Shop Profile: Jake's Auto Body & Towing

Jan. 1, 2020
“Bun, burger, ketchup and pickle” feeds the methodology that drives the lean repair processes in place at Jake’s Auto Body & Towing, Inc. in High Falls, N.Y.
“Bun, burger, ketchup and pickle” feeds the methodology that drives the lean repair processes in place at Jake’s Auto Body & Towing, Inc. in High Falls, N.Y.

Owners John and Karen Hoover describe their 9,000-square-foot shop as being “small but mighty” as they have fully embraced lean production strategies while maintaining a 9.9 Customer Service Index (CSI) rating.

“No matter what size shop you run or what market you’re in, competition is less difficult for businesses that understand cost, consistency and quality of repairs. To be consistent, we run lean: one reducer, one clear, one hardener, painted at the same temperature year round. Do it the same way car-after-car, day-after-day,” John says.
“Lean production is simple as long as you stay with it,” he says, suggesting that you mind the measurements and look at all your numbers to “understand your expenses and what it costs to open the door.” Ongoing education is present throughout the entire operation.

“Educate yourself in your industry,” John urges. “Not only educate your technicians about how to fix cars, but educate your technicians on the costs of the business — like the impacts of inefficiency or comebacks.”

“Administration within your business is critical to have a profitable shop,” he stresses. “It looks like a big expense, but the procedures and information you gain is invaluable. Start with standard procedures from the moment the customer comes in…no variations. And carry those throughout the repair.”

John is the “Jake” of Jake’s, based on a childhood nickname; he was also known as “Slick.” However, “‘Slick’s Auto Body’ had the wrong ring to it, so now his customers call him Jake,” Karen observes.

“Our customer relations philosophy is pretty clear,” says Karen. “The car is delivered when it’s right, one customer at a time. Cycle time is always on your mind, but the cost of re-dos or customer dissatisfaction far outweighs any insurance industry-driven number.”

John & Karen Hoover

Front office personnel are “stellar at customer service” and ever mindful of fulfilling a customer’s something extra request. “Their tolerance, professionalism and sensitivity are foremost, and let’s not forget their incredible attention to detail,” she says. “Our front office knows that they have the authority to start any process to ensure customer satisfaction. That includes scheduling the car back in as soon as possible for a closer look and taking it from there.”

While accounting for a specific client desire throughout the process can be a challenging endeavor, “This is where sticking to standard procedures can keep it in play,” Karen reports.

“We use white boards to track all jobs in process, with notes for special requests and sublet needs, work orders in each car with items also noted and highlighted, and we will even write the request on the windshield to keep it fresh to everyone,” she says.

A common culture “Jake’s relies heavily on repeat business and word of mouth. There’s nothing more important than getting it right the first time for both customer satisfaction and profitability,” says Karen. “This is why we believe every part of lean production matters – and that includes the cleanliness of the parking lot, personal attention when people walk in the door, the honesty of our estimates and the focus on high-end production values inside the shop.”

“To do what we do at Jake’s requires a common culture,” John points out. “We’re all on the same wavelength. We do the best we can with what we have in place, from tools to operating procedures. We start and maintain procedures day after day, year after year. Don’t make goals you can’t reach. Put in place only what you can maintain,” he explains.

“We didn’t make this up,” says John. “I was educated on how to properly run an auto body shop by our paint supplier, PPG. The resources available are amazing. Start with a supplier. They offer all forms of education so they can sell more product, and they’re very willing to help.”

John and Karen are both working, active managers at the business. “Truly our employees work with us, not for us,” Karen emphasizes. “Our philosophy is to lead by example and to hold ourselves and our co-workers to the highest standards. No egos, no kings or queens, no competitive behaviors. We all work together to produce a great repair and ultimately to make our customers happy. Mutual respect for each other is understood.”

The staff is paid an hourly wage. Karen notes that “the flat-rate ‘business within your business’ was never a practice we could embrace.” Training is required and presented as needed; if new products or procedures are at hand or if refresher information would help, then the shop bears the expense, covers the job and sends that person off for training.

“Our shop increases productivity by running lean and practicing a throughput system,” she says. The car is cleaned on the way in, mapped and disassembled with the supplementals prepared as necessary. The insurance company and customer are notified, parts are ordered and the repairs move on.

“Parts is a business within your business,” says Karen. A dedicated parts person’s primary function is to order, track all incoming parts and handle returns connected to each vehicle arriving for repair. “Having a car sit here because we didn’t pre-order enough screws for a Honda Civic fender costs us money. We’re still paying our employees while we wait.” What at first seems like just a few screws or bolts, is multiplied 20 or 30 times a month and can significantly reduce the bottom line.

Parts carts are utilized to follow the job as it moves through the shop, and the staff has smaller mobile carts for the per-station tools. The technicians do not have large toolboxes because the shop provides all the major equipment.

Once the supplemental is approved, the bodywork, frame straightening and painting progresses. The reassembly technician puts the vehicle back together and sends it on to detail. Inspections for quality are conducted at every stage of the repair, and “a final hard look” is given in the detail bay. The shop has an open floor plan with signage for each section reflecting Detail, Body, Reassembly and the other departments.

“In true throughput style, there’s a place for everything and everything in its place,” John says. Air hoses hang from the ceiling; central vacuuming keeps down dirt and dust; mops, brooms and cleaning supplies are kept in the closet. A blue path on the floor indicates where to walk, and at no time is blocked by carts or work items.

“All parts are on carts, never on the floor — or worse, in the car. Garbage cans even have designated spots. The cleanliness of the shop is ensured by our part-time cleaning man who comes in every weeknight and on Saturdays,” says Karen. “Not only does this help with employee morale, but also the quality of the job. Customers are often given tours and an explanation of the repair so they can understand the process and feel even more comfortable hiring us to repair their vehicle.”

“We follow the same process every time,” John says. “Bun, burger, ketchup and pickle!”

The shop’s five direct repair program (DRP) affiliations account for 41 percent of the revenue. “We’re very selective about which insurers we partner with,” Karen says. “We won’t allow them to dictate the repair or run our business. There’s a fine line with pleasing insurers and still looking out for your customer’s best interest. Our philosophy is to do a proper repair and get paid for what we do. We would consider adding or dropping any DRP under these criteria,” she says.

“We believe the best approach to dealing with any insurer is to give them what they need to pay you for the repair,” Karen continues. “We make sure they have pictures, invoices and specific coding for procedures. Set your internal procedures so they have everything to pay you for a profitable job. And never let a supplement slip through the cracks,” she advises.

Falling into place High Falls, population 627, is an upstate rural community with residents ranging from working-class people to well-off professionals, plus a slice of wealthy arrivals and weekend cottage dwellers seeking a retreat from the hustle and bustle of New York City, which is about two hours away.

John and Karen both have a heavy involvement in civic and charitable activities, including scholarships, sponsorships and other assorted contributions such as repairing for free the local fire department’s emergency apparatus and custom painting the high school football team’s helmets.

“Our community is very eclectic, health conscious and environmentally aware,” says Karen, adding that the use of waterborne paint serves as yet another selling point. “Customers have made clear to us that they choose our shop over a repair either in New York City or one of the nearby towns because they can establish a connection and trust with the owners, and get a level of quality and reliable service equal to or better than others they have worked with.”

New York City dwellers appreciate the convenience, aided by a bus station in close proximity that goes directly to the Port Authority in Manhattan. “They drop the car on Sunday and pick it up the next Saturday – easy.”

Dr. Stephen F. Burghardt, a professor at City University of New York (CUNY) and a recognized business management guru, became enthusiastically impressed with the operation when his car had an unfortunate encounter with a deer while Burghardt was staying at his weekend retreat.

“I’m feeling angry and upset, and feeling that I’m going to get ripped off,” he recounts. Upon entering the facility, however, he was instantly put at ease by the competency of the caring staff and the building’s internal production layout.

“When I went inside I was flabbergasted,” Burghardt tells ABRN. “If you’re an aggravated customer like me, you’re relaxed by the color scheme of white and aquamarine. It’s tasteful and economic, and the shop floor is clean as a whistle.” The organization and efficiency of the small-town shop created an equally eye-opening experience, bringing to his mind four key Ps: priorities, persistence, partnership and patience.

Jake’s is housed in a 1970s-era Esso gas station that the couple bought in 1990. After closing on the transaction, John and Karen had $600 to their name. The original 1,200-square-foot structure subsequently underwent several expansions; the company now annually grosses $1.5 million.

Back in 1996, though, the shop had hit the proverbial “brick wall” of business. “Stress levels were through the roof and work was backed out the door,” Karen recalls. “It was obvious something had to help streamline our repairs, or John was going to become physically ill from the overwork.”

Enter paint suppler PPG, which recruited the couple into its MVP training courses. Becoming a poster child for the program’s success, Karen started attending the various sessions; John soon followed, becoming passionate about what Jake’s could accomplish.

“I can remember driving home from the class with a vicious headache thinking, ‘Does anyone know how much work we have to do?’ We didn’t even do time cards at that point, let alone job cost every job or track any profitability,” says Karen.

John went on to thrive via PPG’s Para Keizen training, bringing back new procedures and lean techniques that have consistently improved all the aspects of production and management.

“One course at a time, one procedure at a time…it all started to fall into place. Work flow improved, the bottom line improved and stress levels decreased,” Karen says. “We still work every day to clear spaces, schedule one job in and one job out, and concentrate on one car at a time.”

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