop owners, deserved or not, as being closely aligned with DRP programs. As the latest leader of CAA, Swenson recommends that when considering a DRP relationship, shop owners choose the insurers whose business practices fit the company's business model. While it may seem like a luxury to turn away an insurance company's DRP contract, Swenson contends that if there is not a good fit between the companies "it is a recipe for disaster." She points out that when the shop and the insurer have the same business practices, a DRP can be highly beneficial to both parties: "When all parties have the same goals of customer retention, customer service and a pledge to repair cars correctly, everyone stands to gain."


CAA to focus on education

Swenson plans to focus on education, with workshops held throughout the year. One upcoming seminar will be about the language and implications of S.B. 551. Although many insurers do honor their obligations to the consumer, others do not fully disclose the relevant terms of the policy. A major benefit of S.B. 551 is that the insurer must inform the consumer at the time of application of such things as the right to choose a repair shop and what they will authorize regarding the use of replacement parts. Consumers should no longer find out at the time of the accident that they don't have adequate coverage.

More active members

A second major focus of Swenson's administration will be on increasing the membership of CAA, and getting more members to become active participants. When people ask what the association does for them, Swenson replies: "Where else can you get so much value for your money from an association? We have a weekly newsletter, full-time lobbyist Jack Molodanof, and two full-time staff members Donna Long and Dave McClune. Savings from the insurance discounts you receive as a member more than pay for the membership itself.

"And there is strength in numbers. I would like to have every collision repair shop embrace what we are doing. I encourage all members of the collision repair industry to pick up the banner and march with us."

CAA develops reform goals for 2004
Based upon the results of the Auto Body Repair Reform survey by the California Autobody Association (CAA), the following are suggested reforms that the CAA will be looking to pursue in 2004. These reforms could come to fruition through a legislative bill, a change in regulation, or through a change in policy.
Labor rates
Investigate the possibility of requiring an independent party (not the insurance industry) to determine the fair and prevailing auto body labor rate for a specific geographic area.

Prohibit insurers from dictating method of repair

The repair shop (again, not the insurance company) should diagnose and determine how the vehicle is to be repaired. The insurance company should never require that a repair shop use an improper repair procedure in order to reduce costs. The end result is a poor and unsafe repair. The insurance company should only be allowed to suggest adjustments to a written repair estimate prepared by the shop, not create one.

Licensing or certification

Address incompetence in the industry by requiring technicians, estimators and insurance appraisers to be properly trained. They should be required to pass a competency examination to ensure proper knowledge in auto body repairs and to develop an industry wide competency standard.

Create auto body repair standards

Create and develop auto body standards that address acceptable auto body repair methods, protocols and process in the industry.

Direct repair programs

Allow all qualified auto body repair shops that meet specified criteria to participate in any insurance direct repair program. Opening these programs would continue to allow a streamlining of the repair process but eliminate the need for auto repair shops to make unnecessary concessions that may compromise the repair of the vehicle.

Insurance deductibles

Prohibit repair shops from waiving or offsetting insurance deductibles required by an insurance policy and providing penalties for such violations.

Insurance company-owned shops

Prohibit insurance companies from owning auto body shops.

Distinguish a Visual Damage Assessment from an estimate

It is important to distinguish and explain a "visual damage assessment" (which only reveals limited damage that can only be seen by the naked eye) from an estimate to repair, which provides a more accurate estimate for repair for the customer.

Vehicle tear downs

Require "tear downs" to vehicles that are extensively damaged and undriveable in order to perform a more accurate estimate of repair for the customer.

Coordination between DOI and BAR

The Department of Insurance (DOI) regulates the insurance industry and the Bureau of Auto Repair (BAR) regulates the auto body industry and different laws and regulations apply to each industry. These agencies need to work together to create, clear and consistent guidelines so everyone is on the same page with respect to auto body repairs.

Increase penalties for auto body fraud

Fraud is never acceptable and damages the image of the entire industry. The majority of auto repair shops in this state are honest, hard working folks. Unfortunately bad apples do exist. Any repair shop or employee, insurance company or adjuster that has been found by a court of law of committing intentional fraud upon a consumer should be punished accordingly.

Auto body shop owners come from such diverse backgrounds, and while they may excel as craftspersons, lack of a strong business background may keep shops from being as profitable as they can be, Swenson explained. The association provides them with education to improve business acumen to help make shops more profitable.

Born to the business

It can be said that Swenson was delivered into the collision repair industry. "When I was born, my dad paid the doctor by painting his car!" she laughs.

Swenson leads the second generation in the family business. Her dad, Mike McCarty, is the founder of Carty's Collision Center in Ontario. McCarty has been in the collision industry most of his life, with the exception of a few years working for Allstate and as an independent adjuster. A firm believer in customer service, he is proud to display his Ford Medallion Customer Service Award.

Working summers in the shop, then located in Los Angeles, gave Swenson her initial taste of collision repair. After college, she joined the corporate world and worked for a Dunn & Bradstreet subsidiary. When Swenson became pregnant with her first child, she decided to accept her father's open invitation to come and work in the family business, helping to open a second location in Ontario.

The shop had been open for just six weeks when Swenson had her baby on Friday and was back to work Monday morning, baby in tow. Although she didn't start out with a formal knowledge of how to run a shop, education and determination helped her find her way around the business. By attending a two-week estimator training course at Vale National in Fresno, she was able to enhance her skills and further her value to the shop and industry as a whole.

In 1994, McCarty decided to sell the Los Angeles shop and just run the facility in Ontario, where Swenson's brother, Chuck McCarty, works as an estimator. Two sisters, Michelle and Candi, have chosen to pursue other interests. Along with the support she has received from her father, Swenson describes her deceased mom, Jackie, as a "strong and independent woman who has been my inspiration."

In the mid-nineties, McCarty and Swenson were instrumental in helping get educational programs started in their area. Since at the time no classes were held in the Ontario area, they offered the use of their shop, and classes were then held at Carty's for three years. Knowing the importance of education, Swenson has been the I-CAR district and state chairperson, after which she sat on the international advisory committee and then the board of directors.

Whether talking about her own shop or the CAA, Swenson is passionate and fired up. She is like a mother bear protecting her industry cub. She hopes to educate members of the industry so that individuals as well as the industry as a whole will be treated with more respect and admiration in the future.

In closing, she states, "I'm passionate because this is what I have chosen to do. This is my family's livelihood and I want to preserve that opportunity."