California Shop Owner Endorses Shop Education and Training

California Shop Owner Endorses Shop Education and Training

Shawn Saidi, 48, owns Active Auto Body in Sunnyvale, Calif., a highly successful shop whose motto is “Making Friends by Accident.” It might be a catchy slogan, but Saidi has succeeded in the collision industry not by chance or by accident. He’s the current president of the California Autobody Association’s (CAA) Santa Clara chapter, and has enthusiastically embraced the leadership role, because he wants to make this industry better and help other shops in the process.

Active Auto Body is located in a 13,300 square-foot facility. They fix 75–90 vehicles monthly and have two DRP relationships, from which the company derives approximately 25% off their total business. Saidi works alongside his wife Lisa, who handles payroll and human resources. The shop employs 13 people, including Saidi’s niece Desiree, who works part-time as a receptionist.

Saidi’s journey into collision repair began with his passion for restoring classic cars. “I was relying on body shops to do the body and the paint on these older cars, after I had done all of the mechanical work,” he told Autobody News.

“But, I was running into problems with the body shops, because they would tell me ‘three months’ and the car would still be sitting there a year or more later. Then when I got the cars back, the work wasn’t right, so I would basically lose interest in the vehicle and just eventually sell it. It was very frustrating because it kept happening over and over. I told my wife that if I ever go into business for myself, I’m going to get a body shop, and I’ll make sure we do the job right and meet all our deadlines. We’ll give it back to the customer better than what they were expecting.”

After retiring from a successful career in the printing industry, Saidi went into collision repair and opened Active Auto Body in 2002, creating a dream and a new era for his wife Lisa and himself.

“We found a location in Mountain View and we figured let’s give it a shot and it and see how it goes. We were there for five years, then we moved to this larger facility in Sunnyvale. We’ve been growing every year, even in this tight economy. Some of the credit goes to our new location. Our former facility was in a ‘body shop row’ area, but now we’re in a nicer part of Sunnyvale. We got the zoning changed in this area. There weren’t any body shops around here. It was zoned for R&D warehouses, but no automotive. Everyone said it’s not going to work and we were really worried, but the old customers came back and they say they like this new location much more.”

Saidi appreciates the two DRPs he has, but he’s also happy that they make up just one quarter of his business, saying: “It’s tough, because you want them, but you don’t want them, if you know what I mean? Some of them want you to do things that aren’t right, and those are the ones I have issues with. Of the two DRPs we have right now, one of them is awesome and the other one wants to have a little more control. We try to keep the customer informed, because in the end the person we want to make happy is the customer. If aftermarket parts are being put on their car, we let them know. We tell them that we prefer to put factory parts on their car, but we have to go with what’s in their policy. Our hands are tied in that situation.”

Why did Saidi join the CAA? “As an outsider looking in, I needed to learn as much as I could about this industry fast,” he said. “There are two ways to do it—go knock on other body shops’ doors and start asking questions, or join an organization like the CAA. When I first saw the CAA’s motto, Integrity, Honesty and Craftsmanship, I thought I want to be a part of that. Everyone has been absolutely great—from the Board of Directors all the way to each and every member. I can go in there and ask them questions like what type of paint booth should I use? What kind of spray guns should I use? How do you control your quality? These people are my competitors, but they’re more than willing to help me in any way they can.”

One of the top concerns of the CAA’s membership involves finding properly trained techs that can carry this industry into the next decade and beyond. “There’s definitely a shortage of good, skilled techs out there. So right now, we’re talking to I-CAR. We’re pleased to see that their curriculum has gotten better and they’ve added more classes. We’re also working in conjunction with Bay Area high schools and junior colleges specifically to get auto body classes in their schools. That way, students can have a head start when they try to pursue this career. We feel that through education, we can get better, hirable techs.”

Another issue the CAA is very interested in is the current state of insurance labor rate surveys, Saidi said. “This is still a problem, and we’re working on it. We want to know how they come up with some of these numbers, because we can’t figure them out. Right now, California is waiting to see what (our new) Governor Jerry Brown will do, so that we can try to get some type of response. It’s still a huge problem and we want to resolve it.”

Steering by certain insurance companies is still also an industry-wide problem, Saidi explained. “Oh yes, we still encounter it quite a bit. It occurs when customers want to bring their car here, but the insurance companies tell them, ‘you have to take your car to one of our preferred body shops for the estimate.’ They give them no options. In many cases, the customer has already brought their car to us and we’re in the process of discussing the job with them. This kind of thing makes it so much harder to get the business and it is definitely (illegal) steering.”

Saidi also does a considerable amount of work for customers who don’t want to go through their insurance companies. “We get them in and out quickly, because we value this kind of customer. We’ve learned that these types of jobs can bring us more work than the insurance companies can, through referrals and word of mouth, because it goes a long way.”

At the end of the year, Saidi’s term as the CAA Santa Clara Chapter President will expire, so does he have any plans to seek higher office within the organization?

“I’ve considered it,” he said. “When I was at the recent CAA Board of Directors meeting in Sacramento, I started asking myself, what can I do after my term is over? I’ll definitely stay involved in some capacity, one way or another. If I want to go to the state level—fine. Either way, I’ll be working with the CAA, just to make sure that I’m one step ahead of the game, by knowing what’s going on out there. We need our message heard, because the insurance companies have a lot of money and they’re talking to each other all the time. If we only have 100 auto body shops working together, we’re surely not going to overpower them. That’s why we need more members to keep our voices heard.”

Ed Attanasio

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

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