Saturday, 30 November 2002 17:00

The Collision Industry Conference

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Al Estorga was fuming. 

Estorga, at the time a collision repair shop owner in Long Beach, Calf., had once again been told at an inter-industry event that it was not the appropriate time or place to discuss an issue he raised. Heading back up to his hotel room after the 1983 event, Estorga expressed his frustration to the small group of shop owners in the elevator. They became determined, he said, to develop a forum in which it was "always the right time and place" to discuss the issues most important to the collision industry.

For more than 18 years, the forum "created" by Estorga and the others on that elevator and now known as the Collision Industry Conference (CIC), has offered shop owners a time and place to raise issues, discuss ideas, and at times develop solutions to the industry's problems, large and small. Over the years, CIC has been criticized by some as being too elitist, too unproductive, and too controlled by insurers, vendors, large shops or certain associations. Too much deal-making goes on in the hallways outside of the meetings, they say, while too little is done for the good of the whole industry inside the meetings.

But many regular CIC participants say most critics don't participate often enough in CIC to understand the value it offers and to see the progress it has made. Despite attempts to hold its meetings in various locations throughout the country - and regular coverage of the meetings in Autobody News and other trade publications - CIC remains little-known to many in the collision repair industry. CIC supporters are convinced that the more that members of the industry - shops, insurers and vendors - know about CIC, the more they will see why their participation is well-worth the time and expense of attending.
The structure
In the beginning, CIC was known as the Collision Repair Conference and was open, as its name implied, only to collision repairers. Early attendees say the first meetings were small - only 10 to 20 shop owners from around the country gathered in a hotel room. But Estorga and the other attendees realized early on that if the meetings were going to be much more than gripe sessions, more (and more diverse) participation was needed. "We could've sat in those hotel rooms and bitched about insurers forever and nothing would've changed," one attendee at those early meetings recalled. "We figured out we had to get the insurance companies and the (estimating) database providers and the other players in our industry all in the same room with us.

Getting a good mix of participants at CIC is a problem that some say has dogged the conference all along. Often only a handful of insurance companies are represented, and at some meetings the industry vendors and shop consolidators may outnumber independent shop owners. But as the diversity of the attendees grew in the late 1980s, the conference was renamed the Collision Industry Conference to better reflect the participation of more than just the repairer segment of the "collision industry."

Regular participants say some of the criticism leveled at CIC is based in part on a lack of understanding of its somewhat unique structure and mission. It has no members, board of directors or bylaws. It has no executive director. Jeff Hendler, who was CIC Chairman in 1987-88, now serves as CIC Administrator, making meeting arrangements and overseeing CIC mailings. It is, in fact, more a series of regularly scheduled "events" than an "organization." Its mission is solely to "provide a forum for discussion of national issues affecting the various segments involved in the collision industry."

Organization without members

"Some people come to one CIC meeting and say all we do is talk," Hendler said. "But providing a forum for talking and discussing and trying to improve communications between the various segments is what CIC is all about. Solutions and resolutions are often a by-product of the discussion in that forum, but you may not see that if you only attend one meeting." Everyone who attends CIC is an equal participant, with one vote on the rare occasion when a vote is taken. Participants pay a fee (currently $40) to attend each meeting; this fee helps offset the meeting site and mailing expenses. Many regular CIC attendees participate in the "Gold Pin Sponsorship" program; for an annual fee (currently $300), they receive a CIC name badge and name plate and do not pay meeting registration fees. While regular CIC meetings are held four times a year, Gold Pin Sponsors can attend a fifth annual meeting, held each January, at which the plans for the coming year are discussed.

A meeting chairman is elected annually, and the chairman selects one or more chairmen for each of the CIC committees. The number and names of CIC committees change from year to year based on the key issues or topics facing the industry.

Attendees must abide by a few simple rules. A summary of anti-trust guidelines is read and followed at each meeting. While speakers may be critical, verbal abuse or harassment in any form is not tolerated. Because of CIC's mission, issues discussed are expected to have a national impact rather than just affect a few individuals.

"That means the issues being discussed just aren't little pet peeves or problems one shop owner is having, but issues that are important to anyone in the trade," Bill Rupp, owner of Akins Body Shop in Santa Clara, Calif., said. "I find it's worthwhile to participate in CIC because you get a chance to be on the leading edge, to really find out what's happening in the industry and where things are headed. And you can bring that information back to share with your colleagues." In the early years, meetings would be broken up into committee sessions, with a number of committees working simultaneously. Over the past decade, however, no break-out sessions are held; the entire group meets all day (or two half-days) with each committee having time on the agenda for its presentation or discussion.

A history of accomplishment

So what does CIC have to show as accomplishments over its history? Participants say the conference has led to both tangible and intangible benefits for the industry. Many of the tangible results are documents CIC has produced that are available in printed form and on its website (www.ciclink.com). These include a comprehensive glossary of industry terms, a booklet and brochure designed to combat fraud (by shops, insurers and consumers) within the industry, and a definition of a "Class A Collision Repair Facility." The definition, developed by CIC in the late 1980s and reviewed and updated every two years, outlines the equipment, training and other items that distinguish a superior repair facility. It subsequently has been used in a variety of ways by insurers, associations, government agencies and other organizations.

The effort to address the costly lack of standardization in the computer and electronic systems linking the various segments of the industry together also got its start at CIC. In 1992, a certain California shop owner, Erick Bickett, began attending CIC regularly to raise awareness of the value of standardizing how shops and insurers conduct business electronically, and how shop estimating and management systems communicate with one another. A CIC committee jumped on the issue, eventually leading to the development of CIECA, the independent organization that has developed many of the standards Bickett envisioned, and that is working to get those standards implemented and others developed (Bickett now heads the FIX network, a nationwide group of independently owned shops).

Fighting fraud

In 1994, CIC established committees to address two different but overlapping pressures within the industry: the crack-down on fraud and perceived fraud within the industry (seen most dramatically in efforts by California's Bureau of Automotive Repair) and the desire for a more logical, fair and straight-forward way for insurers and shops to conduct business. The CIC "Write It Right" committee - which includes representatives of insurers and shops - has been working to develop ways to eliminate such decades-old problems as "funny time" and "cost-shifting." Its recommended guidelines (also available at the CIC website) are now being adopted by a growing number of shops and insurers.

During 1999-2001 meetings, CIC held parts demonstrations and evaluations at its meetings. While the meeting was in progress, a technician from a local shop installed OEM and non-OEM parts on a vehicle. CIC participants then had an opportunity to rate the fit and finish of the parts, not knowing which were OEM or non-OEM. And CIC's Estimating Committee has used its portion of the CIC website (www.ciclink.org) to post inquiries about the estimating databases - along with responses from the estimating system providers. Some of the early postings on the website have resulted in positive changes for repairers. Thanks to an inquiry from an independent repairer posted at the committee's website, for example, both Motor Information Services and Mitchell International nearly doubled the amount of labor time their systems show for removing and replacing a front door hinge pillar on a 1995-2001 BMW 740.

Floating wild ideas

CIC also offers participants the opportunity to float some "wild ideas" - some of which may only result in lively discussion, but others have served to move the industry forward. In 1997, for example, Gene Hamilton, owner of the Sports and Imports collision repair shops in the Atlanta area, proposed that the paint manufacturers and other companies that host large parties in conjunction with NACE (the International Autobody Congress and Exposition) be asked to redirect some of the money to address fundamental industry problems.

"NACE parties are a lot of good drinking, a lot of good eating, and a few hours later it's gone, but so are sizable amounts of money," Hamilton said. "My proposal would be that we find a way to reallocate some of the money spent on us. I'd like to see the industry say, 'I am willing to forego a party. I'd rather try to solve a 365-day problem, and I'd like that money to be spent on the industry for training, or for attracting people to this industry.'"

CCC Information Services was the first to take Hamilton's suggestion to heart. In 1997, the company donated funds it usually sets aside for a reception at NACE to the National Auto Body Council and a collision repair apprenticeship program. In subsequent years, even more vendors followed suit.

The future

What lies ahead for CIC? Insurers will likely to continue to use the forum to announce or explain new initiatives. Farmers Insurance unveiled its direct repair program at CIC in Seattle over a decade ago; in more recent years, State Farm and Allstate announced significant changes to their DRPs at CIC. A topic expected to be discussed at upcoming meetings is "service level agreements" in which, for example, a parts supplier agrees to meet certain requirements and to pay a penalty for the failure to deliver on those promises.
Cycle time task force

A CIC "Cycle Time Task Force" continues to report at CIC meetings on its research into identifying impediments to faster claims processing and completion of repairs - and the potential cost savings for cycle time improvements. And the CIC Parts and Airbags Committee is planning a second "recyclable parts demonstration" in which CIC attendees can compare used parts - in this case, decklids - that will be ordered by a local shop from different suppliers.

In short, according to Dale Delmege, an industry consultant who served as CIC Chairman in 1999 and 2000, the conference will continue to strive to improve the workings of the collision industry. "We all get a chance to get together and talk about, in a reasonably organized way, the opportunities we have to make the whole process faster, better more efficient, and less expensive for everybody," Delmege said. "And each time that we make it better, the other beneficiary is the vehicle owner."

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988. 


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