Autobody News Interviews BAR Chief Sherry Mehl

Autobody News Interviews BAR Chief Sherry Mehl

ABN: How has the BAR changed most significantly since you took the position of Chief?

SM: I took the position four years ago and I think the organization has changed a lot in a relatively short time. Establishing open communication was the first step. I’ve been to every industry associations and group throughout the state, many of them more than once in my four years in this job. I wanted to get out and make sure that I was hearing from the industry what their issues were what their problems were so that I could go about resolving those issues. Any time you take on a new job, you want to be able to hear from your constituents. And then we started having our regular BAR Advisory meetings on a quarterly basis. Any time we got out to do regulations we also have a series of workshops throughout the state, anything that’s going to implement the industry, anything involving something we need to do or mandate that they have to do something that imposes on them, we try to get them in the loop early on and making sure that we hear all of them concerns and address those as we go through the process.

I heard a lot of horror stories about the BAR, but when I had go out and told to these groups, I would find out that these things had occurred many years ago. So, I was asking them can somebody tell me something that’s currently going on. I gave everyone my business card and told them, e-mail me, and call me if there is ever a particular issue with the BAR that is impacting you in any way. I found that many people contacted me and we were able to rectify their situation, in almost every case or work through it. I think the word got out there after that, which was good. It all starts with being very open, I believe. 

From an internal perspective, a lot of the management team had left when I came on, so I had the opportunity to put in various experienced leaders from throughout the Department of Consumer Affairs that I had worked with over the years, and I actually replaced roughly 80% of the top management. So that made a huge change, training and re-structuring the entire system BAR itself statewide. We changed how we interact with employees; how we hired employees and made huge impact in that area. So, I think there’s been a substantial amount of significant change with the BAR, much of it revolving around the changes we made at the top.

ABN: “Midnight” Body Shops who aren’t licensed and are operating under the radar still seem to exist in considerable numbers, according to body shop owners I’ve talked to. How has the BAR dealt with shady shops and how can they be controlled?

SM: Many people don’t realize that we don’t have citation and fine authority on the repair side. So, we have to go to a District Attorney to get them to file criminal charges. So, that’s really the only way that we can take action against them. We can go in and take action against their license, but if they’re unlicensed, then we’re unable to do anything. If we can’t convince a DA to take action, our hands are tied in some cases. Recently, we’ve been working on citation and fine authority in unlicensed activity and we’re probably 2-3 months away from implementing that, which gives us the authority to go in and actually cite unlicensed activity without having involved the DA’s office. The other thing we’ve been doing is setting up stings through Craig’s list and through that we’ve been working with DA’s for all types of auto repair stings, including auto body. And that’s been very successful. We make the phone calls, set up the appointments, and usually do it in a public area, working with the DA in each region with the local police department, to make sure that we have people there to make arrests on the spot. And they show up, give us the estimate, and then we walk them around to the back of the building and they get to meet the sheriff or the local police department. When people tell me unlicensed body shops are still out there in operation, I tell them we’re fully aware of that fact and I’m hoping that once we get more authority, we’ll be able to get out there and quickly cite those unlicensed shops. Hopefully that will have some impact. Obviously, the economy is playing a role and I think people are desperate; there hasn’t been a wide spread of authority for us to do a lot about it. In some areas, this is a low priority for the DA, because they’re dealing with things like murders and burglaries, for example, and these are indentified as being more important than unlicensed body shops. It’s hard to get their attention.

ABN: When you took the job, one of your main promises was that the BAR would be a kinder and gentler organization. How has that been achieved?

SM: The first thing we did after getting out to the public and finding out what their issues were, was working on making sure that everything we do is fair and equitable and that our policies are consistent and that if we do have bad employees—all those things in conjunction have contributed to us proving that we’re an organization that cares and that we’re an organization that tries to help people and not just being a punitive force in the industry. One of the things I did was re-structure our operation by breaking it out into two sections, north and south. Previously, we handled the entire state through our Sacramento office. Plus, we combined our auto body and our smog department, because before they were in the same office before, but they never talked to each other. So, we combined those offices and basically broke down the previous system. Now, we now have a manager in the north and another manager in the south who manages both programs. Then, we broke it down even further, to the point where we now have a total of eight regions throughout the state and each under the direction of its own manager. So now you have a consistent message being disseminated from the top manager who oversees these regions. This way, we’re closer to what it’s happening in the field and more connected on the ground in these regions. This way, the message doesn’t get diluted or misinterpreted. Issues in the field could now be identifying them sooner than later, so that we could deal with them proactively as a team. We wanted our managers to know that they’re never just out there by themselves and that they’re supported by a large team of experts who know what to do and how to do it. 

ABN: Many people have suggested that the BAR should conduct industry rate surveys in order to guarantee objective surveys that can be trusted by both all parties involved. Is this plausible in your opinion?

SM: We have no authority to take surveys, so we obviously we can’t make anyone respond to us. We had talked to a couple of the associations to see how we might be able to set up a voluntary system, but we’re surely what the value of a voluntary survey would be. We had agreed to do it, but then with all of the budgetary problems, we were unable to do a contract to get it done. Now the budget is signed, hopefully things we’ll settle down and we can hopefully re-visit the voluntary surveys, because the offer is still on the table to do the voluntary survey. We just don’t know at this point what the value of it will be, but we’re willing to do it and find out. I’ve asked the associations to help us in putting together the survey and we’re looking at it closely. We’re also waiting until after the election, to see who the new Insurance Commissioner will be. We’ll be obviously meeting with whoever gets the job and hopefully developing an ongoing relationship, and we’ll see what comes out of that.

ABN: The BAR’s Auto Body Inspection program has gained a lot of exposure and I’ve received positive reports about it from people within the collision industry. How did you change it and have you done more or less inspections within the past year?

SM: It was a program that was in existence when I came onboard, I asked basically why it was eliminated and they said there was no funding for it. So, we brought it back and it’s done well. We kept it going and continued it and last year we did 196 inspections and so far we’ve done 176 this year. So, we anticipate breaking 200 inspections by the end of 2010. It really provides consumers with a peace of mind. We make it convenient for them and make it easy for them.

ABN: Of the complaints received every year, how many of these are collision repair-related and how many of these are acted on?

SM: Last year, we received 1,645 auto body complaints and this year to-date we’re at 1,596, so it runs very similar year-to-year. 10% of these are auto body related. Last year, we filed 18 accusations based on the complaints received and this year we’ve acted on 12 of these. As of the dozen we filed this year, 10 were fraud and the average amount in question was $5,000 in each case, so these are substantial numbers so we’re talking about very bad cases. But, in most cases the fender bender stuff and the difference in paint colors—those things are usually easily fixed and they never make it to the level where we need to act on them. The cases that we go after are pretty severe violations.

ABN: In a recession, do you see more body shops cutting corners to save and capture more revenue?

SM: Our complaints aren’t going up and our auto body inspections have stayed primarily the same, so we don’t see it. Some people are fixing their own cars or foregoing the cosmetic repairs in this recession, but we’re not seeing more shoddy work or receiving more complaints, so it’s hard to tell. People put repairs on hold during tough economic times, I think, so that when things get better, maybe there will be a lot more work out there for body shops.

ABN: One of the main goals stated in your 2008-2012 Strategic Plan was to unify and synergize your overall approach organization-wide. Have you achieved this and, if so, how?

SM: Once we started on a path where we award good employees and take action against the bad ones, you start to attract more and more good employees. We’re also seeing a group of our senior employees who are now retiring, so we’re now working with the State Personnel Board to put our exams online, so that now we have open exams online available 24/7. People can go online and take the exam and put be on the list. We now make our interviews very competitive, so that the best candidate has the best chance at getting the job. We’ve done new job analysis for each of our positions; we advertise in newspapers and we’re going to recruitment/job fairs; we’re reaching out to trade schools; we’ve developed a wide range of assessment tools, so that we now know what we’re looking for specific skills to fill a position. We’re making sure that it’s a fair system, so that we’re hiring the best person available. We’ve hired 53 new employees within the last year, and that’s with a hiring freeze, so we continue to find ways for getting the best and the brightest to work for the BAR, and that was one of our main goals. I think it’s definitely been a success. A lot of people are looking for jobs in this economy, due to businesses closing or getting laid off, so there is a huge pool out there of very qualified people looking for work and we’ve benefitted greatly by tapping into that pool of talent. One of the best things we’ve done is about two years ago we started a program called Education First. Every shop that gets a new license gets a visit from BAR, we bring out the laws and regulations so that they understand them; our field rep from their area comes down to the shop and introduces him or herself; to answer any questions they may have; to spend time with them in their shop, and to get to know them on a personal level, prior to any complaints that might take place. What we found in the past, is that many shops got their first visit from BAR based on a problem or a complaint, and the first interaction was negative, so I wanted the first contact to be positive. It’s all about building a relationship, and accountability on our end, so that the shops know that they can call their field rep or their manager any time for any questions. In many cases, shops make mistakes, and I wanted to give people an opportunity to get the right answer. We’re striving for consistency straight across board, and is it perfect? No, but we’re continuing to moving in the right direction, and this Education First program has been a big part of that and a huge success.

ABN: Another of your stated goals was to embrace the technologies available you to be more effective, including updating your Web site and using the Internet/Intranet to more effectively communicate and disseminate relevant information more quickly. How has this worked out?

SM: We’re now making all of the newest technology available to our people in the field, so that we can make their lives easier and make them more effective. Implementing videoconferencing here in our headquarters was a big step, so that we could meet with all of our managers in the various regions. This way, they were hearing things from us first-hand, to discuss issues in the field and get the information they need quickly. I think it really brought the span of control down to a more manageable level than from before. Now, we also have their Blackberries connected to our laptops, so that they can stay on the road and get more done. All of our documents are available to them on our Intranet, so that all of our correspondence is consistent as well.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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