Shop Strategies: Father-Son Team Take Unique Approach to Foster New Talent in NM

Employees at Car Crafters'
Employees at Car Crafters’ main location in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Jim Guthrie and his son, Sean, have always had a passion for cars---whether that has been repairing them, restoring them or racing them.

Currently operating Car Crafters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the father-son team’s mission is “to be the body shop of choice for customers, insurance companies and employees, while providing the highest quality and safest repairs available today.”

As a teenager, Jim spent his free time repairing cars in his parents’ two-car garage. They eventually told him to either focus on college or open a body shop. Jim opened Car Crafters in 1982. When Sean was old enough, he helped out at the shop---sweeping floors, throwing out the trash and working on vehicles. He began working there full-time during high school and is currently the director of operations, overseeing all seven of the company’s locations. This includes managing operations, handling insurance company relationships and coordinating OEM certifications.

Sean said he and his father always had a great working relationship, with Jim working on the business and Sean working in the business. Autobody News spoke to Sean about the company’s recent growth and the unique program they offer that has helped the body shop attract and retain new talent.

Q: What prompted the decision to expand Car Crafters after so many years?

A: Over the years as the business grew, my father kept buying larger buildings. By 2015, we had a very, very large 80,000-square-foot single location earning $16 million a year. At the time, we were in the process of building a second location when we had the opportunity to acquire three additional facilities, which were owned by our closest competitor in the market. We opened those stores on April 1, 2015. Everyone thought it was an April Fool’s joke when we walked in and said that Car Crafters was acquiring them.

By the end of 2015, we finished construction on the shop we had already started, so within eight months we were operating five stores. Over the next year and a half, we added two additional locations---one in July 2016 and the other in January 2017. There was a lot of growth very quickly. Five stores are in Albuquerque and two are in Rio Rancho. We don’t have any plans to open additional ones at this time.

Since opening our most recent facilities, we’ve focused on organic growth, becoming more efficient at what we do and improving our cycle time.

Q: How did the company adapt from operating one location to seven in such a short period?

A: It was a challenge. Before the acquisition, I was managing our original location with one of our long-term employees, Kevin Weldon.

When I look back, it seemed easy to operate that store. Although we had a large staff of 80, it was like a big family because we had grown together for so long. It was a huge change for us to gain 50-plus employees suddenly.

Instantly, I took over the largest store we acquired and began implementing our company process and culture. The others were managed by my father and I as well as another long-term employee, Jim Snelson.

We spent the first few months cleaning the shops and reorganizing our staff. This included hiring new employees and training. There has been a lot of personnel movement. First, we did it out of necessity; eventually we made changes because we realized certain employees live closer to one of the locations or different personalities work better together. We’ve done some of the moves for the better of the business, and some moves for the better of the employees.

It was a whirlwind. I don’t know if we did it right or wrong, but we stayed successful through it all and now all of the locations are run very well. In hindsight, I would say we did it right, but I can’t tell you what the magic sauce was. It was just a lot of hard work.

Q: With this exponential growth, how have you staffed your business?

A: We’ve developed a good training program---the Car Crafters’ Training Program---to bring in kids from high school. If they don’t have money to spend and don’t know what they want to do---but like cars---they can come in as a detailer or floor sweeper and sign up for training. I developed a process that takes them step-by-step through the very early stages of dumping trash to being a disassembly technician. From there, they can pick their desired path: estimating, painting, body repair, parts department, etc. We use a lot of I-CAR training to supplement the program and it takes two to four years to complete, depending on how quickly they learn and how much talent and drive they have.

We’ve found that taking kids who are around 19--21 years old and letting them learn from the more experienced body men has benefited our business. Not only has it helped us staff some of our new stores, but it has addressed the problem this industry has---finding new talent while current employees keep getting older.

We offer that program for the paint shop, body shop and the estimating staff. I believe it has been one of the big keys to our success. The average age at our shop is now well below 40. This is definitely below the industry average.

Q: How has using a consistent process throughout the locations helped you manage the stores?

A: All of the shops use the same set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Our customer service reps (CSRs) meet regularly and work very well together. The same holds true for our estimators. We hold manager meetings more frequently and we find they often call each other on the phone to discuss operations.

Q: What type of training have you implemented?

A: We are a firm believer in having our employees trained, and my dad is currently on I-CAR’s board of directors. All of our employees are I-CAR-trained and Car Crafters has been an I-CAR Gold Class Shop for more than 30 years.

Our goal is to have our employees go through the first level of I-CAR training. Then we focus on having them concentrate on the Professional Development Program and become a Platinum Technician.

As a result, we have seen an increase in the quality of the work that is performed. It also gives us comfort in knowing that all of our employees are as trained as they can be.

The only I-CAR-trained instructor in the state of New Mexico happens to work for us. We often use our conference room at the main location to hold training sessions for our employees as well as those from neighboring shops.

At the SEMA show in Las Vegas this past year, we received the Russ Verona Memorial Award from I-CAR at the inaugural Collision Industry Red Carpet Awards Breakfast hosted by The Society of Collision Repair Specialists. We are very proud and honored to have received this award.

Q: How has ongoing training helped you run your business more effectively and learn about employees?

A: If you had asked me several years ago, it would have been difficult to answer because we had been doing things for so long that it was just part of our business. When we took over the other stores, the new employees weren’t I-CAR-trained. We also hired additional employees through our growth that weren’t trained. When employees come back from class and are excited about what they learned, we know they enjoy the learning culture and most likely are going to be with us for a long time because their morals and thought process align with ours. On the other hand, we find that those who grumble about it, more times than not, just don’t fit our culture.

It has been good for us to see the personality of the individual. It lets us know that we’re doing as much as we can to train our people to make sure they fix cars correctly, and that’s what is important---getting cars back to pre-loss condition.

Q: You have required a substantial number of OEM certifications. What is the main benefit of doing this?

A: We currently have 15 different OEM certifications. We started acquiring them about four years ago.

In our market, we have a pretty low income per capita. There are not a lot of high-end cars that require certifications, so it’s difficult for us to say what the ROI is as far as fixing an Audi or Porsche. However, what the certifications have allowed us to do is completely understand all of the new technology that is now in these vehicles. The high-end cars might have certain technology years before more common vehicles do. All vehicles are going to have it eventually and it’s helpful to have that floor knowledge and know what to expect.

It’s also good for our marketing to be able to showcase that we’re certified in so many different makes, and gives the customer peace of mind knowing that if we can fix high-end cars, we can fix anything.

Q: In addition to collision repair, what other services do you offer at Car Crafters?

A: All of our stores have mechanical capabilities, alignment machines and tire machines. Some have a full mechanic who can do electrical diagnostics. A couple of the smaller stores don’t have someone with a full background, so we have one guy who floats among those shops and helps out where needed. We do the same for glass repair.

By employing people who focus on these jobs, it helps our cycle time, which of course helps the insurance company relationships and customer satisfaction. It has also increased our profitably because we have access to individuals who do the work in-house rather than subletting it.

Q: How has intergenerational knowledge enabled your business to grow?

A: From the top-down, there has been intergenerational learning at Car Crafters. We have a lot of father-son teams and uncle-nephew teams.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from my father, Jim. We’ve always done a ton together and have a really close relationship. Growing up, I raced professionally with him. He was a team owner and we were traveling 20-plus weeks out of the year through the early 2000s. Then I was working for him on top of that. At one time, we lived together, worked together and raced together. He was best man at my wedding. We just work really well together. Sometimes, we don’t see eye-to-eye but we’re not afraid to discuss it---heatedly, if needed. We have considerable respect for each other and know that we have the same goals in mind. Sometimes, we just have to figure out how to accomplish those goals either together or from separate ends, attacking it toward the center.

Q: What are Car Crafters’ future goals?

A: We focus on being a little bit better every day and we encourage input from any of our employees. It doesn’t matter if they have been with us for a week or years; if they have an idea, we want to hear it. I think that has been a huge portion of our success. We’re also a family of believers, and that’s my family as well as a good majority of the people who work for us. We pray before our company meetings and our dinners, and we definitely feel like we’ve been blessed and we’re not afraid to give back and to let people know what we have is a blessing.

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Columnist
Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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