Grow Your Collision Repair Shop by Investing in Yourself, Your Team

The CEO of Crash Champions shared what he learned while growing his business from a regional MSO to a national brand.

Crash-Champions-CEO-Matt-Ebert-growing-collision-repair-consolidation

Matt Ebert is the founder and CEO of Crash Champions, which grew from a regional MSO in the Chicago market to a national consolidator with nearly 650 locations -- all in the span of about five years.

Ebert appeared on The Collision Vision podcast, driven by Autobody News and hosted by Cole Strandberg, to talk about his start in the industry and how he grew Crash Champions, offering advice for other collision shop owners looking to improve or expand their businesses.

Getting into the Industry by Accident

When Ebert was 16, he wrecked his car. He knew a technician who worked on cars in the garage behind his house. Ebert asked the tech to show him how to fix his car, then started helping the tech fix other cars.

“I got into it literally by accident,” Ebert said.

In 1999, when Ebert was in his late 20s, he and the owner of a repair shop he was managing opened another shop together, New Lenox Auto Body in New Lenox, IL. They were partners for 15 years, until Ebert’s partner retired. Ebert bought him out and started growing the business into multiple locations. In 2014, it was rebranded Crash Champions.

By 2019, Ebert had grown Crash Champions to 11 locations. That year, he took on a private equity partner, and Crash Champions took off. Today, the MSO has nearly 650 locations nationwide.

Strandberg asked Ebert about some of the challenges he faced early in his career.

“I came from nothing, so it's always been a challenge,” Ebert said. He said he once took out a total of $100,000 in cash advances on multiple credit cards.

Ebert and his partner in New Lenox Auto Body also dealt with the effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Great Recession of 2008. Later, after Crash Champions took on its private equity investor, it acquired its first two shops in new markets on March 1, 2020 -- just before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.

“The biggest lesson I learned is there's always going to be a challenge,” Ebert said. “And that's taught me to persevere, to persist. And it's also taught me to find the opportunity in the adversity.”

Pivotal Moments in Crash Champions’ Growth

Crash Champions has twice bought MSOs that were bigger than it -- one of its first acquisitions, Pacific Elite in Southern California in 2020, had 23 shops, and in 2022, Crash Champions acquired Service King, which had more than 330 shops in 24 states.

“Those two things at that particular time were really inflection points,” Ebert said.

Another pivotal moment was the decision to take on a private equity partner.

“For me, it was a little bit about what would be the risk of doing it alone,” Ebert said. At the time, Crash Champions only had locations in Chicago -- the most consolidated market in the industry. Ebert said he thought about what the company would be worth if he grew it to 20 shops on his own, or if anyone else would want to buy it.

“So at some point in my life, if I was going to end up getting paid for all the work [I put into growing it], what would be my exit plan?” Ebert said.

In addition, in 2019, it was already clear vehicles would continue to get more sophisticated -- and it would take more capital to be able to invest in the equipment and people needed to repair them.

“So weighing all of those, for me, was why I ended up going the route I went,” he said.

Attracting and Retaining Talent

“Robots aren't going to be fixing cars anytime soon,” Ebert said.

Ebert said Crash Champions has internal teams to facilitate I-CAR training for its technicians, “because we would be way behind if we had to wait on third parties to do the training.”

But its biggest focus is on its culture, Ebert said.

“We could take the most brand-new shop that we've built. It could be beautiful and bring accounts to it and have cars. And if you put a bad manager in there, it'll be terrible,” he said. “And we can do an acquisition of a of a shop maybe that needs some improvement. And you put a great manager in there, and he'll attract people, and the shop will run awesome. So much depends on the leadership in your ability to retain people once you get them to get them there, as well as be able to attract them.”

To facilitate that, Crash Champions puts its management team through a proprietary training program. “We've seen great results from that,” Ebert said. “Ninety percent of our general managers, after going through that training, stay with us.”

Other methods the company uses to attract and retain talent include rewarding employees for recruiting others, and implementing apprentice programs for technicians and service advisors.

Ebert said Crash Champions currently uses the same EV training through I-CAR and automakers available to any repair shop, though he thinks it will develop internal training as it grows its footprint in luxury and EV repair. The company already has internal training on ADAS, because it has been doing that work in-house for so long.

“I saw the need for that when we were just that handful of locations, six at the time, in Chicago,” Ebert said. “We wanted to be on the ground floor and I didn't want us to need to sublet.”

How to Grow Your Own MSO

Ebert said he learned most industries that undergo consolidation continue until they’re about 65% consolidated; the collision repair industry is currently at about 30%.

“It still has a long way to go before it's done consolidating,” he said. “If your desire is to grow and grow, there's room. Don't be afraid to do it.”

Owners should keep the money in the business.

“I wasn't living an extravagant lifestyle ever,” Ebert said. “It was keeping the money in the business and at work and growing it. To compete in the future, I think facilities need to be nice. Equipment needs to be able to repair the current vehicles, and it's a big transformational period in the in the car parc right now.”

Another key is to surround yourself with the right people. “I was always trying to bring in people around me that have done more than I have, that came from bigger positions,” Ebert said. “I can cite several examples of where I brought in people who have been where I haven't been yet, so that they could help me not learn some of the lessons the hard way.”

When asked about mistakes smaller shop owners should avoid when they do make the decision to expand, Ebert answered from the perspective of an acquirer.

“It's not about the number of locations, it's the quality of the locations,” he said. “There’s just so much investment and overhead expense in this industry. You have to fix so many cars just to get to break-even. And so having five shops that are barely at the break-even point doesn't create a great business.”

Ebert said the biggest mistake is thinking sheer shop count numbers is going to make the business more attractive to a potential buyer. “It's not about market domination. It should be about quality.”

The Future of Collision Repair

Ebert said none of his predictions will come as a surprise: consolidation will continue to accelerate; claims will increasingly go through DRP programs, and thus to MSOs; vehicle complexity will continue to advance, requiring shops to invest in new technology; and the talent shortage will continue to present challenges.

To address those, Ebert said Crash Champions is spending more than $10 million in 2024 alone on new equipment and training for its team.

He said the company’s goal is to have great facilities, be easy to work for and have the best team. “The team is going to be the real differentiator for us in our opinion, and so that's what we're concentrating on,” Ebert added.

To attract more people, the collision repair industry needs to better promote itself as a viable career path, and raise technician pay to be able to compete with other trades.

“Today, with the computer technology to the vehicles, to me, that presents an opportunity to attract another group of people that before wouldn't have seen collision as something that they wanted to get into,” Ebert said.

Strandberg asked what legacy Ebert hopes to leave with Crash Champions and the industry at large when he calls it a career.

Ebert said he is proud the company can still say it is founder-led, as it makes it relatable to other shop owners thinking about selling. “I was just one shop not that long ago and sat in every seat,” he said.

He said he is also proud of the team the company has built. “It's a whole team of people working so hard at this. Everybody loves what we're doing here.”

Abby Andrews

Editor
Abby Andrews is the editor and regular columnist of Autobody News.

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