Shop Strategies: Award-Winning MSO Experiences Tremendous Financial Growth, Expansion
Written by Stacey Phillips, Autobody News
Published April 11, 2018
Named one of America’s fastest-growing companies in 2015 by Inc. 5000, New Look Collision has been referred to as a model collision repair center by its peers, customers and insurance partners.
The family-owned-and-operated MSO specializes in repairing European vehicles and has received numerous accolades since it opened its first location in Henderson, NV, in 2004.
In 2011, the company expanded its operations and opened an additional location in Shelbourne, located in the southwestern part of Las Vegas. In June 2017, Michael Whittemore and his wife, Theressa, bought out a competitor in Central Las Vegas. Their fourth location is adjacent to the Henderson shop and was built as an overflow facility. The Whittemores’ son-in-law, Paul Williams, is New Look’s general manager and is married to their eldest daughter, Jessica. Together, Paul and Jessica oversee the shops in Nevada.
With four locations in Nevada, the MSO opened a new facility in Scottsdale, AZ, in March. Autobody News sat down with Michael during the grand opening celebration on March 27 to find out how this entrepreneur started out in the collision repair business and learn about the processes he has incorporated over the years to operate and expand a successful MSO.
Q: Can you tell us about the journey that led to the opening of New Look Collision?
A: I grew up in the business. My cousin owned an auto body shop, so I spent time helping him out. I also enjoyed restoring old muscle cars. In 1985, I enrolled at a trade school in Johnson City, New York called OTC—Occupational Training Center. After the first year, my instructor, Mr. Heier, told me that I had a knack for doing this type of work and encouraged me to pursue collision repair after I finished school. I graduated from the two-year program at the top of my class out of 50 students. I was 20 years old at the time. The experience prepared me to work in the collision repair industry, but I didn’t realize how green I was.
OTC helped me find a job at a Porsche dealership in Vestle, New York. That’s when I found out that I was really green. I just knew the very basics. Fortunately, I had a couple of older technicians take me under their wing. After about a year, I worked at another body shop and then a Ford dealership.
Theressa and I decided to move out west to Nevada where her family lived. I spent the next 20 years working as a technician. However, I always had a vision of opening my own shop. It was kind of hard though. In 2003, I was a good technician making a lot of money, but my four kids were pretty young at the time, so I didn’t want to take a risk. As they started getting older, I put a business plan together and with the help of my family and friends, we were able to raise $700,000 to open our first New Look Collision location in 2004 in Henderson. After about 10 years, Theressa and I bought out our investors and silent partners.
Q: What prompted the decision to move into another state to open your fifth location?
A: Theressa and I always liked Arizona and we bought a cabin in the Flagstaff area of Northern Arizona two years ago. Many of the claims managers in Nevada are hubbed out of Phoenix, Arizona so we had already established a relationship with them over the years.
They would often ask us about opening a shop in Phoenix due to our cycle time, quality and the fact that we score really well on our KPIs. That’s how we ended up opening our fifth location in Scottsdale. It took about two months to renovate the building to meet our needs. The 23,000-square-foot facility has a 17,000-square-foot shop workspace and the remainder is allocated to office space, which we will use as we continue to expand in Arizona.
Q: What are some of the challenges of operating in a different state?
A: It definitely has its challenges. There are different tax laws and employee laws and we’re learning as we go along. My advice to other shops thinking of moving into another state is to do your homework and make sure that you understand the laws before going in.
The people here in Scottsdale and Arizona in general have been very receptive and welcoming, which is nice. Even during our grand opening today, neighboring body shops are coming to support us.
We are part of the Nevada Collision Industry Association (NCIA) and plan to join an industry association in Arizona as well to connect with the industry.
Q: What is the importance of setting up duplicable processes?
A: All of our locations are pretty much run the same way. We set them up like Ray Kroc set up McDonald’s. You can go into any of our shops and see the same processes: how the vehicles get checked in and tagged and how they run through the shop.
There have been times when we’ve had to move employees from one location to another because they were on vacation or sick. Because the locations are run the same, an employee can work at another location with minimal training.
Our employees know one another well and keep in contact. If one of our customer service representatives (CSRs) has a question, he or she can call another CSR or office manager at the corporate location to find out the information needed. We also put together standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each of the job duties at the company, so everyone knows what is expected.
Q: How have OEM certifications benefited your business and what is your advice to other shops about obtaining them?
A: I started obtaining OEM certifications before they became popular. A business advisor warned me about the recession coming. All of the key indicators were there.
OE certification has helped set us apart from our competition; however, one of the challenges is the cost. With some certifications, such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi, it’s about a $1 million investment by the time you factor in the cost of the equipment and training required to be on the program.
Not only is the training expensive, but you also have to consider that your top technicians are going to be away for seven to 10 days. It’s a large investment, but it has paid off tremendously for us.
My advice for shops, especially the smaller ones, is to focus on one certification at a time and then add on.
Q: Where does most of your business come from?
A: We’re currently contracted with 22 insurance partners, which include small DRPs that give us about five vehicles a month to large DRPs that give us more than 100 a month. We used to be heavily dependent on DRPs, but now it’s about 60/40---60 percent is DRPs and 40 percent is from dealerships and OEM certifications.
There are some DRPs we don’t work with because they want too many concessions. We still repair their cars, but we charge our door rate. I think DRPs are always going to be there in some form, so it’s important to build that relationship with your local claims managers and adjusters.
I think our DRPs in Nevada know they can trust us. We’re honest and we make sure to put every customer back in a safe car, so we can all sleep at night.
We also have the dealerships pushing cars on us. Now, when people get into a wreck, they usually call their dealership before the insurance company. Some of the cars have a button, such as Cadillac, so the car prompts the owner to the nearest certified collision center. Other car manufacturers are moving toward that as well.
Q: Congratulations on being named one of the top three body shops in Henderson in 2018 by ThreeBest Rated. How has your team managed the shops, the growth and the DRPs so successfully?
A: Basically, it’s because we have good people working for us. That's the key. Having good people, training them well and giving them a competitive wage definitely make a difference. We also look out for our employees and provide perks that other shops don’t offer, such as a nice retirement package and health benefits.
Many of our employees come from big MSOs and haven’t received training. The techs themselves have had to pay for it. Word gets around and they hear that New Look pays a great rate per hour, trains employees and offers health benefits. We try to be fair and foster a safe environment where they feel comfortable to work and earn money to take care of their families.
All of our techs are ASE- and I-CAR-certified and our shops are I-CAR Gold Class. I believe we are one of only two shops in the state that is Class A with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. “Class A” is a higher level of licensing where we provided proof of having the necessary equipment to repair cars properly and have ongoing annual training. Not only do these certifications set us apart from our competition, but our customers can rest assured that they are going to a premier collision repair shop.
I think our employees like the culture we have built. Every day isn’t going to be perfect or 100 percent for them, but they know we’re looking out for them.
Q: How has it been helpful to your business to attend a performance group?
A: Prior to joining AkzoNobel’s Acoat Selected performance program, we weren’t even using an integrated management system. We’re now using the CCC ONE estimating and management system, which has helped us run multiple locations and track everything.
After the first group meeting we attended, we also realized that we had to increase our door rate. I was nervous about doing that because I thought I’d lose customer pay work. However, I quickly found out that I didn’t lose any pay work. It ended up driving up 5 percent profit right to our bottom line.
Performance groups are priceless. They give you the opportunity to talk to other shops across the country about similar challenges you are facing. What I like best is that you have the opportunity to hear other people’s solutions to the same problems we’re having and we can work together to improve the industry.
Q: Can you tell us about the Mobile Estimating application you created?
A: We created Mobile Estimator in 2008. It took a while for the app to gain traction, but we spent time advertising it and getting the community to use it and have found that it has been very beneficial. It gives customers an option to have some freedom and be able to get a quote with the simple use of their cell phone or electronic device.
The best part is that consumers do not have to download anything to their phones to use it. If they visit newlookcollision.com and click the red button labeled "Get a Free Estimate," it takes them directly to the Mobile Estimator. Once there, all they have to do is provide their information and upload a few images of the damage. Once done, the data is quickly sent to an estimator and the estimator will reply within three business hours. Most of the time, it’s much faster.
Q: What are your company’s expansion plans?
A: We already purchased property in Flagstaff to build another location and we’re breaking ground in less than a month. We’re learning every day. The eventual goal is to open new Arizona locations in Mesa, Queen Creek and Tempe.
I still enjoy fixing customers’ cars and seeing that smile on their face when they pick them up. Something about that keeps driving me. I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I still have that passion.