Having been in business for 66 years spanning three generations, South Carolina’s Baker family is cooking up quite a legacy of personalized customer service and employee satisfaction at its trio of Baker Collision Express locations in Lexington, Irmo and Columbia.
“We have modern, well-equipped, air-conditioned and heated facilities, plus a great culture. Our customers know that they are not just another number -- not just a job to be processed,” says Steve Baker, “and that we treat our customers with utmost respect, treating each job as if it belonged to our mother.”
|At a Glance:|
Baker Collision Express
No. of shops
Years in business
No. of employees
No. of DRPs
|Lexington, 25,000; Irmo, 7,200; Southeast, 9,000|
Square footage of shops
|Lexington, 26; Irmo, 12; Southeast, 15|
No. of bays per shop
Average repair order
Average cycle time
Average weekly volume
Vehicles per week combined
Annual gross revenue
Frame machines used
Estimating system used
Owner Larry Baker, Steve’s father, attributes much of the I-CAR Gold Class-rated enterprise’s success to their sizable investment in certifications from General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Kia, Acura and Infiniti.
“Proper tooling, effective repair processes and a stringent continuing education regimen are all requirements to earn and keep the original manufacturer certifications,” Larry points out. “Manufacturer certifications provide much-needed accountability to the collision repair industry to ensure that shops are equipped to safely and properly return vehicles to their pre-accident factory specifications.”
“We have the equipment and technology required to repair the latest-model vehicles,” adds Steve. “We always have plenty of work to do, we have a fantastic benefits selection to choose from and we treat all our employees like family.”
“We re-manufacture damaged vehicles in much the same process as they are made at the factory,” Larry reports. “Manufacturing is how the car is made originally,” he elaborates. “Re-manufacturing it is basically repairing it to the exact condition and state that it was in when it was originally manufactured.”
An assembly line-type of production enables several team members to work on each step at the same time, which allows undetectable repairs to be made in about half the time as the traditional methods typically utilized by most other shops, according to Larry.
A teamwork pay plan encourages a cooperative approach, meaning that “the translation for the customer is that there is no one at Baker with any incentive to charge customers more money for a repair than what is fair,” he says.
“The evolution of vehicle technology has created a massive learning curve for the repairers to be able to effectively service and repair each new vehicle. Advances in collision avoidance technology, airbag and safety restraint systems and electronic drivetrain and braking systems have made a focus on safety and proper repair techniques critical in an industry that is slow to adapt and change,” Larry asserts.
“The driving force behind our business is the confidence that we are putting people back on the road in safe cars. That’s what helps me sleep at night” he says. “Cars come in here for repair with child safety seats in them. This isn’t something that I take lightly.”
In the world of collision repair, “technology that used to feel space-age is now commonplace,” Larry observes. “The computerization and proliferation of technology like GPS, collision-avoidance, adaptive headlights and cruise control, smart air bags, and so much more has changed how vehicles should be repaired. It is imperative that we keep up with the changing technology so that we are educated and equipped to properly repair vehicles.”
Describing the benefits of enlisting the services of a third-party repair verification firm, he notes how “the technology and materials being used in the manufacture of vehicles is changing with persistent efforts to make vehicles safer and more fuel-efficient. The use of stronger and more exotic metals has an important effect on how a vehicle should be repaired. For instance, there are different welding techniques required to work on vehicles made of aluminum, steel, high-strength steel, and even ultra high-strength steel. Components made of certain metals can be cut and replaced in sections. Other components cannot be sectioned and must be replaced in their entirety.”
Larry goes on to point out that “having third-party accountability is an important part of making sure that our body technicians are practicing the most correct and up-to-date repair techniques to ensure safety and longevity. This company ensures that we have the necessary equipment to perform manufacturer-recommended repairs and also to ensure that we are safely repairing vehicles by adhering to manufacturer repair specifications. It is of the utmost importance that we repair vehicles in accordance with the guidelines that each manufacturer publishes when they build a vehicle.”
An outside company also independently verifies the Baker customer service experience. “We view this as a needed investment to ensure that we are consistently delivering on our mission to treat our customers how we would like to be treated.”
Emphasizing how “it is paramount that you are satisfied with the repair experience, it is even more important to us that we properly and safely repair your vehicle. That means that we invest in continuing education, technical training and certifications, access to manufacturer specifications, and the most advanced equipment,” according to Larry. “Our commitment to our customers is that we will continue to monitor changes in technology and vehicle production so that we can continue to safely repair vehicles as we have for over 60 years.”
A policy of continually seeking operational insights is reflected in the Baker management team’s attendance at the SJF Business Consulting “Improving Workshop Efficiency” course focusing on lean production. “Larry and I speak frequently about trends in the industry, hiring personnel and business improvement measures. We delve into countless business philosophies and ideals that we both share so closely from identical viewpoints,” says SJF principal Steven Feltovich, who has been providing consulting services to Larry’s sister DeLee Powell and her shop in Mansfield, Ohio for more than a decade.
When dealing with insurance providers, “We really understand their needs and are willing to make sacrifices to meet those needs without sacrificing quality or safety,” according to Steve. “We work to create win-win scenarios and we always are respectful, even if there are disagreements. We look for innovative ways to build efficiencies and reduce cost while maintaining the highest levels of quality and safety.”
Vendors are addressed via a similar stance. “We treat them as if they are our own employees -- we do not bully them,” Steve says. “We realize that in most cases doing business together is a strategic partnership, so we are always seeking win-win scenarios.”
Prior to making the Palmetto State migration, the Baker family’s business began in Mansfield, Ohio in 1953 when Mervin and Esther Baker (Larry’s parents, Steve’s grandparents) founded Baker’s Body Shop in a small rented garage on Snyder Street at the east end of town. A new location in a 2,400 sq-ft building was constructed by Mervin and Esther in 1958. “Mervin was the brawn and Esther was the brains,” says Larry.
Larry had been born in 1958, later joining Mervin and Esther at the family business in the Buckeye State. Nowadays in South Carolina, all of Larry’s four children are involved with the business; Steve, Matthew, Abby and Hannah.
“I was primarily self-taught,” Larry recounts. “Jim Cates as well as my father (Mervin) took me under their wings and mentored me. I went through three stages, from learning to repair the cars myself, to learning manage a group of people and to leading managers -- each stage requiring a different set of skills and talents.”
After assuming a management role at the Mansfield shop, Larry moved his entire family to South Carolina in 2001, where he remotely oversaw the Ohio operation. “In 2002, I began consulting for DuPont and leading 20 Groups until 2018. I also did consulting work in South Carolina until 2004, when I opened a body shop in Irmo as the majority owner with my former partner, John Harris,” he recalls.
In 2008, Larry’s sister, DeLee Powell, purchased the Mansfield shop. In 2012 Larry bought out Harris and “re-branded in South Carolina as Baker Collision Express while at the same time opening our second location in Lexington at the local Dodge dealership.” A new Lexington facility was subsequently constructed in 2015, and the third Baker location, this one in Columbia, was inaugurated in December 2016.