Shop Strategies: Riding Wave of Change: Hawaii Shop Shares Initiatives That Will Take Family Business into the Future

Okahara Family of Oka's Autobody
The Okahara family at Oka’s Autobody (L to R): Brandon, Carl, Marlene, Eddie, Marlo and Kyle. The shop received the SBA Family-Owned Small Business of the Year Award.

In Waipahu, HI, employees from Oka’s Autobody and their families recently met at the local bowling alley for the company’s summer time family fun event.

“We hope it helps bring our employees together in a setting other than work,” said Brandon Okahara, part owner of the body shop. “We often joke that we spend more time with these guys than our own families. You have to find that balance between working hard and still having family time outside.”

Brandon and his siblings, Marlo and Kyle, have a good understanding of what it takes to balance family and business while working together. Oka’s was established by their father Eddie, uncle Fred and uncle Henry Okahara in 1965. The brothers ran the business out of a small three-stall garage and eventually moved into a 7,000-square-foot location after building up their clientele. When Fred retired, Eddie decided to buy him out. Meanwhile, his three children, Marlo, Kyle and Brandon, began taking an active interest in running and expanding the family business.

After retiring three years ago, Eddie and his wife, Marlene, handed over the day-to-day operations of the shop to their children. Now, Marlo works as the office manager, Kyle is a repair planner, and Brandon spends his time as the lead estimator. Marlo’s husband, Carl, also takes an active role in the company, leading future development.;

Together, the Okaharas have grown the family-run business, which now employs 25 and operates out of a 19,000-square-foot facility. Autobody News talked to the owners of Oka’s to learn more about the initiatives they have taken to help their shop stay successful as well as some of the challenges they have dealt with while running a facility in Hawaii.

Q: Operating a family business can be challenging. What steps have you taken to work together effectively?

A: Brandon: Like anything else, whether we are a family or not, I think there are always situations that are going to come up where there is a difference of opinion. That has to be expected. The benefit, of course, is knowing that the other parties involved genuinely have a vested interest in the company. We can trust the fact that the decisions being made are for the right reasons. In that sense, it’s great. There are not a lot of times that you can be in that situation where you have trust.

Our team is very structured in the way we run our business, and it has helped us accelerate our growth. We regularly sit down as a family and go over our mission and goals for the business. The industry is rapidly changing, so we need to stay in touch with one another and stay on top of what is going on. There are a lot of moving parts of running a body shop. Our meetings help keep us focused on our end goal. We are able to bounce ideas off one another and come to a consensus.

Q: What sets your body shop apart from others in Hawaii?

A: Marlo: I believe that what sets us apart from other shops on the island is our customer service.

Brandon: For us, the main focus is always our customers. Whether it’s a phone call, face-to-face interaction or delivering a vehicle, we always remember why we’re here---for our customers.

I always tell our employees that they need to remember this might be the first accident the customer has been in and it can be stressful. It’s emotionally and mentally draining to get into an accident, and what they are looking for is somebody to help them. Fixing a car is just part of that process. You have to be empathetic to what’s going on and treat everybody as an individual. Put yourself in their position. What would you want to happen and how would you want the experience to roll out?

Q: What methods have you found to be most beneficial to operate the business?

A: Brandon: Over the past couple of years, we have been going down the road of incorporating a lean and process-centered environment at the body shop. The way we process cars is by using a team concept. We have multiple body teams and the paint department operates as its own team as well. With new technicians coming in, it’s next to impossible to be just one person and have a trainee with you all day long. It makes the job very difficult. At least this way, if the employees operate as a team, there are multiple levels of experience working together so they can accomplish more. It helps with communication and the newer techs’ growth can also be a little quicker because there are different people who can help train them in different aspects.

It has had its ups and downs of course, but the guys seem to like to work together as a team.

Q: With the shortage of employees in the industry, how have you found new talent?

A: Brandon: Finding new technicians is very challenging. We decided that moving forward, we need to train our up-and-coming techs from the ground up. Recently, we hired four younger technicians that have little-to-no auto body experience. We also hired a student who will be graduating from Honolulu Community College’s auto body program this year. About two years ago, they began revising the college program in hopes of drawing more people.

It’s a good thing that they are doing it, but we are in the stage where we just can’t wait. We have been growing sales-wise over the past five years, but if you don’t increase the number of people producing the work, it puts a little stress on the guys. They have the extra set of hands, but it’s a different type of stress because on top of the work they are already doing, they have to help train someone new. However, they are realizing that it’s an investment on their part as well.

Q: How much of your business is reliant on DRPs? 

A: Brandon: Currently, our shop is heavily dependent on DRPs. Probably 95 percent of our business is DRP-driven. We’re working to bring that number down because we want to be a little more diversified.

Carl: It’s important to have balance. If you think back to the history of body shops before consolidations, there were independent shops operating without DRP programs. There should be a balance between whatever your business model is: DRPs, wholesale business, corporate business, etc. and having a strategic plan is also critical. We, as repairers, need to figure out how to diversify and that is something that we are working on daily.

Q: What do you attribute your growth to over the last several years?

A: Brandon: Over the past five years, our business has been trending upwards. We’re starting to make decisions that will allow us to be more profitable. We’ve found that having an attitude of just getting the work done, putting a car out and collecting a check is not necessarily the best thing to do sometimes. We are really looking into the way we are managing and building the business.

Hawaii is a very unique environment. The processes are very different from the mainland. For example, we have to accommodate for parts delays. If a part is not available on the island, it usually takes about five days to arrive. Shops also have to make adjustments due to space constraints.

Q: How has financial planning been instrumental in the growth of your body shop?

A: Brandon: We have been working on incorporating a process-centered environment in our shop, which helped push us in the right direction. Our involvement in the AkzoNobel Acoat program has also been instrumental. They bring a lot of experience from multiple markets.Eddie became involved in the Acoat group many years ago. The top North America shops get together and go over the mission and goals of the business and discuss financial planning.

Although we are competitors, we talk about the common problems we have and ways to address them. That’s one of the biggest benefits. We have a core group of shops in Hawaii and we get together and are able to talk to one another honestly.

We feel that an important aspect of running our facility is financial planning. In addition to attending the Acoat meetings, we go over finances on a regular basis during our family meetings.

Part of this is doing a cost analysis of our different cost centers, looking at the averages and our profit and loss statements. Then we ask ourselves, “What can we do better?”

Q: What are some of the initiatives you have taken as a result of your financial meetings?

A: Carl and Brandon: Going into 2008, we were already doing this type of financial analysis on a regular basis. The economy was in a little bit of a downturn and we began to look at how we could better manage the cost of doing business.

One of the things that always seemed to stand out was our electric bills. They are much higher in Hawaii in general. The nation was focused on alternative energy sources at that time, and there were grants being offered for progressive businesses that were doing things for the environment. Running a sustainable and environmentally friendly company has always been an important priority for us. For example, we have used waterborne paint for many years, have set up recycling programs for the business and done other things that are good for the environment, as well as the employees at our shop.

There were other collision repair centers looking at installing photo voltaic systems, which we kept referring to as solar panels. Everyone we talked to corrected us. We decided to find out more about it and eventually installed a system of our own.

Q: What are the benefits you have realized since installing the system?

A: Carl: It took us two years to fully research it. We talked to about 20 different companies and received quotes that ranged from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a million-plus dollars.

Brandon: By installing the system, we have been able to almost completely remove ourselves from the power grid. The system creates enough energy to run the shop. It is also a way of providing sustainable energy and is good for the environment. One of the biggest benefits is that we were able to create a separate power company that helps fund our parents’ retirement.

Q: As a progressive company in this industry, what are the shop’s priorities looking into the future?

A: Carl and Brandon: Continuous training is crucial. We have used the same vendor since the late 1990s---Island Concepts. We count on them to train our employees throughout the year and keep everyone current. We provide I-CAR and ASE training to all of our technicians as well as participate in safety and equipment training. We also understand the importance of learning about sales and negation. We try to stay on top of everything.

Training is expensive, and we expect that it will only increase in the future due to the complexity of vehicles. We have no choice but to figure out ways of gathering extra profit, whether that is through increasing prices or decreasing our operating expenses. It’s up to us to figure out how to catch that wave now and lay it out on the table and figure it out. As a family, our goal is to do that together to remain a profitable family business moving forward.

Stacey Phillips Ronak

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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